Aya de León began her literary career in spoken word poetry and hip-hop theater. But fiction is her first love, and in 2016 she launched the Justice Hustler series of feminist heist thrillers, which focus on workers at a women’s health clinic on New York City’s Lower East Side. Now de León, who directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, takes on a new genre with A Spy in the Struggle (Dafina, Jan. 2021), about a Black corporate lawyer cum FBI agent who has been dispatched to infiltrate a group of Black activists in the Bay Area.
What inspired this story line?
In my 20s, I was part of a Black activist community. At one point, we were studying the history of the Black Panthers, and the ways they’d been infiltrated by the FBI. We were looking at how the FBI was able to contact one person and spread rumors or send a letter and sign someone else’s name—the kinds of things they did to create disruption and hostility. If the people in the organization had had stronger relationship skills, they would have been able to check in with one another. That was our thesis at the time in our organizing: that the best thing we could do, should we ever get targeted in that way for the work we were doing, was to have strong relationships with one another that the FBI or the police couldn’t use to undermine our movement. And that was the jumping-off point for this book. If that community had really strong relationships, what would happen? And if that infiltrator were an isolated Black person who was disconnected from community, would they be the one who found themselves getting transformed?
What makes the spy thriller, or a heist thriller like the books in the Justice Hustler series, a useful vehicle for political writing?
For me, heist is political. It’s about wealth redistribution. And the spy genre gives you an opportunity to look at all kinds of politics. Infiltration is fascinating because the societal propaganda of law enforcement is, “We’re here to help.” “Protect and serve.” But the far more complex picture we see these days is that law enforcement often has an agenda of its own, or an agenda that is not so objective or unbiased.
Does A Spy in the Struggle connect, for you, with current conversations about race and abuses by law enforcement?
The timing has been interesting, with the Black Lives Matter movement exploding into the public discourse in an unprecedented way. But I’ve been working on this book for many years. Twelve years ago, I went to one of these conferences with literary agents and I pitched it. The woman just looked at me, blinked, and said, “Who do you think is going to read that?” It was one of those classic encounters: a writer of color writing about race in this complicated way, encountering someone in the literary industry who just couldn’t imagine this book.