(Photograph of Leila Mottley by Magdalena Frijo)
Deep sadness runs through the pages of Nightcrawling, the much-anticipated debut novel by Leila Mottley. There is little to redeem the bleak lives of most of the characters living in the Hi-Regal apartment block where Nightcrawling opens. Mothers suffering from addiction and the challenges of well, mothering; men sent to prison for the peak years of their lives; others lost to organized crime; and one who made it out and never looked back. We follow Kiara as she attempts to keep the multiple plates of her life in Oakland, California, spinning. Her father died when she was younger, her mother is plagued with mental health issues after losing another daughter, and Kiara’s next-door neighbor’s son, Trevor, is now her responsibility too, Kiara having quasi-adopted him.
There is much discussion online surrounding the age of the author—she began writing this novel before her eighteenth birthday—and there is a certain naive quality to the prose. That is not to say it is cheerful—as mentioned above, the plot goes from one sad story to the next. More that it emotes so vulnerably on the page. There is a brutality to the language Mottley uses, and while it is tender when it needs to be, on the rare occasions the characters are allowed to be soft, it is mostly exposing and abrasive, propelling the reader through the book’s chapters.
“Strut, fly, gallop. There are so many ways to walk a street, but none of them will make you bulletproof. I got back from Mama’s and found myself stuck between the street and the gutter, Trevor knocking on the door early Sunday morning saying Vern been by again telling them they out if they don’t pay in three days. I know my knock isn’t far off.”
The youth of the author translates to the youth of her characters too. The voice of Kiara is palpable, as are the ways the world has forced her to grow up too soon. We see the confusion this causes her as a young Black woman stuck in the middle; it compels us to root for her, good decisions or bad. As we move further into the story, Kiara becomes entangled in the streets, participating in sex work to keep paying rent, and we see her shell harden; life is less than fair to her. Her inner monologue provides visceral descriptions, metaphors for her reality, as things move from bad to worse when she is taken advantage of by the local police department which employs her (if we can even call it that) to provide sex to countless officers at off-duty parties or in dark parking lots.
When a tragedy strikes the police department, Kiara is further embroiled in a case that will supposedly protect her but which unfolds more as if she is the one on trial. As a young black woman (seventeen at the time of the incidents) she is adultified by almost every adult figure she interacts with—the ones who want to blame her and even the ones who are meant to protect her. She is asked to be a martyr, pressured by a local lawyer with some kind of savior complex to be the voice for many sex workers who have experienced abuse by law enforcement and clients alike, although Kiara feels less than certain that she wants to become the industry’s spokesperson at all.
“[T]he space between my lungs and stomach clenches and I feel almost seasick, like the bay has entered my chest when I wasn’t looking. I step closer to her again and speak between my teeth. ‘If you do that, you fucking my whole life over.’
“‘If I don’t, I’m still fucking you over and whatever other girls they’ll play with after they’re done with you. We both know they’ve probably already got their hands on a handful of other girls younger than you are that no one knows about. This is a chance at saving them.’ Her eyes are pooling, but not with tears. Might be pity or guilt, but they’ve glassed over completely. ‘I’m telling you because I can take out your name. I think it’s best for everyone to know, so you can speak for yourself, but it’s your call.’”
The treatment of sex work within the story is nuanced. It provides an important counternarrative to the ongoing shift towards sex work as liberatory (which it can be), reminding readers that the stories of young people, like Kiara, who do not find pleasure, choice, or even safety within that world, are left out of the new era of sex-positive feminism. Mottley’s story offers frank depictions of racism, misogyny, and adultification but still manages to maintain the argument of sex work as work and avoids discrediting the spectrum of experiences, including the brutality of Kiara’s.
While Nightcrawling is a work of fiction, its plotline is based on, or inspired by, the realities of many young women in Oakland and countless other cities across the United States. Mottley’s afterword explains her desire to create a fictitious story from real life events:
“As I wrote and researched this book, I drew inspiration from the Oakland case [a real-life 2015 sex abuse case] and others like it, as I wanted to write a story of my city, but I also wanted to explore what it would mean for this to happen to a young Black woman, for this case to be in the narrative control of a survivor, for there to be a world beyond the headline, and for readers to access this world.”
Leila Mottley is a young author to watch. I believe her next novel, and hopefully the ones that continue to follow after that, will chart an ever-growing sense of herself as an author, a woman, and a person fighting for something better for all.