Aya de Leon on Meaningful Work, Real Human Connections, and Greater Authenticity
An interview with Aya de Leon, from The Write Stuff series:
Aya de Leon is the author of the Latina feminist heist novel Uptown Thief (July 26, 2016; Kensington/Dafina) and directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Her writing and performance work have received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, SF Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express. A graduate of Harvard College, with an MFA from Antioch University, Aya has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow and a slam poetry champion. She has written for media outlets such as xojane, Ebony, Huffington Post, Guernica, Reductress, Essence, Writers Digest, Bitch Racialicious, Fusion, Quartz and The Toast.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
These days, I tell people I’m a writer. Sometimes I say I’m a writer and a writing teacher. I’ve also been a touring performer and done some visual art in the past. The new thing that I’m excited to be able to say is that I’m a novelist.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Six years ago, I became a mom. At that time, I transitioned from being a touring artist to being a novelist. Up until 2015, I hadn’t sold a novel. Which means that for over half a decade, my two biggest passions and most challenging types of work (writing and parenting) were unpaid. The double economic whammy of the arts and parenting is really rough. If you add the impact of sexism in both motherhood and literary arts, it can be a crushing blow. There were times I thought I’d never break into the literary industry, because my waking hours had been sucked up between mothering and teaching. I worried I wouldn’t be able to put in the hours needed to launch a book. Now that it’s happening, the struggle is to slow down enough to be present and enjoy it.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Get therapy! LOL. Except I’m not actually joking. The only way that I’ve managed to not fall prey as a writer to discouragement, or not get bogged down in writer’s blocks and procrastination is because I’ve taken abundant advantage of all the healing resources of the Bay Area. As I often say, mine is an emotionally high-maintenance life, and it requires a really strong personal support system. The other crucial ingredient has been that the content of my creative work is transformed by having a greater level of emotional clarity.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I do, although I’ve defined success in different ways over the years. At first, I felt successful because I was able to put creativity in the center of my life, even though I had a day job. Then, for a while, I felt successful because I was able to make a living as an artist. Then, freelancing and touring became burnout work, and I was able to get a job teaching creative writing at the college level. Which is an incredible privilege in this society, for which I’m grateful, although teaching is not the same as being a full-time writer. Recently, I’ve felt successful because my book, Uptown Thief, is finally being published. As I move beyond being a debut novelist, I’m sure I’ll develop some new and different indicators of success. But at this point, it’s been so hard to sell a book and I’ve been trying for a decade, so it feels like a big achievement.
What’s wrong with society today?
Our oppressive society has us confused into settling for material wealth, or the hope of attaining it, over meaningful work, real human connections and greater authenticity. The privileges and advantages given to the wealthy don’t actually make them happy, they just make them materially comfortable, which is NOT the same thing. However, great misery is inflicted on most of the rest of the world in order to keep those wealthiest folks wealthy. Shifting our society to be more focused on human needs and away from mindless consumerism would actually improve everyone’s lives.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The ending of racism, sexism and sexual violence; corporations no longer defined as people; stopping the degradation of the environment; and the ending of the hold the world bank & IMF have on the Global South….for starters.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is a deeply human endeavor and it is absolutely necessary to keep us connected to our humanity.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
My sex life doesn’t seem like it would be very interesting to anyone but my partner and me. You kinda had to be there. Although my work is nothing like Erika Leonard, a/k/a E.L. James (author of Fifty Shades), I think we are alike in that we’re both married moms in our 40s, living largely domestic lives and writing this really sexually explicit material. But here’s where we differ: James said she was writing her midlife crisis and her own sexual fantasies in Fifty Shades. My sex life looks nothing like my character’s and my character’s sex life isn’t my fantasy. But it would be fair to say that my protagonist’s lifestyle of robbing corrupt CEOs and using the money to resource low-income women of color is my fantasy.
What are you working on right now?
In the past few weeks, I turned in a draft of my second novel, The Boss, to my editor at Kensington. I also just finished a companion short story that goes with Uptown Thief, in which the protagonist travels to Puerto Rico to help members of her family affected by the debt crisis. I have an extensive catalog of novels that I’ve been working on since the ‘90s. I can’t wait to start cranking them out…
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’m obsessed with TV writers these days. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of TV. My parents said it would rot my brain, and old school TV wasn’t that great, story-wise. But these days, the writing is fantastic. I’m fascinated with the writing challenge of a series and how it is that you make everything change and yet stay the same. How do you keep tension building season after season? I take shows apart in my head. Why did The Good Wife just get more interesting, but Revenge started great, then got disappointing, then irritating, then obnoxious? Why am I so obsessed with UNreal, and will it continue to hold me spellbound? How do writers craft a satisfying story at the level of episode, season and series? Other faves are Scandal, OITNB, Empire, The Catch, and Homeland.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I get tired of the chasm between the Bay’s mystique and the current reality. We think of ourselves as so progressive around many things. But a lot of that is historical and not current. Like, Berkeley was the first district in the U.S. to voluntarily desegregate its schools. But the amount of people of color, particularly African-American people in Berkeley, keeps dropping in every census. So what good is desegregation if we’re not here to enjoy it? UC Berkeley is home of the Free Speech Movement, and attracts students on that basis, but its core mission is as a research university and many students find it surprisingly conservative. The whole Bay Area is supposed to be a progressive Mecca, but the class politics mean that it’s totally unaffordable. Poor and working class people are getting priced out and pushed out, particularly people of color. It’s deceptive, because there are still many progressive institutions that were founded in different economic times, which makes a big difference in the overall cultural landscape. But if local policies don’t prioritize the ability to hold onto racial and economic diversity in the cities, then it’s not really that progressive.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
LOL. As a mom of a small kid, anytime I’m out in public after 9pm, I feel like I’m doing it really big!
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
I don’t feel like I know what to do with 50 words anymore. I can work with 140 characters on twitter (I LOVE twitter, which has greatly improved my writing, by the way). I can also work with 750-1,500 words in the short online essay format. But 50 words. That’s like an odd-numbered coin in my world.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Sweet foods cooking. Fruit smells. Basically, anything that has to do with sugar…
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would want to live for a year in Cuba. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish much after the age of three, when we moved away from my grandmother’s house. I would love to become fully fluent in the language of that part of my family. I’ve always wanted to spend a year, but it never seemed to be the right year. Now that I have a family, it’s even harder to make it happen. But if money wasn’t an object? I’d move us all there for a year. Maybe two.