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'Nightcrawling' follows a woman who turns to sex work to support her family

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

High-school dropout Kiara Johnson has a lot on her plate. She has rent and bills to pay while caring for her brother and her young neighbor that lives next door. So she turns to something she never expected she would do to make ends meet - nightcrawling, or in other terms, sex work. Through her work, she sees her city from new perspectives - one that holds the joy, pain and resilience of its people despite failing infrastructure and a corrupt police department. Leila Mottley is author of "Nightcrawling" and joins us now from Oakland, Calif.

Welcome.

LEILA MOTTLEY: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Can you tell us a little bit more about the main character of this book, Kiara?

MOTTLEY: So Kiara is 17 at the beginning of the novel, and she's a Black girl from Oakland, Calif. She finds herself involved with a network of police officers who sexually abuse her. And the book kind of follows her and her family and her attempts to survive and thrive as she is trying to navigate so much with very little protection.

RASCOE: You know, I was really fascinated by Kiara. In the book, it's interesting because she doesn't have, like, a whole lot of dialogue, right? But she has this very rich internal life. Was that because Kiara felt like she didn't really have a voice?

MOTTLEY: Yeah. I think that often the world doesn't expect Black women or Black girls to have such rich interior lives. And I think that the constraints on Black women mean that we are expected to serve and to care, but not to speak. And so I wanted to create this really rich internal world for Kiara, where she, you know, has strong beliefs, and yet she doesn't feel as though she has permission to share any of that.

RASCOE: Speaking of taking care of people, Kiara is taking care of her older brother, Marcus, who is trying to become a rapper - a successful rapper. Can you just tell us more about that relationship? - because it seems pretty frustrating at times.

MOTTLEY: Yeah. I wanted to show the ways that, like, gender dynamics within a family and within, like, even the conditioning and way we raise girls and boys in the same family can shift the dynamic of the sibling relationship. So Marcus, her brother, is given just an entire different way of being able to navigate it, and he is kind of sucked into his own dreams because he's allowed that luxury - you know, chasing these rap dreams and leaving his sister to do it all, to fend for both of them.

RASCOE: Obviously, society doesn't seem to give Kiara permission to dream. But what do you think Kiara's dream is? What would be her following her dreams?

MOTTLEY: I think, in many ways, Kiara isn't allowed enough space to even begin to think about desire or dreaming for herself. I think that she wants to be able to break down sometimes, to grieve and to experience moments of joy and delight. And I think, like all of us, she just wants the space to be able to even consider what dreaming looks like, you know, because in order to dream, we have to have enough room and enough space to think about what we would even want in the first place.

RASCOE: The story is, you know, about a Black girl who doesn't have a lot of resources. She's in the city. She's trying to make something of her life. You often see online and in other places the discussion about how certain types of stories about poor Black people are embraced by white people. Was there ever a concern for you in writing this about falling into tropes or things that have been kind of seen in movies time and again?

MOTTLEY: For me, I kind of like to lean into tropes and examine, you know, where's the truth and where's the falsehood? And, I mean, even with Marcus, like this idea of Black rappers - it comes from what, you know, Black boys are taught about how the only way to achieve success or, you know, get out of a bad situation is to achieve some kind of fame through, you know, athletic success or music success or, you know, a fame of some sort. And I wanted to examine what that means for a person to think that they are only valuable because of what they produce. So I think that I try to examine them for all of their nuances and give characters a more rich life and more dimensions than I think we often see when we see stories of poverty.

RASCOE: This story is inspired by true events involving the Oakland Police Department. In 2017, a court ordered that the police department pay a Black woman almost a million dollars in damages after she claimed that multiple police officers sexually abused her. When you heard of this story, I do imagine you were very young. What was going through your head, 'cause you started writing this book when you were 17 yourself?

MOTTLEY: Yeah, I did. I remember paying a lot of attention to this case and, like, looking at the way the media spoke about this case because there was this disproportionate focus on what does it mean for the relationship between the police department and the community; what does it mean for the police officers; and not a lot of focus at all on what does it mean for this young girl; what does it mean for the harm to her and the thousands of other girls and women who experience this kind of thing regularly? And, you know, their stories never make it to the media or to a courtroom. And so I started thinking about it and researching other cases of police sexual violence. And then Kiara kind of came to me.

RASCOE: I wonder, for you, when people are reading this book who have not lived the life that Kiara led, how do you expect them to take this, and are you concerned about them being able to understand Kiara?

MOTTLEY: I think that a lot of what I want to do with an audience, whether they are, you know, of the experiences of the people in this book or not, I think is, like, expanding our common narrative of this world and who we are and what we owe to each other. And so I hope that, you know, the characters in this book who are often sidelined and forgotten in our common narrative become a fabric of how we think of this country.

RASCOE: Leila Mottley's debut novel is "Nightcrawling." Thank you for being with us.

MOTTLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE DER'S "NIKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.