Aya de Leon
In 2000, Aya de Leon won the San Francisco Poetry Slam in a four-way tie for first place. For the next decade, she was a sought-after performer in the Bay Area and national spoken word scene. In 2006, she became Director of Poetry for the People, teaching poetry, spoken word, and hip hop at UC Berkeley. In 2009, she became a mom, and stopped touring and performing to focus on parenting and writing fiction. In 2012, Aya discovered the Mothership and became a Hackermom. We sat down with her one afternoon, while her daughter was napping to talk about writing, performing and motherhood.
HackerMoms: Many people know you as a poet and performer. What made you decide to write fiction?
Aya de Leon: I’ve been working on various novels since my early twenties. I just never got anywhere with them for several reasons
- I didn’t have the attention span to hone my craft and finish a novel.
- I was too insecure and extroverted to work so long without any immediate feedback.
- I was totally freaked out by the prospect of interacting with the New York-based literary industry.
- My work was largely too political and quirky for the industry’s tastes, anyway.
So spoken word was perfect for me. I could write a piece in a short time, then get immediate feedback and validation from an audience. And I could self-publish chapbooks and CDs and DVDs of my work without needing to interact with the industry. In fact, I probably made more money on each chapbook that cost less than a dollar at copy world than most poets do with each book that’s done by a press.
HM: So why did you decide to go back to fiction?
Aya: As a spoken word artist, the way I made a living was as a touring performer. It got exhausting after a while. And I knew I wanted to start a family. Which is only compatible with a touring performer’s life if you’re a man or if you are VERY well compensated for your work. I made enough to support myself–which was a blessing–but not enough to support a family.
HM: So are you going the independent route to publishing with your fiction?
Aya: I certainly hope not. As an independent publisher, you’ve gotta be the writer, the publisher and the promoter. I’m a working mom. I’m too tired for all that. I’ve tried to get an agent for several years, and that’s been difficult in its own way. I’m finishing the third novel that I’ve shopped for a literary agent, and several different agents have expressed interest. I’m hoping that when I finish this latest draft, I’ll get signed to an agency.
HM: what makes you think this novel is the one?
Aya: Well, after I couldn’t attract an agent with the first two novels, I realized I might need something a little more commercial if I wanted to go the mainstream publication route. Somehow my spy book about modern day COINTELPRO infiltration of an eco-racial justice organization didn’t do any better than the literary novel about black women in college healing themselves and fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia. So I decided to do something a little more sexy and marketable.
HM: Uh-oh. Vampire strippers? Zombie casual sex?
Aya: Yes on the strippers and casual sex! But no on the rest. Sex sells, so the industry likes sexy books. But I couldn’t write about some character who was like “oops! My clothes fell off again!” So I asked myself what kind of character had a lot of sex that I would be interested to write about, and the answer was sex workers. Sex work sits on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and class. It’s a very politicized location, and I knew there would be a lot of interesting possibilities for characters, situations, and relationships. And sex.
HM: and how was it writing this as a new mom?
Aya: profoundly disorienting! Sometimes, when my daughter was really tiny, she’d be asleep on my chest, and I’d be writing this really sexual stuff, and it was a little bizarre. That’s why Hackermoms is such a godsend. I feel like I can be all of myself here and not be isolated as a mom or as an artist. I heard about the space and I couldn’t get here fast enough. The very next day I was early to the open house, and I am NEVER early to anything!
HM: Can you tell us a little about the book?
Aya: It takes place in New York, and it’s about a Puerto Rican former prostitute who now runs a clinic for sex workers. When the economy tanks, she returns to a life of crime as a madam, running an escort service to keep the clinic doors open. When they still can’t make enough money, she starts a safecracking ring, ripping off friends of some of the wealthy clients who were part of a child sex trafficking ring but never got brought to justice. Then they get the chance to heist a billionaire, but there’s this Puerto Rican ex-cop who keeps coming around. It’s unclear if his loyalty is to the main character or to the police.
HM: So it’s got a love interest?
Aya: Definitely. It’s also got a villain, a psycho pimp who’s gunning for the main character, and a badass call girl heist team. I’ve had a lot of fun writing this book.
HM: And it sounds like you managed to really engage that intersection between sex, gender and class. You got women’s health care in there, you got a little redistribution of wealth…
Aya: I like to say it’s Diary of A Manhattan Call Girl meets Ocean’s 11 with the soul of Robin Hood. The working title is The Manhattan Escort and Larceny Service.
HM: Any plans for a movie?
Aya: (laughs). Only in my head.
HM: Are you casting yourself as the lead?
Aya: absolutely not. I’m done with performing. I still love to read from my work, but I’m not doing theater anymore, no more memorizing. As a mom, there’s no room in my brain for any more words. I mean, I loved the decade I spent performing. I did theater, I did hip hop, I did everything I wanted to do. I was in and out of New York; I had my five minutes on Broadway (it was literally only five minutes). But now I want to wake up in my own bed with my family, and write in my own house. Let the book travel around while I stay at home.
HM: You don’t miss performing at all?
Aya: Not really, but I’m glad I made CDs and videos. Both for my archival purposes, but also for my daughter to see my life before she was born. One day I had my iPod on shuffle and one of my spoken word pieces came up. My daughter stopped and said. “That’s you, mommy!” The piece is about Black women in political movements and there’s a part about Rosa Parks. Sometimes my daughter will yell “I want to hear the woman with tired feet!” I love to listen to her laugh at all these unfathomable times in the poem. She gives me a whole new perspective on my work. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
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