Leila Mottley wrote Nightcrawling when she was 19 years old and based the novel on a 2016 true crime involving sexual exploitation and corruption in the Oakland Police Department. Credit: Courtesy of Leila Mottley

Leila Mottley’s New York Times bestseller debut novel Nightcrawling has garnered critical acclaim, including a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. Oprah calls her “an extraordinary woman, poet, and author—a writer to watch.” And one British reviewer writes that she “attempts to do for Oakland something of what The Wire did for Baltimore: show the real city through the eyes of its poorest (mostly black or Latino) people and ask the reader to humanize them.”

Now, in recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Mottley will join Oakland-born and raised poet, educator, playwright and screenwriter Chinaka Hodge Jan. 24 at the Oakland Museum of California in a conversation sponsored by MISSSEY, an organization that works to prevent girls and gender-expansive youth from being sexually exploited. MISSSEY describes the event as an invitation to “boldly engage with the real circumstances that lead to exploitation and link arms to forge pathways out.”

MISSSEY’s choice to feature Mottley is an inspired one. Mottley wrote Nightcrawling when she was 17 years old and based the novel on a 2016 true crime involving sexual exploitation and corruption in the Oakland Police Department. Nightcrawling gives voice to 17-year-old Kiara Johnson, who, after her father’s death and mother’s confinement in a rehab facility, becomes a sex worker to pay rent and is later sex trafficked by law enforcement.

MISSSEY’s executive director Jennifer Lyle, who has a PhD in trauma research and has spent her career working with primarily Black and Latinx youth and families in Oakland and Richmond, read Nightcrawling prior to issuing the invite to Mottley. Her thoughts on the book’s teen protagonist? “Damn it! Why didn’t she have MISSSEY?” When she contacted Mottley’s publisher with the speaking request she was surprised to get a “yes.” She describes the Mottley as “a beautiful light.”

Mottley, now 20, calls Oakland her favorite place on earth. She told The Oakandside in an interview that because her father didn’t drive she would walk, bike, and bus everywhere, meeting people all along the way. She currently lives by Lake Merritt but grew up off of High Street in East Oakland.

She wrote Nightcrawling over the summer following her graduation from the Oakland School for the Arts, where she first majored in theater and then literary arts, primarily poetry. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts for a semester and a half until the pandemic forced her home, where she completed another semester and a half, online. The unexpected breakout success of Nightcrawling forced her to leave her studies to focus on promoting the book, which became an Oprah Book Club selection.

“When I wrote the book I didn’t think anyone would ever read it,” she said. Celebrity came with her new status as a literary star.

Mottley firmly believes that her experience as Oakland’s 2018 Youth Poet Laureate helped her prepare for what was to come. She started speaking at “hundreds” of events when she was 14. 

“My poetry background informed the way I wrote fiction,” she said. Mottley also learned how to write under the pressure of deadlines. It was then that she decided she wanted to write fiction, “because it was much more private; not as forward-facing.”

Mottley conducted a great deal of research for her book, reading transcripts of the crime investigation and watching interviews with the key players. But she says she intentionally wanted to keep Nightcrawling as a separate piece of fiction. She had no contact with the young woman known as “Celeste Guap,” who was victimized by over a dozen Bay Area police officers.

Oakland definitely feels like a character in the book and when Mottley was asked to describe her city she is not at a loss for words: “Resilient, with a legacy of resistance. A vibrant city of artists, constantly moving and shifting, trying to survive. People unafraid to be different; very warm and welcoming—but with an edge.”  

Much of Nightcrawling takes place in East Oakland, which Mottley believes suffers from a one-dimensional view held by many who believe it’s only a crime-ridden and violent place. “There are people who’ve been there for decades, and so there’s a feeling of rootedness and family,” she said. “It’s far more intact in the face of gentrification than West Oakland—one of the only parts of Oakland that’s still so true to itself.” 

