Feminism, Meet Romance Novels

By Emily Wilson

With covers featuring buxom women in tight, revealing clothes, Aya de León’s Justice Hustlers series may seem like beach reads. But, if so, they’re beach reads with a serious agenda: social justice, trafficking, and radical wealth distribution.

The author, who is of Puerto Rican descent and has a background in spoken-word and hip-hop theater, writes erotic thrillers with strong, female protagonists that both entertain and inform. A lecturer in African American Studies at UC Berkeley and director of its Poetry for the People program, she published the fourth book in her Justice Hustlers series last June. A pivot from her previous novels, Side Chick Nation tackles something even more ambitious—climate change—when Dulce, the protagonist, gets caught in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. de León’s was the first novel published about Puerto Rico’s devastating storm.

Author and activist Naomi Klein called the book “gripping feminist heist fiction about turning the tables on the disaster capitalists in the jaws of climate apocalypse.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide to write about Hurricane Maria?

When the hurricane hit I was working on a fourth Justice Hustlers book. The fourth book was going to be about Lily, a West Indian stripper organizer who arrived undocumented. I was excited to pull in a bunch of different things, and then the hurricane hit. Like so many people in the Puerto Rican diaspora, I was trying to figure out what to do. We all sent money, but what else could we do? I was like well, “I’m a writer, I need to write about it.” I was trying to develop another project, then I thought, “I need to change topics.” At that point I had 18 months to start a whole new book. My editor said, “OK.” I remember being in the shower and thinking, “I’m a working mom, so how am I going to pull together a book out of nowhere, and who’s going to be the protagonist”?

How did you choose Dulce as your protagonist?

With Uptown Thief, the first book, I sort of established my world and the genre formula I was writing. It was a lot of action in general, and a heist, a romance, and a bunch of family drama, and some kind of political struggle. So I thought, “What am I going to do? I need a romance, and I need a main character whose life will be changed forever.” I was at a loss because in the previous books I had painstakingly set up the next character. I didn’t have anybody set up.

Then I remembered back to Uptown Thief. I had this character Dulce who was rescued. So I had to—spoiler alert—figure out how to unrescue her and get her to Puerto Rico and get her stuck in a hurricane.

When did you first think about writing these Justice Hustlers books?

Romance has a history of collusion with sexism and rape culture. And even under the best of circumstances, it still focuses the central concerns of a woman’s life on relationships with men.

In the mid 2000s, I had been working on a novel that had a strong plot but wasn’t a genre book, and it definitely wasn’t sexy and romantic. It was about a group of black women in college fighting racism and living their lives. It was heavily emotional and political, but it didn’t have so much action. I couldn’t figure out how to sell it. Then I started working on a spy book that was more genre, but it still wasn’t hot or very marketable. I thought if I was going to write something sexy, how would I go about that? I wanted it to be sexualized in ways that were political. I came up with the sex work community because it’s controversial, and it has to do with writing about class and race and gender and commerce and nation.

I knew I was writing for women and that romance is the biggest selling genre. So I thought, “Well, I’m going to have a traditional romantic arc but embedded in a lot of other things.” I wanted some kind of action genre—it wasn’t going to be science fiction and it wasn’t going to be a western. I wanted it to be urban, and then I thought, “Ohh, heist. I love heist stories.” I watched Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12, and I liked them, but I was also mad because they kept having more and more people, but they were never women. So I thought, “I’m going to write a heist crew of women.” And, given my political perspective, it wasn’t going to be that they were robbing to enrich themselves. It was going to be some angle of Robin Hood, that they were robbing from rich, unscrupulous people to help their community. So I thought, “sex workers running a health clinic.” That became the core of first book.

A lot of people won’t associate romance novels with feminism. In your opinion, what’s feminist about a romantic heist novel?

Romance has a history of collusion with sexism and rape culture. And even under the best of circumstances, it still focuses all or much of the central concerns of a woman’s life on relationships with men (and in traditional romances, marriage) despite some LGBT romances in more recent decades. However, I think of this as a feminist romance for a few reasons—it is about a group of women who organize to provide women’s health care services to their community; they break the law to create restorative justice when women are exploited or robbed; the women’s primary loyalty is to each other; and the content of the obstacle in the heterosexual romances is the man’s allegiance to patriarchy. The happy ending of the romance happens when the man picks loyalty to the woman he loves over his attachment to his privilege in a sexist society.

Also, this series is an intentional strategy to offer social justice organizing messages to the audience that already reads romance.

Did your background as a poet influence your writing in heist books?

Poetry absolutely helped. When I started writing fiction in my 20s, I was always rushing through and telling a story, like, “It’s about a girl who’s running from the law!” But I had such a hard time slowing down and creating a scene and a picture. The politics and analysis was what was motivating me. It took me many years to be able to sink into a scene and put words on the page so the reader could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling. Poetry really helped me slow down and show not tell and use sensory details and all the stuff I’m telling my students all the time.

What kind of groundwork do you do for the books?

I think for many people of color it feels like the environmental movement is white people worrying about animals and bodies of water.

In general, I do a lot of Internet research and I read other things as well. Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise was a critical text for me for this book. It came out in 2018. It was so helpful and really powerful. It completely grounded me in the big picture of both climate change and disaster capitalism.

The University of Illinois in Chicago had a conference called something like “Hurricane Maria and the Crisis of Colonialism.” That was great—it totally oriented me. [Afro-Puerto Rican activist] Rosa Clemente was there, and I was there with Vylma V on KPFA, and we went to a private breakfast with Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, and she talked really openly. The Puerto Rican Agenda was there—they’re the group that sent the planeload of supplies that got there before anything the government sent. I reference that in the book.

Did you also talk with sex workers to write this series?

I have had half a dozen sex workers/activists consult on the series, both as paid and unpaid sensitivity readers. I gutted my original plot, based on the feedback from one sex worker organizer who said that having my characters rob their clients was a stereotype. So I took it out. I’ve also reached out to sex workers from different parts of the country and different jobs in the sex industries to make sure my details rang true to the community. Also, I’ve been pleased with the reviews I’ve gotten from sex worker publications.

How does your book try to reframe how people think about climate change?

The hurricane reframed for me how I think about climate change, and I think for a lot of Puerto Rican folks, how we think about climate change affecting us and our community. Part of why Hurricane Maria was so devastating was that everything our people have known for years about how to deal with hurricanes was insufficient because through climate change there’s an intensification of storms that’s unprecedented.

Historically the environmental movement in the United States has been very white, and there are lots of complicated reasons for that. And the environmental justice movement that has been led by people of color has not succeeded in being as visible as the environmental movement. I think for many people of color it feels like the environmental movement is white people worrying about animals and bodies of water. Some white environmentalists seem to have a hard time being in coalition doing work about people and people of color.

On the other hand the same forces creating economic exploitation are creating environmental exploitation, planetary destruction. So the solutions to climate change are also actually the solutions to income inequality and to the wealth gap and male domination. Put ourselves in more harmonious relationship with nature, and that will solve all kinds of other problems, and that was really exciting.

It was important to me that the arc of a book has Dulce moving into thinking of herself as a climate activist. It takes place in a relatively short time period, so it’s not like she’s the head of some climate organization, but by the end she’s thinking, “I’m reevaluating my relationship with [the environment].”

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