Leila Mottley on her debut novel: "I want to write about forgotten people."

·6-min read
Photo credit: courtesy
Photo credit: courtesy

Once in a while, a book comes along which launches a new literary star. This summer, Nightcrawling may well be that book. Loosely based on real events, it tells the story of Kiara Johnson, a 17-year-old girl living in Oakland, California, who becomes embroiled in the sordid and corrupt underbelly of the Oakland police department. The novel was bought in a 13-way auction in the US, a nine-way auction in the UK, and has already been sold into eight languages. At its helm is Leila Mottley, a debut novelist who was herself a 17-year-old girl from Oakland when she wrote the book.

“I think I started writing the minute I learnt how to,” she tells me, shrugging off her prodigious achievement. The fact is, she says, Zooming me from her Oakland home, she began writing novels at 14. “I think of them as like practice for how to write a novel. But, you know, they're not meant to exist in the world. And I think I knew that even when I was writing them!”

Mottley may be a debut novelist – who had to wait to turn 18 before she could sign her contracts – but she is already known in California as the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate and has been published in various publications across the states, including The New York Times. Her talent and linguistic virtuosity could already be glimpsed in these earlier writings and in her live poetry performances.

“Poetry is really important to me. I think it was the first time I shared my work with anyone,” says Mottley, who is now 19. “Going in front of audiences and performing these poems and getting to feel this direct connection and feedback, knowing whether it is resonating or not, as you're speaking, that was always really special to me. But I was writing fiction the whole time, too. And so, for Nightcrawling, I took some time off to really immerse myself in it. Now I've returned to poetry, I realise I prefer on-the-page poetry because it causes me less anxiety. The stage nerves, having to remember all those words – my brain can't handle it anymore!”

Nightcrawling is about to introduce Mottley to the world in a whole new way. It bears the hallmark of a poet – wonderful imagery and deft turns of phrase – but it is also a huge feat of imagination and solid novelistic ambition. It is tempting to draw connections between Mottley and her protagonist – both young women of colour living in Oakland – and it was, after all, seeing some similarities between herself and the young woman at the centre of the true story behind her novel, which prompted her to write it. Yet, this is also a reductive reading too frequently affixed to female writers; Mottley’s voice and Kiara’s are utterly distinct and the level of research involved in this novel should not be underplayed. “I worked really hard to get Kiara’s voice,” she tells me. “So, I spent a lot of time journaling from her perspective, and just trying to sink in as much as I possibly could. It's why I draft really quickly so that I can fully merge with her for the whole time I’m writing.”

Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images

Though Kiara is a fictitious creation, she is inspired by the 17-year-old young woman at the centre of the Oakland Police Department scandal of 2016, in which countless officers were revealed to have sexually abused her when she was an underage sex worker. In the media storm that followed, Mottley was struck by how absent the young woman was from the story. It was as though her life, her voice, did not matter. Nightcrawling aims to address that. “The media tended to have this disproportionate focus on how this would impact the police department and I remember thinking, what about the young woman involved and the thousands of other girls who don't have their stories ever make it to a courtroom, or newspaper? I wanted her be the centre of the story; I wanted to feature a young woman in narrative control.”

Celebrated novelist Ruth Ozeki has called Nightcrawling Mottley’s “bid to heal a broken world”. I ask her if she agrees. She shrugs. “I think so, yes.” She smiles – a ridiculously warm grin – and adds, “I want to write stories that don't get told. I want to write about forgotten people. I think that one of my goals is to humanise the people we often leave on the margins.”

“I always say that before we can heal anything, we have to confront it. And so, I hope that this book serves as a catalyst to confrontation. And I hope that we see it not as a single case, because this is a representation of something that happens more often than any of us think,” she continues. “I want it to reverberate as a way we can think about violence and its specific iteration in the harm of young women of colour, primarily.”

We discuss a facet of her novel which she personally addresses in her afterward; the adultification of (particularly) Black girls – both by the system and by the Black community itself – and how damaging the pervasive viewpoint is. It is something she says she has experienced herself, and something which drew her to Kiara. “I think that I wanted to show that kind of limbo that she was in, and I wanted it to really encompass the ways in which she's being expected to behave as someone much older than she is – and at the same time, not given the respect that we think someone much older than her would be given,” Mottley tells me. “But I also wanted to explore the ways that young Black girls are expected to do a lot more than we should be, and how that that inevitably ages you. There is this inability to develop as your own individualised person, if you're always carrying the weight of others.”

It was why moments of joy and liberation (and despite how bleak this narrative may appear, there are many) were hugely important to Mottley. They demonstrate how young Kiara actually is – how robbed she is of a childhood she still so desperately needs, but how joy and hope can still be accessed. “Often, in stories around Black tragedy, we forget that there is always a spectrum of emotions and feelings – that part of what makes us human is that we're able to experience more than one thing even in the most impossible circumstances.”

Before Mottley can consider university (she has currently deferred to focus on the publication of her novel) she undoubtedly has many other stories to tell, and will be publishing a debut poetry collection soon. For all the weightiness of her subject matter, she is light and shrewd – a consummate storyteller right at the beginning of her career.

“I just want to tell a good story,” she laughs. “Books can provoke change, but they can also provide escape and solace. They always have for me, so I want to give that to others.”

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is out now.

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