As far back as Aya de León can remember, there was a glossy photograph on her living room wall of a woman in a leopard-print bikini holding a boa constrictor. The woman is de Leon’s mother, who earned a living as an exotic dancer at Los Angeles’s Largo club in the ’70s before moving to Berkeley to become a civil rights lawyer and president of the city’s school board.
It was that experience — growing up with an activist mom who wasn’t ashamed of having worked in the sex industry — that eventually drove de León to write an erotic novel about feminist health care and wealth redistribution.
Often dismissed by critics, romance fiction is gaining traction as a feminist genre because it features strong female protagonists and reaches a wide readership of women. For de León, a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and director of its Poetry for the People program, romance offers a powerful venue to entertain readers while also encouraging social change.
“Uptown Thief” is a lusty tale about a team of high-end escorts who rob New York City’s elite to fund a clinic and shelter for women beat up by pimps or kicked out of their homes for working the streets. The protagonist, Marisol Rivera, realizes early on that doing full-service sex work is the best way she can pay for an apartment and an education for her and her teenage sister. Rather than painting her as morally bankrupt or helpless, de León makes Marisol the hero.
“In my perspective, politically, the problem isn’t sex work or sex workers’ choices,” de León says. “The problem is male financial domination of the world.”
Audre Lorde famously wrote that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house, but that’s what de León is trying to do with this book.
Marisol and her crew play up the sexual fantasies associated with their ethnicities to attract wealthy clients, who can write off their payments as charitable donations to the clinic. Through their escort work, they also gain access to CEOs who are running a lucrative sex trafficking ring. The women manage to crack the crime syndicate’s safes and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars for their clinic and anti-trafficking organizations.
“I’m not interested in creating bands of people who steal things,” says de León, “but I am interested in creating bands of people who feel strongly that wealth needs to be redistributed and really question the power of corporations and the billionaire class.”
She knows some readers will come to her novel for the sex and the fabulous shoes, but she’s hoping some will also respond to her activist message. That’s why she packaged her novel as a romantic thriller — part street lit, part chic lit.
TV shows like “Scandal,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Empire” and “The Good Wife” have created a new landscape for novelists, says de León. In the ’90s, when she published her first short story in a mystery anthology, she was told that writing genre fiction would kill her chances of being taken seriously as a writer. So, over the next decade, while appearing on HBO’s “Def Poetry” and teaching at Stanford and Berkeley, she wrote two literary novels, but couldn’t get either published.
But when de León and her agent tried shopping around her romantic thriller in 2014, they told editors, “ It’s really political, it’s got a lot of action, it’s got a lot of sex and romance, and it has a woman of color in the center.”
“Those TV shows have changed the notion of who’s paying attention to whose stories,” says de León.
That cultural shift paved the way for her to land a multi-book deal with a commercial press that wouldn’t conflict with her status in the academy, which has started to take genre fiction seriously as a legitimate field of study.
Still, de León’s primary audience is young women of color. Her publisher, Dafina Books, markets commercial paperbacks to mostly working-class young African American and Latina women by keeping the price point under 10 dollars and placing their books in urban libraries.
Writing her book as urban women’s lit was also a way for de León to defy the claim that literary fiction is inherently more valuable than commercial fiction.
“I wanted to make sure that anyone who could read English at maybe an eighth-grade level could get through the book and be on the journey,” says de León.
“Uptown Thief” is meant to be a page-turner we can dive into for an escape from poverty, sexism and racism, but also a rallying cry to toss out those systems and rewrite the rules.
Jessica Langlois is visiting assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
By Aya de León
Dafina. 352 pp. $9.95