“Nightgcrawling” by Leila Mottley is not only a truly stunning debut novel from a very young author, accomplished beyond her years, but it is a vital story giving voice to the voiceless. The book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Kiara, who like her slightly older brother, Marcus, has dropped out of school and is barely scraping by to keep a roof over their heads in the absence of both their parents. Adversely impacted by death and prison, Marcus can’t seem to do anything but futile pursue a dream of a career in music. While this may spark joy and hope for Marcus, it does not help pay the rent or put food on the table. As such and while also trying to take care of a neighbor’s little boy who is neglected by his mother, Kiara bumps into perpetual unemployment which leads her to become a streetwalker to make ends meet. She’s ashamed by the path she has gone down. And knows she has to let her brother know.
“I think maybe today is the day I’ve been waiting for. The Day when Marcus decides he will straighten his. Spine and learn how to hold up a little of this life again. The day he’ll put his head in my lap and. Let me cradle him. Or he might even hold my hand, ask me why there are bruises tracing my chest. Some days it feels like I’m stuck between mother and child. Some days it feels like I’m nowhere. I’ve got something to say to him. I promised myself I would and I don’t remember most things mama taught us, but she always said we stick to our word. Not just mama. This whole city knows the one thing. You don’t do is break a promise. Just like you don’t take the last piece of chicken without asking every person old enough to your mamma if they it first.”
Unfortunately, Marcus doesn’t come through and Kiara’s streetwalking lands her in turning tricks among a corrupt group within the Oakland Police Dept.
While “Nightcrawling” at times is an emotionally tough literary journey given its premise, it is also a novel I found myself fully engrossed with and finishing it relatively quickly. The fact that it can be emotionally challenging is large part credited to Mottley’s writing prowess. The first-person narrative effectively has you immersed in Kiara’s sad, destitute world, but also her strength and protective, mother-like quality that leads her to do anything to maintain the semblance of family with Marcus and Trevor.
Although Kiara is the same age as the novel’s author at the time it was written (yep, Mottley is was only seventeen), this is not based on her life. In fact, Kiara is a fictionalized character, but her story represents real events that were in the news in 2015. These events involving young Black women and the Oakland police served as inspiration, as mentioned in the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. Here is a sample:
“In 2015, when I was a young teenager in Oakland, a story broke describing how members of the Oakland Police Department, and several other police departments in the Bay Area, had participated in the sexual exploitation of young woman and attempted to cover it up. This case developed over months and years and, even as the news cycle moved written about on, I continued to wonder about this event, about this girl, and about the other girls who did not receive headlines, but nonetheless experienced the cruelty of what. Policing can do to a person’s body, mind and spirit … The stories of black women, and queer and trans folks, are not often represented in the narratives of violence we see protested, written about, and amplified in most movements, but that does not erase their existence.”
“Nightcrawling” will prove to be one of the best books of 2022 for it’s rawness and intensity, yet undeniable poignancy, as well as marking the unearthing of a dazzling new and necessary voice in the world of fiction from Oakland Youth Poet Laureate (2018), Leila Mottley.