By Leila Mottley
Despite its imperfections, Leila Mottley’s gritty debut novel Nightcrawling, about an African American teenager who finds herself leading a prostitute’s lifestyle on the streets of Oakland, California, is sincerely written.
From the fulsome praise of the blurbs from writers ranging from Dave Eggers to Ruth Ozeki, though, it is evident that they’ve done little more than skim through the book, because the topic is tragic and important, but Mottley’s writing is choppy, uneven at far too many points and the novel is imperfectly plotted. Indeed, the main action does not begin until one is well past the narrative’s midpoint.
However, given that its protagonist and first-person narrator Kiara “Ki” Holt, although fictional, represents dozens of real ill-fated young women at the mercy of Oakland’s dark and dangerous sex trade, the book is worth perusing for its morally admirable agenda alone.
At the novel’s commencement, we’re told that Ki’s flamboyant, but criminal, father has passed away and her mother is incarcerated at a mental institution, having been determined a hazard to both herself and others. Still underage at 17, with an elder brother whose promises of becoming a rock star exhibit as much paucity as the family’s collective savings, Ki attempts to get a job, to no avail.
A debut novel takes on the hapless fate of streetwalkers who are exploited by the very law enforcers who should be protecting them. But it suffers from choppy writing and imperfect plotting
Matters are made more stressful by the fact that Ki often has to babysit a young boy, Trevor, whose frequently stoned mother is too inept to care for him. A chance encounter outside a bar with a man who pays her a couple of hundred dollars for quick, but satisfying, sex leads Ki into a life of streetwalking.
Prostitution is considered a misdemeanour in the United States, so Ki attempts to remain in the police force’s good books by permitting them to enjoy her body on occasion. In return, they turn a blind eye to her lifestyle and inform her of sting operations in advance so that she can protect her friends. Some of the policemen pay for her service; far too many do not.
At a point in her life when she should be loved and cared for by either parents or guardians, going to school and engaging in healthy activities, Ki is deprived of every one of those basic humanitarian necessities and forced to grow up too fast, too soon.
Her brother, Marcus, loves her, but he can safely be termed an unmitigated loser. Her female friends offer her affection and even a certain degree of emotional protection, but her social circle is too poor to be of much use to her. Intrinsically noble and loving, she handles the burden of being frequently saddled with Trevor with fortitude and grace under pressure.
As for her mother, it is impossible to divulge much without ruining the plot; suffice to say that the mother’s negligence lands Ki — and, by extension, her entire family — in more hot water than she would have expected.
Nightcrawling’s first half simply piles up the miseries afflicting Ki’s existence. Midway through, one of the many policemen who regularly exploit her takes his own life and writes a damning letter full of rage and remorse, exposing both Ki’s activities as well as those of his colleagues.
Now in serious trouble with the law, Ki desperately tries to get Marcus to help her, but his own shady activities, plus his sister’s predicament, end up landing him in jail. Relying on the assistance of a well-meaning journalist, Ki is roped into becoming a key informant for a case that centres on indicting members of the Oakland Police Force for their nefarious activities.
A petite, Nordic-looking female lawyer tries to get Ki to testify, which the latter does, although even less perceptive readers than myself would realise that Mottley is not interested in writing a fable where good triumphs over evil. The general message of Nightcrawling is that, no matter how wronged they have been, prostitutes are rarely taken seriously by the law.
It is ironic, perhaps, that in spite of being one of the oldest and most important of professions, prostitution globally remains one of the riskiest life choices any woman can make. The injustice of this conundrum is palpable: virtually no woman in her right mind ‘chooses’ the profession if she can help it, yet, more often than not, it is the law itself that relentlessly works against streetwalkers acquiring basic rights as well as a much-needed level of bodily and psychological protection.
The latter verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem ‘Mujh se pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na maang’ [Do not ask me for that erstwhile love, my beloved] dwell on this social evil, the evil not being prostitution itself so much as society’s callous indifference towards the plight of the workers of the trade.
The great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was often plagued by insomnia and would stroll through London’s streets, conversing with fallen women and attempting to rehabilitate them; he created a lodging called Urania Cottage for this purpose. One of the most brutal murders in Dickens’s work is of the good-hearted prostitute Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, made all the more tragic by Nancy’s attempts to protect a child.
Kiara is as socially oppressed and often physically helpless as any such figure found in British or South Asian literature. But the grim reality of Nightcrawling is that police exploitation and brutality are prevalent, present-day social evils across even a powerful First World country such as the US, which prides itself on being a champion of human rights.
The fact that Kiara is underage makes the situation even more horrific, but one does not need to be particularly well-versed in such matters to be aware that the usage of minors in the sex trade is one of Bangkok’s most lucrative sources of income.
I do not doubt that, prior to writing her novel — longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize — Mottley did a great deal of research in terms of reading up on cases. However, in order to get a genuine sense of how pressured a sex worker’s life can be, one needs to read novels such as Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl whose author — an anonymous, but authentic prostitute — pulls no punches when it comes to describing what an exhausting and thankless profession this grim prison of a job can be. Every prostitute treads a tightrope of humiliation, almost invariably without the basic protection of a social safety-net.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 22nd, 2023