We were lucky to have chatted with Aya De Leon, award winning author of the feminist height/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and, most recently, SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Aya told Latinx in Publishing about being an Afro-Latinx writer, tackling heavy topics in SIDE CHICK NATION, books and writers that have inspired her work, and much more.
Read our full Q&A below:
WHAT INSPIRES YOU AS A WRITER?
I'm motivated by injustice and the drive to resist and remake the world. I'm inspired by the folks who are currently in that fight. Right now AOC is my hero. I've just never seen a Latina elected official (other than my mom) who was just so in-your-face toward the powers-that-be.
WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE AFRO-LATINX WRITERS?
Of course Sofia Quintero, because she also writes in this politicized urban fiction, genre location. Torrey Maldonado (full disclosure: is my cousin) but I LOVE what he's doing in writing about toxic masculinity for middle grade boys. Elizabeth Acevedo, who I'm reading now. So many!
YOU’RE TACKLING HEAVY THEMES IN SIDE CHICK NATION - HURRICANE MARIA, CLIMATE CHANGE AND MORE. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO FOCUS ON THOSE ELEMENTS?
When the hurricane hit, I was working on something else. Fortunately, it was the second book of a two-book deal, so the novel had been unspecified. I told my publisher I needed to change topics, and they agreed. The challenge was that I had to fit the hurricane into the heist/romance formula I had established for the Justice Hustlers series. At first it was tough, but it was like a puzzle. Eventually I managed to get all the pieces to fit. I wanted to talk explicitly about climate change, because it's the biggest threat humanity is facing. It's so big that it's even hard to get our minds around. I liked the idea of a romance/heist that also helped bring home the reality of climate change, and the idea that this AfroLatina young woman was moved to activism about both climate change and colonization. The other political elements came in different ways: the sex work politics are part of the series, so they went wit the territory. But the gender violence politics came in later when I learned about how violence against women had escalated during and after the hurricane, as it does anytime a community is hit with that kind of stress and disaster. And the heist was always delicious. Which unscrupulous folks who are exploiting our community can we rob this time?
HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU HAVE TO DO TO WRITE THIS STORY?
A LOT. Of course I read everything I could online. People who were doing work on the island came out to talk to us in the Bay Area. I went to an amazing conference in Chicago on the hurricane. Then I went back to PR in June of last year for a week. It was the longest time I had ever been away from my daughter, but I had to go. I also read Naomi Klein's book THE BATTLE FOR PARADISE where she breaks down the disaster capitalist model, and that was how I got the context for the villains in the book.
YOUR STORIES ARE BLACK AND CARIBBEAN BASED - IS THIS INTENTIONAL? IF SO, WHY?
My own heritage is Puerto Rican, African American and West Indian from St. Kitts & Nevis. Originally, the Justice Hustlers series was only three books, and each protagonist had one of my heritages. UPTOWN THIEF's protagonist, Marisol, is Puerto Rican. THE BOSS' protagonist, Tyesha, is African American (from Chicago). THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS' protagonists are Violet and Lily, sisters from Trinidad. I was several books in before I realized I was writing about my own cultural roots. For the purpose of the Justice Hustlers formula, it worked best to write about them individually, but I'm working on some future projects where the protagonists are mixed heritage. But then Justice Hustlers seems to have stretched into a 5-book series. The hurricane book was an unexpected addition (Dulce is Dominican & Cuban, but was born in PR) and the 5th book will also be West Indian, because Lily, one of the sisters from Book 3, didn't get a romantic arc. I just love her and want to see what will happen in her love life. She's a stripper-organizer, and also a slam poet. She's six-feet-tall, loud & hotheaded. I really look forward to getting to write a whole book about her.
FOR NEW READERS BEING INTRODUCED TO YOUR WORKS, WHERE DO YOU RECOMMEND THEY START AND WHY?
The good news is that the books work as standalones and also as a series. If you want to start with the hurricane book, that works fine. But there are a few pieces of inside info that you'll miss. Nothing that takes away from the book overall, but if you're someone who always likes to be in the know, then you should start at the beginning with UPTOWN THIEF and work your way forward through THE BOSS and THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS before you read SIDE CHICK NATION.
WHAT LATINX WRITERS (OR BOOKS) INFLUENCED YOUR WRITING (OR YOU AS A PERSON)?
1) Aurora Levins Morales
2) Carolina DeRobertis
Aurora & Carolina are friends & compañeras as well as writers I look up to. It's been so critical having both of them in my life.
3) Cherrie Moraga is not only an incredible writer, but also a great teacher. I went to a community writing workshop of hers when I was in my 20s that has always left a mark on me.
4) Julia Alvarez will always stand out to me because early on in my career when I was looking for a freelance editor, I emailed her at her university address to ask if she'd work with me. She began her email "Ay, Aya" and then made her apologies. I had never met her but she acted like she was letting down a dear friend. It really validated me as a writer that she responded so warmly. And of course I greatly admire her work.
5) WHEN I WAS PUERTO RICAN by Esmeralda Santiago, THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros, and IN THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende - These three works helped shape my sense of myself as a Latina writer.
6) Yuyi Morales - her children's book illustrations and stories have been some of the highlights of my library as a mother of an AfroLatina daughter.
Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books published her feminist heist novels UPTOWN THIEF in 2016 (winner of the International Latino Book Awards), THE BOSS in 2017, and THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS in 2018 (all of which won first place Independent Publisher Awards). The Justice Hustlers series continues with SIDE CHICK NATION in 2019 about the hurricane in Puerto Rico, and in 2020 Kensington will publish Aya's first spy novel, about FBI infiltration of an African American political organization. Aya's work has also appeared in Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Essence, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry, and she's an advice columnist for Mutha Magazine. Aya is at work on a picture book to help talk to children about racism, as well as a black/Latina spy girl series for teens called GOING DARK. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. Visit her online at ayadeleon.com, on Tiwitter at @AyadeLeon or on Facebook or Instagram at ayadeleonwrites.