Uptown Thief by Aya de Leon

Sex work, politics and robbing the rich: Aya de Leon’s Uptown Thief

A Berkeley native, Aya de Leon has long married social justice activism and the arts, producing subversive work in popular forms. From 1998 to 2008, she toured extensively as a spoken-word artist, contributing to a San Francisco Slam Team that won regionals and developing the acclaimed hip-hop theater show “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop.”

Since 2006, she’s been director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, which teaches empowerment through artistic expression. In Uptown Thief, her debut novel out this week, de Leon uses commercial fiction to address complex social issues.

The book follows a Puerto Rican woman, a survivor of sexual violence, who establishes a women’s health clinic providing services to sex workers. She bankrolls the business — set in the highly gentrified Lower East Side neighborhood in which she was born — by running an exclusive escort service, which she in turn uses to rob corrupt CEOs.

“I made a bunch of choices that would mean from the beginning I’d be able to continue to take on the politics,” de Leon said in a recent conversation at Impact Hub Oakland. “Within sex work, you can’t make a move in any direction without there being some kind of political implication, because you’re dealing with this intersection of commerce, sexuality, gender, race, nationality.

“You know, it has to do with power; it has to do with sex; it has to do with sexual objectification; it has to do with what are the ways that women are able to get access to resources and power; it has to do with ways that women are divided and compete with each other, and criticize each other.”

De Leon started writing novels in the ’90s, but says she “really got detoured” onto the spoken-word/hip-hop theater path, largely because of the community and direct engagement it provided. Her second novel, which is already scheduled for release next year, is also set in the world of “Uptown Thief,” and her projects in progress include “an eco racial justice thriller about modern-day Cointelpro” and “a young-adult black girl spy book.”

“I’m really interested in breaking down a lot of the different literary barriers, one being the really intense barrier between literary and commercial fiction,” she said.

“We also have the ‘have integrity or sell out’ binary, and I think I’ve written something really commercial and I don’t think I sold out; I think I said what I wanted to say. And that’s a binary that’s really important for me to break down because the industry has the potential to really boost the signal and create a larger platform, and I don’t want to believe that progressive ideas around women’s health care and wealth redistribution need to be in some kind of political fringe; I want those issues to be as mainstreamed as possible.”

De Leon reads from and discusses Uptown Thief with Carolina De Robertis and a special performance by Vixen Noir.


Aya de Leon: 3 p.m. Saturday, July 30. Free . La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Anna de Leon

Other book events

Booksmith premieres a reboot of its Bookswap series, which now features a discounted price , with Val Brelinski, author of the debut novel “The Girl Who Slept With God.” Open bar for ages 21 and older. (7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, 1644 Haight St., S.F. $10).

Litquake’s the Epicenter presents the Atavist’s debut nonfiction collection “Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak.” Editor Evan Ratcliff speaks with Jennifer Kahn (7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Alamo Drafthouse, 2550 Mission St., S.F. $15).

Literary Speakeasy features Tusiata Avia, Jason Bayani, Natasha Dennerstein, Bill Dupp and Soma Mei Sheng Frazier (7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St., S.F. Free).

Summer Sparks, an evening of flash fiction, poetry and flash nonfiction, features Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Jacqueline Doyle, Andrew Dugas, Jamey Genna, Jose Luis Gutierrez, Fernando Meisenhalter, Alia Volz and Amos White (7 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Bazaar Cafe, 5927 California St., S.F. Free).

For the fifth volume of the monthly Don’t Tell Us, We Know, theatrical performer Karen Penley and songwriter Karlyn DeSteno present Philip Huang, with Bernie Jungle and Jack Schiff (8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Mutiny Radio, 2781 21st St., S.F. $10).