Reviewed by E. B. Heath
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley was the subject of a bidding war between publishers both in America and Europe. This is unusual, particularly for a debut novel, and for one written by a seventeen-year-old. Leila Mottley is also a poet of some note, awarded the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. With this is mind, I was prepared to believe the accolades appearing on the cover, so began reading with much anticipation, splashed with appropriate dobs of cynicism. There are so many facets to a good novel concerning setting, character, tone, pace, authentic voice, appealing prose style … the list goes on. But a great novel, to my mind, uncovers something meaningful about its social, political and economic context, giving readers a profound experience of the subject matter. Leila Mottley has gone a long way to achieving this. Did I mention when writing she was seventeen!
In the ‘Author’s Note’ Mottley writes: Like many black girls, I was often told growing up to tend to and shield my brother, my dad, the black men around me: their safety, their bodies, their dreams. One then might expect Nightcrawling to be an amalgam of #Me Too and Black Lives Matter, both potent movements but perhaps only distantly understood by outsiders. Here Mottley gives readers a lingering visceral experience. Written in the first person, Mottley slowly draws readers into the protagonist’s neighbourhood, into her lived experience of that neighbourhood, and into her body, feeling the brutality that she must endure so she can eat, sleep in a bed, and not on the streets. This novel is rich raw reality delivered in the prose of a poet.
Kiara is surrounded by disfunction in her seedy East Oakland apartment complex. Her father dead because he didn’t receive medical attention while in prison, her mother in prison, and deserted by their only other family member, an uncle who moves to California. Kiara’s elder brother is convinced he will make it big in the world of rap music, consequently does not attempt to find a job. Procuring rent and food money is up to seventeen-year-old Kiara. There is also a nine-year-old boy in the next apartment who is regularly abandoned by his mother when she goes on drug fuelled jaunts to goodness knows where, leaving Kiara to care for him. Kiara seeks regular employment anywhere she can, but her age and lack of a CV means she isn’t even considered for hiring. Her predicament is dire, no food and soon to be evicted from the only home she has ever known. Hoping to find work and a meal, she goes to a bar run by an acquaintance but on leaving is accosted by a drunk patron. Although forced to have sex with him, she is at least is given enough money for the rent. This is a job that Kiara seventeen-year-old did not want but feels helpless, like there is no other way. Kiara’s life is crowded with slim choices. That’s sort of what this feels like: the helplessness of it. Like standing on the road that leads to here and noticing a path you didn’t know existed and not being able to take it.
From this point, the story is based on real facts. Unprotected and vulnerable, Kiara is picked up one night by the police and forced into a sex trafficking ring organised by a group within the Oakland Police Department. Eventually there is an investigation and Kiara is a key witness in a scandal widely published in the media. She feels exposed by the publicity, reassured by her lawyer, Marsha, that she doesn’t deserve any of this, telling her that Tubman and Steinem also did what they had to although not respected at the time.
In moments like these, I remember Marsha’s just another white woman who’s never gonna understand what I been through, who can’t find anyone besides Harriet Tubman and Gloria Steinem to compare me to.
Readers are led to consider deeper issues: the disparity of lived experience within the same country, state, or neighbourhood; how the richest country in the world allows its citizens to live in third world conditions; ‘survival of the fittest’ capitalism being at odds with human rights. Kiara is a victim of her poverty but what context is producing predatory male behaviour, what cultural beliefs, social norms, gave the police a sense of entitlement to treat young girls and women with such brazen cruelty. And, given that this type of behaviour is experienced by women across the globe, it is clearly time to interrogate the context in which males are socialised into managing their bodies.
Many great American novels have been concerned with the social forces that shape lives in America, such as Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1920) and Sister Carrie (1900), but Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling presents a raw realism that is hard to forget.
By Leila Mottley
ISBN: 978 152663 455 9