Berkeley writer Aya de Leon has more than a few authorial tricks up her sleeve.
The director of UC Berkeley's Poetry for the People program, she has written a new novel set in post-Maria Puerto Rico. Side Chick Nation not only mixes a cocktail of romance and crime, but it adds a generous splash of social and political commentary. The result is a twisty heist caper that addresses the complexities of the sex industry while offering one of the first fictionalized glimpses into Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
The granddaughter of a Puerto Rican woman who married a U.S. serviceman not from the island, Aya de Leon learned about the isle from her mother — lawyer, activist, former school board member and former nightclub owner Anna de Leon. Aya de Leon was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Berkeley, attending public schools and graduating at 16 from Berkeley High.
De Leon says that when she first came to the Bay Area there were few Puerto Ricans living here, the diaspora largely concentrated in New York and Chicago. In terms of their Caribbean heritage, she and her mother were really disconnected. "I grew up knowing that I was Puerto Rican, but with no context for that," she said in an interview.
Attending Harvard College was an experience that induced "culture shock," in part from the institution's traditional structure and in part from finally meeting more Puerto Ricans.
"Suddenly there were Puerto Ricans, but their experience was so different from mine," she recalled. "A lot of folks were from the East Coast were much closer to the island.
"I felt this really strong longing to be connected and a deep awkwardness. I struggled with that in college for quite some time before I figured out how to ground myself more in my Puerto Rican identity."
After graduation from Harvard, de Leon earned an MFA in fiction from Antioch University and has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a slam poetry champion. She currently teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.
De Leon also spent many years working on a literary novel that she was unable to sell. She didn't find traction with an agent or a publisher until she decided to write a heist novel focused on New York City sex workers.
"Sex work sits at the intersection of gender, class, commerce, race, and nationality," she said. "So I really liked the idea of writing at that location."
"I wanted the novel to have a genre structure that was familiar," she continued. "But I realized a heist is also political, because it is about wealth redistribution."
The result was Uptown Thief, published in 2016 by Kensington, the first in her "Justice Hustlers" series of feminist crime novels.
De Leon researched her book partly with the help of a sex worker she met through her networks.
"She just gutted the entire plot," de Leon said. "She said, 'You know, that's a stereotype about sex work, that we're at odds with our clients and that we're thieves and we're trying to steal from them. That's really a damaging stereotype. I was like 'OK, I'll take it out! Now who are they going to rob?'"
De Leon settled on having the women fleece some abusive sex traffickers and use the ill-gotten proceeds to fund a women's health clinic.
Uptown Thief went on to win first place Independent Publisher and International Latino Book Awards. The Boss, the next volume in the series, appeared in 2017, and The Accidental Mistress in 2018.
After that, de Leon had planned to write something outside the Justice Hustlers universe. But then Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, and she saw an opportunity to raise awareness of the tragedy of disaster capitalism.
"When I decided to write about the hurricane, I was like, 'Oh, let's fold this in!' It wasn't that hard to do, because in these moments of disaster you have all kinds of unscrupulous folks coming in to figure out how to use the disaster to rob people."
Side Chick Nation follows party-girl Dulce on an odyssey back to her family in Puerto Rico just ahead of the storm. On the run with her former boyfriend's drug-dealer stash, she meets Zavier, a freelance journalist who eventually becomes her lover. There is plenty of sex, romance and crime, and Dulce learns how vulnerable the island is to the effects of climate change and of colonization.
For research, de Leon attended a conference on "Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico and the Crisis of Colonization." She also traveled to the island for week and saw the devastation firsthand.
"It's like the whole island has PTSD," she said. "Everybody had a hurricane story."
She continued, "Even over six months later, there were stoplights that were still out near San Juan, particularly near the airport. I rented a car and drove outside the city and there you would see damage that had just been left. A house with a tree crashed on it that was just still there."
Side Chick Nation doesn't skimp on its political content, an attitude that doesn't seem to bother her publisher.
"For me, it's been wonderful writing for Kensington," she said. "I've never felt I've had to dial back any of the racial, ethnic, or cultural stuff. I know my books are ending up in the hands of young Black and Latina women. And that's great! I know different authors of color who write literary fiction who say they are frustrated with their mainstream publishers, because they don't know how to market to their community."
Next up for de Leon is a stand-alone spy novel that she has been contemplating for years. It's likely, though, that she will also try to wrap the Justice Hustlers series with a fifth and final volume.
The launch party for Side Chick Nation at Pegasus Books in Berkeley on June 27 will benefit Finca La Lluvia, Aurora Levins-Morales' Puerto Rican initiative that addresses water cultivation, climate justice, food sovereignty, and the arts of resistance. A portion of each sale will be donated to the organization.
"Folks are doing everything they can on a small scale," de Leon said. "But the big types of policy shifts are impossible, because it's all being controlled by the United States, a political situation in which Puerto Ricans have zero voting representation."
Sounds like another job for the Justice Hustlers.