Thanks to the success of her book, Mottley now gets recognized in her home town. “Yes, it’s funny, but sometimes I just want to go to the grocery store and not be noticed when I’m looking disheveled,” she said.

Around Oakland, she likes to visit the Morcom Rose Garden, Lake Merritt, and any of the redwood parks. She gets coffee at Red Bay Coffee and browses new titles at bookstores like Walden Pond and Spectator. She feels at home in Fruitvale Village—“That’s my BART!” she enthuses. “I was there every day as a teen, riding my bike to BART.” She raves about Fruitvale’s farmers market, taco purveyors, Powder Face bakery, the library branch, and La Clinica de la Raza. “There are so many iconic places where I spent hours and was never bored.”

Mottley is pleased that her newfound fame has allowed her to meet some of her favorite authors of color, including Brandon Taylor, Julie Otsuka, Mitchell Jackson, and Tommy Orange. “I’ve grown up reading them, and to now exist as their peer is mind blowing to me.” What she’s read recently: The Death of Vivec Oji by African-born author Akwaeke Emezi,  and Sweet Soft Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell.

Helping boost the work of an important local organization

Mottley learned about the important work being done at MISSSEY when she was researching Nightcrawling. “This work is so necessary to provide safe havens for young women and trans youth, and it feels so right for it to be in East Oakland.”

The compelling story of Kiara is one that rings true to MISSSEY’s Lyle. 

“We hear her story—and worse—every day,” said Lyle. “Kiara was directed toward her choices by circumstances. People often don’t see that.” 

During reception of her book, Mottley was pleasantly surprised to learn that many of her readers didn’t judge or blame Kiara for her situation. Mottley said she took care in presenting sex workers with respect. Even as Kiara’s story blurred the lines between sex work and the trafficking that she endured at the hands of police officers.  

“How do we not punish parents for being under-resourced? How can we focus on college if we don’t have enough love, shelter and food?” asked Mottley. “If Kiara had more care and resources, it could’ve ended differently.”

“I didn’t want to provide a false sense of hope with the justice system, but I feel like she has more possibilities than she had at the beginning of the novel,” Mottley said about her main character’s story arc. “Hopefully she’s able to let down her guard and receive care and hope, but I don’t know.” 

Since 2007, MISSSEY has fought hard to elevate the issue of gender-based violence, with the recent success of having Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention direct a much larger percentage of its budget toward women, girls, and gender expansive youth. MISSEY’s clients are typically youth between the ages of 12 and 28, mostly Black and Latina. 

Lyle sees the upcoming event with Mottley and Hodge as an opportunity to continue a difficult conversation. “There are people in this community that want and need to talk about this, to shine the light on something that hurts all of us.” 

The issue is far more than just getting youth off the streets, she said. She hopes people will be inspired to take action to hold the city and schools more accountable. “The worst thing would be for them to walk away feeling hopeless, instead of asking ‘what can I do this year, big or small, to interrupt the cycle?’”

Asked what she wants girls and young women to know, Mottley said: “Young girls of color should not be placed in a position where they need to be adults and handle everything themselves,” she said. “They need to be able to think about caring for themselves, and not just for everyone else.” 

For herself, Mottley hopes that 2023 will be a calmer year. “Hopefully I can cocoon and write, and be at home after traveling so much,” she said. She’s working on a new poetry collection and novel, both set to be out within the next year. 

Will Oakland continue to be the setting? “No, but my work will always have a bit of an Oakland feel,” she said.

If you want to check out Nightcrawling from the Oakland public library, you might have a bit of a wait. As of this writing, there are 72 book copies, 38 e-books, and 26 audiobooks; all are in use. But the library’s associate director of library services, Nina Lindsay, confirms that they’ll be ordering more. She worked closely with Mottley when she was the City’s youth poet laureate. “We knew she always had a story to tell, and was ready to share it.”

If you know a youth who wants to follow in Mottley’s footsteps and apply for Oakland’s youth poet laureate program, applications just opened, and will close February 6.

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.