Her Story

‘Nightcrawling’ by Leila Mottley


KNOPF, MAY 2022, 288 PP.

Nightcrawling opens with an apartment pool full of dog feces, the cackles of a woman driven mad by life, and a seventeen-year-old protagonist who’s trying to figure out how to pay the rent.

Kiara and her barely older brother, Marcus, live in a crumbling East Oakland apartment complex, left alone by parents who have succumbed to death, prison, or grief. Marcus wants to be a rap star and spends his days making beats. Trevor, a ten-year-old abandoned by their madwoman next-door neighbor, depends on Kiara for his survival.

Author Leila Mottley takes readers deep into the heart of this dark world, where Kiara’s coming-of-age story unfolds like a gaping wound left to fester. The narrative is difficult to read and yet so compelling that one cannot put it down. We watch Kiara accidently stumble into the streets and sex work. In one raw scene, she enters the bedroom of a pimp where “a coven of girls” wait silently. A street friend has brought her here for protection, but instead she realizes she is at risk of losing her freedom. When the man is suddenly called away, Kiara takes stock: “It’s just me and the girls now. I watch them as they look around, like they’re trying to figure out where they are, like they ain’t had a moment to breathe and see it.”

Kiara offers to rescue them, but one of the girls stops her. “Ain’t nobody looking for me,” the girl says. Our protagonist fights to escape this world, only to be violated by the Oakland police—the very people designated to protect her—in a horrific reminder that, historically, Black female bodies have never been free, or safe. Despite #MeToo movements, protests against police violence, and an ongoing struggle for human, social, and civil rights, Black women victims of violence are rarely named or acknowledged. Through Kiara, Mottley gives voice to countless Black women and girls who remain invisible, vulnerable, and dehumanized by a system that deems them disposable.

Historically, Black female bodies have never been free.

We see and hear the world from Kiara’s point of view, a heavy (and amazing) lift for a writer no older than her heroine. Mottley is the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, and she wrote this, her first novel, at the age of seventeen. Kiara’s voice is strong and unforgettable. As Mottley unravels her tale, Kiara is exposed not as a passive victim but a resilient survivor of conditions she did not create.

Throughout the novel, Mottley sprinkles glimpses of the remarkably open girl tucked inside of Kiara despite her harsh circumstances. When Kiara is with her friend Alejandra, or Ale’, and has a safe space to vent, eat, and feel loved, she tells us:

Ale’ is one of the lucky ones. Her family’s restaurant is a neighborhood staple, and even though they can’t afford more than the one bedroom above the shop, she’s never been hungry a day in her life. It’s all degrees of being alive out here and every time I hug her or watch her skate down the sidewalk, I can feel how strong her heartbeat is.

Light moments do not last long in Kiara’s world. She soon finds herself at the center of an Oakland Police Department scandal when one of the officers who repeatedly assaulted her kills himself and names her in his suicide letter. In plot twists and turns, Kiara agrees to testify before a grand jury hearing the case, at great cost to her and seemingly no impact on the police department.

Leila Mottley.
Photo by Magdalena Frigo.

But trust Mottley not to leave Kiara—and us—in the depths of gloom. At the core of Kiara’s survival are the relationships that allow her soul to breathe. Her love for her brother never wavers, even when he is arrested; her mother redeems her abandonment by teaching Kiara to scream to release her inner pain; and Trevor allows her to nurture his tender spirit. Even that rancid pool offers hope. Literally the embodiment of grief and sewage, the pool, which now reeks of chlorine, also serves as Kiara’s baptismal font when Trevor teaches her to swim. In the end, though, it is her friend Ale’ who offers her unconditional love.

We need Kiara’s story, but more importantly, we need young writers like Leila Mottley. I recently heard Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, eloquently detail how the movement’s viral explosion after Hollywood actresses began using the hashtag warped it into something whitewashed and star-studded, leaving Ms. Burke and other women of color in its dust. She has consistently advocated that the narrative around sexual assault needs to change. Survivors ought to be the focus, she says, especially the adult women of color survivors of childhood sexual assault that she created #MeToo for. But survivors offering their stories for public consumption isn’t a prerequisite to heal. Ms. Burke maintains that finding the truth for yourself is what sets you free.

Kiara’s narrative is one that Ms. Burke wants our culture to understand. This isn’t just a story about a survivor of sexual abuse or the myriad ways we ask Black girls to assume adult responsibilities. It is not a story of crashed dreams or grief or the impact of prison sentences, although all those things are here. It is, instead, a testimony to hope, resilience, and love. When Kiara triumphantly walks into the arms of her friend Ale’ and fills up on Trevor’s youthful joy, we are left hopeful that she will not only survive but be surrounded by that love.

Mottley even allows us to witness the moment that Kiara finally understands her own truth. “Everything keeps on moving, colliding, a wood room where I set myself free like the sky that one night when stars showed themselves over the freeway,” she tells us after her grand jury testimony, “before I went back to the apartment that would never really be mine again.” And then she repeats the mantra that flowed from her while on the stand: “I was a child.”

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