Leila Mottley’s debut novel Nightcrawling interrogates hard truths

Crawl is the highly publicized debut novel by Leila Mottley, the 2018 Young Poet Laureate from Oakland, California. It reaches Australia after a fierce auction for the American rights to the novel and its premise ripped from the headlines. Literally, the novel is inspired by media coverage of a 2015 scandal involving the sexual exploitation of a young sex worker by Oakland police and subsequent attempts to cover it up. The protagonist, East Oakland teenager Kiara Johnson, serves as the author’s avatar to explore “the kinds of violence that black and brown women routinely face.”

When we meet Kiara Johnson, her outlook is bleak and about to get worse. With her father dead after facing the law and a mother in a halfway house after attempting suicide, Kiara is effectively an orphan.

Leila Mottley started writing Nightcrawling when she was 17.Credit:Madeleine Fridge

It’s up to her not only to raise and care for a nine-year-old neighbor abandoned by her mother, but to act as primary caregiver for her angry and disenfranchised brother, Marcus, who clings wild dreams of a career as a rapper. Together, they live in a grungy studio — crack addict next door, dog shit in the pool — whose landlord has just doubled the rent.

An inexperienced high school dropout, Kiara is unable to find work, until one night she finds herself drunk at a strip club where she loses her virginity to a stranger who tips her $200. From there, she falls into sex work and, after an assault by a client, comes to the attention of the police.

This is only the beginning of his ordeal. She is inducted into an organized ring of statutory rapists within the Oakland Police Department, then recruited as a witness by the police investigating corruption within their own ranks. This event, which should be her deliverance, only makes matters worse, as those who claim to want to help her seek to exploit Kiara for their own ends.

The predation and systems of exploitation that women and girls of color experience in contemporary America are the driving forces of this novel. Kiara is your classic YA protagonist – brave, resilient, sensitive, and with a heart of gold despite her struggles – but her journey is phenomenally grueling.

Crawl is a panoramic portrait of the systems designed to make lives like Kiara’s disposable and ready to be exploited. She lives at the intersection of racism, poverty and misogyny, and Mottley’s portrayal of this overwhelming oppression seems vital in this cultural moment. As a novelist, Mottley has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She captures the rhythms of speech – the changing of Oakland’s street codes, the unique language of children and teenagers, slick lawyers and gooey cops – with virtuoso flair.

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With that comes a poet’s love of imagery and language. No phrase in the novel can be accused of being underwritten. Here is Kiara walking with her friend Alé: “Oakland doesn’t work on a network. We wind here. The streets bring us closer to the bay, where the salt melts with the street and the bikes turn into trucks that groan and move forward with every light. Then they push us back towards the buildings, where screams line the perimeter of the sidewalks and, with Alé here, I don’t bother trying to decipher what they’re saying or who they’re saying it to. Just let the noises disperse, like bits of asphalt on the road.

Irene B. Bowles