Leila Motley, author: ‘I will continue to write stories about black girls and women’


You mention in the author’s note that the book grew out of an incident in Oakland where a girl was abused by members of the police. Please elaborate a bit on this. Have you also spoken to survivors of abuse by writing Crawl?

Crawl was partially inspired by a real-life case that occurred in 2016 of a young woman who was sexually abused by various members of different Bay Area police departments. I was born and raised in Oakland and this case made our local news headlines for months and I remember feeling confused as to why the conversation around him rarely focused on the scheme of harm done to girls and women of color or even that girl and instead devoted entirely to policing.

Years later, when I thought about writing my next book, I knew I wanted to write from the perspective of a black teenage girl and focus on the vulnerability and lack of protection of black girls and police sexual violence and violence. he 2016 case seemed to fit into this narrative. From there, I tried to take what is usually just a news headline and turn it into Kiara’s story and experience, in all its nuances and complexities. I haven’t spoken to victims of abuse, but I have read accounts of police sexual violence and a reader with experience in sex work also read the book to give his thoughts. Honestly, most of the women and girls in my life have been sexually abused and I didn’t feel like I needed to research other survivors of abuse to understand enough to tell this story.

Who were your first readers? What were the first comments you received about your manuscript before it was picked up by a publishing house?

I kept the book to myself for several months before letting anyone read it. A stranger who was my mentor on this program called Pitch Wars was the first to read it and now she’s a friend, but at first it was more comfortable having someone I didn’t know as my first reader. . I let my partner read it while the agents were reading it and after the book was sold I let my parents read it. We submitted the book at the very start of the pandemic and many publishers told me it was the first book they could focus on and invest in since the lockdown.

“Through Nightcrawling, I sought to build that life and give it the focus and nuance that we are rarely invited to see survivors go through.” – Leila Mottley (Courtesy of the publisher)

Was the novel also an act of giving agency to the survivor, telling their story in a way that cannot be made expendable in a courtroom?

What we often feel when we only receive a headline or statistic is a detachment from the life that has been lived through and impacted by this type of systemic violence. Through CrawlI sought to build that life and give it the attention and nuance that we are rarely invited to see survivors go through.

The nuance with which your characters are portrayed is also present in your description of Oakland as a vibrant city. Was this how you always wanted it or did it just happen naturally when writing the book?

I think both elements were present in the writing process. I wrote the first draft of Crawl the summer before I left for college, my first time leaving Oakland for more than a few days, so I wrote the book with the intention of writing a love letter to my city and the parts of the city that most outsiders never see or choose to ignore. My language was also heavily influenced by the fact that I was writing and performing poetry at the same time as I was writing the novel and it would have been impossible for me to write about Oakland any other way. .

The novel doesn’t just focus on the police force, but also talks about greater policing of bodies, especially those belonging to women or the trans community. Was it an attempt to highlight the struggles of those who were not cis-het men in the black community?

Absolutely. So many movements, from Say Her Name to #MeToo to Black Lives Matter, were founded and organized by black women with the goal of centering black women, but many followers of these movements have chosen to refocus the narrative away black women. We are often the only ones who want to talk about issues specific to our experiences as black women. Black women, black queer people, and black trans people experience a different kind of policing than black cishet men and it was important to me that these narratives not go unheeded. In Crawl, we see how the police play out for Kiara and the other sex workers versus how the police affect Marcus, Kiara’s brother, and his circle of male friends. I wanted to portray a range of experiences with the police while keeping police Kiara’s experience as a black girl central to the story.

Protagonist Kiara, who is a sex worker, mentions that her father was in the Panthers and at one point she talks about her fists being akin to her thighs. Was this a way of showing how Kiara’s struggles are no less significant than those of her predecessors who fought against oppression?

The legacy of resistance that black people have built, including the Black Panthers, is important context for understanding Kiara’s story. By trying to survive in a world that doesn’t care about her safety or her dreams, and by speaking out and acknowledging the harm done to her in a culture of silence, Kiara joins this legacy of resistance.

Port workers in Oakland take part in a rally on June 19, 2020, calling for police reform. Thousands marched through the streets of Oakland, past the police department and then toward City Hall. (Shutterstock)

How have your own personal experiences as a black teenager shaped the narrative of Crawl?

I wrote most of Crawl when I was 17 and I think being at this particular stage of my life, still living in Oakland, helped me access Kiara and connect to our shared experience as black teenage girls in Oakland . I borrowed experiences and elements from my own life and also tried to allow Kiara to flourish as her own person on the page.

As a beginning novelist, what advice would you give to other young aspiring authors, especially those from marginalized communities?

I would echo Toni Morrison’s words and say that you should write the stories you wish you could read. If I could have read a book like Crawl when I was younger it would have shown me that I am not alone in many of my experiences. I also believe that writing is a discipline, and it’s important to have some consistency about it, whether you write every day or have a certain chair you always write in. It is a practice.

Which writers have inspired you in your career as a young novelist?

I always give credit to Jesmyn Ward, who is my favorite writer of all time. I am currently revisiting her work and am impressed with how she creates worlds that intricately balance plot and description. At Ntzoake Shange Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo and Gorilla, my love by Toni Cade Bambara are two books that opened my mind to how using language that deviates from traditional conventions reflects more authentic experiences. Poets like Sonia Sanchez have also informed my prose as well as my poetry.

What would you like to write about next?

I will continue to write stories about black girls and women, but I want to expand the scope and depth of my work. I’ve actually written two and a half different novels since writing Nightcrawling, and they’ve all explored things that are both similar to and different from the themes, places, and people I wrote about in Nightcrawling. Someday I would like to tackle something historical because I love research and being able to use fiction as a way to look at historical events from a different perspective. I am also writing a collection of poetry.

Simar Bhasin is a freelance journalist

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