Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

By Leila Mottley
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 288 pages

Oakland teenager’s novel tackles sex trafficking, police corruption

By John Caleb Grenn
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

Kiese Laymon always says it best: “Get ready. Or not. It doesn’t matter. Leila Mottley is here.” At only twenty years old, author Leila Mottley has already accomplished what many novelists and poets only dream of producing in their lifetime.

The Oakland youth poet laureate began writing her novel at just 17 years old, inspired by a local 2015 court case.  The novel’s protagonist Kiara is also a 17-year-old Black girl from Oakland, who, after losing both parents to prison and death, struggles to fend off homelessness and poverty in a city seemingly insistent on sending her family toward both. Her brother Marcus pursues his dreams of becoming a rapper and inadvertently becomes involved in drug dealing while Kiara desperately seeks work to provide for herself and her 9-year-old neighbor Trevor who has been abandoned by his drug-addicted mother.

Kiara meets lively, beautifully developed characters throughout her search for work in Oakland, but after a misunderstanding at a local bar, she ends up swept into sex work. Through self-reflection, flashbacks, and heartfelt dialogue, readers learn about Kiara’s past, her motivations and dreams, and will be crushed alongside her as she is further swept into deeper scandal: specifically, colossal misconduct and a sex-trafficking ring run by the the corrupt Oakland Police Department.

Once entangled in such an abusive, exploitative situation, her hopelessness becomes most palpable when Marcus is arrested and jailed. Kiara is matched with a white pro-bono lawyer who insists on helping Kiara and her brother out of their grim circumstances.

While the lawyer’s motivations are spelled out as perhaps less than noble, she does surprise Kiara with her persistent presence and dedication. After their meeting, the initially meandering novel begins to speed up, approaching a precipitous pace while the plot thickens towards a final, harrowing conclusion.

The entirety of “Nightcrawling” is set against an exquisitely illustrated Oakland backdrop, summed up in a scene where Kiara and Marcus take cans of spray paint to “tag” graffiti and vibrant yellow flowers on dingy, half-hidden city walls.

Through misty, stream-of-consciousness-style writing, Mottley ripples between stark dialogue and poetic reflection. While discourse in “Nightcrawling” often feels reflective of the gray-wall, grimy-street setting, the poet in Mottley often startlingly shines through like Kiara’s tagged vibrant yellow flowers.

At times, the contrast can feel ungainly to the reader, but this poetic grappling of language functions as an important theme throughout Mottley’s work—coming of age for the trafficked teenager comes in bursts, suddenly with little time for preparation. The sudden switches from simple prose to complex poetic contemplations impeccably illustrate Kiara’s desperate reaching out for rescue and redemption.

“Nightcrawling,” at its best, fearlessly tackles the topics of sex-trafficking and police corruption with the unabashed fervor only a truly talented, hard-working, experienced author could achieve. What to expect: a poetic, unnerving, metaphor-rich roller coaster of a novel full of emotion in a vibrant setting. What else to expect: a wise-beyond-her-years and incredibly gifted author who has much more to come. Leila Mottley is here.  

John Caleb Grenn is a Med-Peds physician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He is an avid reader of literary fiction and enjoys spending his time off either at Lemuria Books or enjoying his purchases on his porch in Fondren.

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