BIG MONEY, an escort service, and a skillful heist are the sizzling ingredients for Aya de León’s debut novel Uptown Thief.
Though this is her first book, de León is no newcomer to the writing world. She’s a slam poetry champion, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a former Artist-in-Residence at Stanford. Her extensive writing credits include Ebony, Woman’s Day, Bitch magazine, and Racialicious. She teaches at UC Berkeley and is the director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. Over the phone and via email we discussed sex worker activism, the thrill appeal of heists, and her decision to bring her unique point of view to urban genre fiction.
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: What was the genesis of this novel? What was going through your head?
AYA DE LEÓN: Where to begin? It’s such a hybrid, so inevitably there were multiple themes — I love action stories with women in the middle, and I love stories where women are the ones making things happen. I also love Robin Hood, and Robin Hood stories, the notion of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. For many years I’ve loved the heist genre, but most heist stories have a male mastermind and a heavily male team. I remember enthusiastically watching Oceans Eleven and thinking, “Wow, there are 11 people on the team and they’re all men!” Including the one guy who, his part of the heist, was to fit in this little tiny thing and he had to be small and flexible. I thought, “Oh my God, women are physically generally smaller and they still picked the guy.”
There’s something about the heist genre. Writers can get the audience on the side of the criminal and create a context in which it’s understood that there’s a higher moral imperative, or that the people they’re robbing from are corrupt. When you do set it up such that the people from whom they’re robbing are the bad guys, there’s this incredible kind of delight in getting to watch these criminals do their thing. I love that part, which explains why I’m such a fan of Leverage.
I’ve worked on a number of novels. They’ve had ensemble casts; there was sex and romance in them, but it wasn’t the central piece. I wanted to write something that was a little more sexually charged, but I wanted that sexual charge to also be political. That was one of the reasons that I decided to write about sex work. Sex work truly sits at the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality. That was important to me. That’s the kind of writing that gets me excited and engaged, when it’s got that political charge.
How did you approach writing about and exploring the agency of sex workers?
In the media there are a very limited number of ways that people are used to seeing sex-worker characters, and I definitely wanted to break out of that. For me the decision to write about sex workers is political, but it’s also true that people are fascinated by it. I didn’t want to exploit the story; I didn’t want to exploit the idea and create a sex worker because that would be interesting without being accountable to the communities that are out there on the front lines in that way.
One of the things that was tremendously important to me was having sex workers read the early manuscript and tell me what was and wasn’t true, and what was and wasn’t realistic. Sex work is shrouded. The kind of sex work the protagonist has done and that exists within her community, much of it is illegal and stigmatized. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about sex work and sex workers. I had a couple of sex worker consultants — one of whom is very active in organizing. She gave me a very fierce edit.
For me as a writer that was the moment where I had to stay true to my commitment that I was going to be accountable to the sex work activist. She had been living that life, she is part of that community, who are living with the vulnerability or participating in an industry that is stigmatized. This is very much a part of gender justice; sex work is the only industry in which women are paid vastly more than men, and it’s illegal, stigmatized, and there are all these ways in which men and male institutions are trying to take that money back, whether it’s pimping or mistreatment. Economic mistreatment and wage theft happens at a lot of strip clubs. It was an important part of my commitment as a feminist to make sure that the sex workers were vetting my material and that I was in line with a gender justice that they’ve been fighting for.
You get an edit and you think, oh no, how am I going to fix that? But her note made it better. Another myth is that sex workers are against fighting sex trafficking. Actually, sex workers are often in a position to help end sex trafficking and point authorities to where trafficking is taking place. But if consensual sex work is illegal along with sex trafficking, then sex workers can’t come forward. The information they have burns the bridge between sex workers and the authorities.
I advocate for decriminalization of sex work. In a number of ways, that would help the fight against sex trafficking. Just the idea that sex workers are in this position, who care and are invested against trafficking, becomes a heroic tale wherein they can play the heroic role.
As a Mexican American, I feel a certain pressure to help our community “look good.” Did you feel that pressure when you write? And, if so, how do you navigate it?
When I was in my 20s and first tackling a literary novel about a group of women in college, I felt that pressure. The characters were in some way similar to the folks in Uptown Thief: a mix of African-American and Afro-Latina women. I think everyone was a little too noble, a little too evolved — there was just a way that I didn’t want anyone to look bad — it was hard, and painful! It’s true, this is what happens when we have so much racist and sexist representation of women of color in the media. So often we’re peripheral — and when we are more visible, we’re the stereotypical sex bomb, or we’re the maid, or we’re the sex worker or the dead sex worker, or we’re like the mom of the gangster, and so I wanted all these young women to be smart! And politically evolved! And righteous! It was starting to make for a dreary book.
So yes, that pressure you mention was something I felt very strongly early in my writing career. Alice Mattison, a writing teacher at Bennington said to me, “We love our characters so we don’t want them to suffer, but they have to suffer or there is no story.”
In this novel, I am playing with the idea of this Latina who, because of racism and sexism, has been pigeonholed into being this sexy type. She’s gotten the message early on loud and clear that what she has to bring to the table, her value, is sexual. In spite of getting that message so strongly, while leveraging it she realizes she has a keen financial grasp. Merging the two identities she has this wild, masterful criminal plan to create a safety net for her community.
You touched briefly upon Bennington, and yet I see you ultimately received your MFA from Antioch, here in Los Angeles. Can you discuss the differences a bit?
During my year in the MFA program at Bennington, I was one of two black students in a class of 100. There were perhaps one or two other students of color. I would say it was at least 95 percent white, with all white faculty, and a complete commitment to the very white canon. And the program is located in rural Vermont. I was writing about contemporary black female characters facing racism and a number of my peers questioned whether these stories were realistic — their clear implication was that racism didn’t exist anymore. So the racial politics were deeply alienating. There was also a great deal of sexually inappropriate conduct on the part of the faculty. I wasn’t a target, but one of my friends was. During my second term, there was a public sexual harassment incident, which created a hostile environment for many of the women. I spoke out against it and was repeatedly verbally attacked by the male director on a trumped-up pretext. I dropped out. Only a decade later did I realize that I had a case for sexual harassment, but by then the statute of limitations had expired.
The Antioch program in Los Angeles was structured with the same low-residency format, but it was vastly different in ideology. The student body was far more racially diverse, and I did all of my work during the term with faculty of color. The program’s commitment to social justice gave context to my writing and provided a group of peers who could offer an informed response. Antioch, like any progressive institution in the United States, has room for improvement in its race and gender politics. But it was light years ahead of the old New England institutions I had experienced previously. I discuss my experience at length at VIDA’s website here.
Why did an activist and professor decide to write what your publisher calls a “steamy beach read”?
I am excited about the idea of a book that speaks very much to the sensibilities of female readers in a very wide range. What are the sensibilities of women readers, who read everything from romance, to politically engaged fiction, to urban fiction? That is part of my motivation, wanting to be sure while I’m writing something that has some highfalutin political ideas in it that it’s also accessible to a wide range of women.
As someone who works in an academic context I was very committed to writing a book that would be read widely, and having a character who barely finished high school. It’s important to me to create someone who is both street-smart and nontraditionally educated.