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Leila Mottley

Oprah picks 19-year-old Oakland author’s book for her club, saying it ‘wowed’ her.

on June 28, 2022

Leila Mottley, the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, began writing novels when she was just 14. Now, at 19, her debut novel, “Nightcrawling,” has been selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

“I think that I just have instinctually always been writing,” Mottley said during a Zoom interview this month. “But I think from a young age it felt very natural to me.”

The Oakland native began writing “Nightcrawling” at 16 and hopes it will represent the lives and thoughts of people whose stories have been overlooked in literature — Black teenage girls. She also gives readers a true glimpse into Oakland.

“I wanted to kind of create this depiction of Oakland that is multidimensional and nuanced and just shows the Oakland that I grew up in, instead of the binary visions of Oakland that we often get,” Mottley said. 

Leila Mottley
Oakland native Leila Mottley’s debut novel “Nightcrawling” was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. (Published by Alfred A. Knopf)

While Mottley’s novel is fictional, it is inspired by the realities of growing up as a Black girl in Oakland. The novel also drew from the 2016 “Celeste Guap” sexual exploitation case that shook the Bay Area and involved officers from Oakland and other East Bay police departments. 

Mottley said she recalled thinking at the time that the headlines and news stories were more about the officers and the scandal’s ramifications on the police departments. Little was written, she said, about the victim and what her story represented for young girls.

The novel goes beyond that case, Mottley said, to look at how society exploits the vulnerable, especially how it treats Black girls and women. She hopes it spurs empathy, particularly in readers whose experiences may be very different from those in the book. 

“I hope that through all of that, we’re all able to interrogate how we’re complicit in the harm of Black girls and Black women and interrogate ways in which we can protect each other and also allow Black children to be children,” Mottley said. 

Oprah Winfrey selected “Nightcrawling,” published June 7 by Alfred A. Knopf, as the June selection for her book club. In a video on Oprah Daily, Winfrey said she was “wowed” by “Nightcrawling” and the depth of Mottley’s literary talent.

“She reminds us that every single person we see walking down the street has their story,” Winfrey said. 

Mottley is currently on a 12-city — virtual and in-person — book tour, rounding out the tail end of the tour in California. Her partner, Mo Enriquez, whom she met while they were both attending Smith College in Massachusetts, said she wants people to know that Mottley is more than her literary accomplishments. 

“What’s really important is for people to recognize that on the outside, Leila has worked really hard and has a lot of critical success, but she is also just a human and she is a young person” Enriquez siad. 

With a score of 4.3 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, “Nightcrawling” continues to garner accolades and seems to be just the beginning of Mottley’s literary career. She expects to put out a poetry collection next year and then another novel. 

“I will always be writing, probably,” she said. “But I am excited to just watch this book exist in the world too.”

(Featured photo of Leila Mottley © by Magdalena Frigo)

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