Inspired by a true scandal in the police department of author Leila Mottley’s hometown of Oakland, Nightcrawling tells the harrowing story of Kiara Johnson, a young Black girl in the guardianship of an older brother who’s more concerned with his dream of becoming a recording artist than providing for his sister. Fending for herself, and for a younger neighbour with an alcoholic mother, Kiara takes to the streets – placing herself in grave danger in order to survive. When she becomes the object of attention for a group of corrupt police officers, Kiara is offered protection at a high personal price before later finding herself at the centre of a media storm. Mottley, the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, wrote this powerful and revealing novel at just 17.
Was your ability to navigate such serious subjects at this age a result of the same adultification of Black girls that contributed to your 17-year-old protagonist Kiara entering into sex work?
Adultification is such a paradox because while the expectations and sexualisation of Black girls create a pressure to behave as though we are older than we are, there is simultaneously a demeaning and belittling of Black girls, especially as teenagers, that refuses to award us the respect that as a culture we claim to give to people as adults. I’ve experienced both sides of this paradox, as I’m sure many of us have, and I did a combination of drawing on feelings I’d had and things I’d experienced and tapping into my own knowledge and empathy as well as research to construct Nightcrawling and the myriad of topics that it deals with.
“This city’s not known for its ethics,” Kiara’s lawyer points out of Oakland. What is it known for and what was it like to grow up there?
Oakland is known for many things, depending on who you ask and when you ask them. On the one hand, for decades Oakland has been said – by outsiders – to be a high-crime, dangerous city, which often is a veiled way of saying Black and Brown people live here. In the past decade, as more people working at tech companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have decided to live in Oakland and investors have bought out buildings in Oakland, displacing thousands of Oakland natives, Oakland has gained a second reputation for being an “up-and-coming” city. This assumes that Oakland was not a vibrant and desirable place to live before the wealthy white people moved in, which is wholly untrue, and contributes to more people moving to Oakland and pricing out people who have been here for decades, mainly Black and Brown people.
For those of us who have been here for decades, we know Oakland as a place with a thriving arts scene, abundant nature, creative and unique people, an activist tradition grounded in the Black Panthers and so much more. I feel very lucky to have grown up in Oakland and be shaped by this city.
As Kiara leaves the police station following an underhand interview about the violence and exploitation she has suffered at the hands of the police, she sees crowds of people protesting against police brutality towards Black men. Is society waking up to the dangers Black men face, only to overlook Black women?
Black people have been protesting police violence for many decades – the only thing that has changed is the internet and spread of information that has created more urgency among non-Black people to both recognise police brutality and participate in contesting it. It’s definitely true that Black men are centred in these protests and conversations, but I would also argue that society hasn’t woken up to any of the dangers Black people face. Rather, white people feel more pressured to be on the right side of a political debate out of fear. It’s not only that Black women are overlooked, but that we’re expected to protect, care and advocate for Black men, which automatically places us in a position in which we are sidelined and lacking protection or care ourselves. There’s also the complication that one of the main ways in which police assert control over Black women is through sexual violence and our culture resists talking about sexual violence because it is uncomfortable and necessitates the confrontation of how all people, especially men, are complicit in the conditions that allow for sexual violence.
Kiara’s own dire circumstances mean she is unable to advocate for herself, let alone other girls in her situation, but she is supported by a female police officer and a lawyer to fight her case. What can people without this authority or power do to provide allyship and advocate for girls like them?
One of the more important things to do is to resist the bystander effect and instead assume that no one else is going to step in if you see a Black girl or woman in a position that suggests a lack of safety. I also think resisting the silence around sexual violence and the particular ways this impacts Black women is necessary, but the most essential thing white people can do is think about how they engage with Black women. Do you have Black friends? If you do, do you forget to ask them about their feelings? Do you assume they will do the cooking/dishes/driving/planning? Do you have Black women working for you and, if you do, do you ask them about how you can accommodate them? Interrogating yourself and your relationships is probably a good place to start.
Kiara’s brother has a tattoo of Kiara’s fingerprint. What does this represent?
Kiara’s brother, Marcus, has been raised assuming Kiara will bend herself to meet his needs and that she will, regardless of what he does, always think of him before herself. This tattoo is, in some ways, a claim to ownership of her, despite his intention being to pay homage to her.
Tell us about the theme of water and swimming in the book.
In Nightcrawling, there is a constant pressure for Kiara to sink or swim, whether she wants to or not. She is surrounded by bodies of water, some of which she finds comfort in and others which she fears, and throughout the book must confront her relationships to choice, agency, and her own body. Water represents these pulls and the lethal implications of these choices, the ones she makes and the ones made for her.
Before her life unravels, Kiara has creative outlets such as skateboarding and graffiti – both of which have been historically maligned as antisocial. Do arts programmes and literary projects have the ability to lift people out of poverty or are they merely a distraction from it?
Art is neither a solution to poverty nor a distraction from it. Art is a way to experience life beyond the terror of the realities of not having your basic needs met. As people, we need to have access to quality housing, food, clothing, employment, care, and loving relationships in order to have the bandwidth to think about really anything else. And yet, as people, we also need to feel like there is a rich, vibrant world out there and that there is hope for us to have more than our current circumstances may allow for. Arts programmes and art in general can provide this kind of hope, as they give us something to desire and add a dimension to our lives, but that doesn’t erase the need for stability that poverty deprives us of.