Oprah's New Book Club Author is 19-Year-Old Oakland Poet Leila Mottley

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A young woman in a tank top reads from a book in a crowded bookstore.
Leila Mottley reads at Pegasus Books for an Oakland Youth Poet Laureate event in 2019.  (Courtesy Photo/KQED Forum)

Oprah Winfrey has chosen Nightcrawling, from 19-year-old Oakland author Leila Mottley, for her next Oprah's book club pick.

Nightcrawling is inspired by the 2016 Celeste Guap sex exploitation scandal within the Oakland Police Department, and follows a young Black woman from East Oakland and her battles with poverty, racism and the police.

A spokesperson for Winfrey said Mottley is the youngest author to ever be selected for Oprah’s Book Club, founded in 1996.

“It brings me great joy to introduce readers to new authors, and this young poet Leila Mottley wrote a soul-searching portrait of survival and hope,” Winfrey said in a statement Tuesday.

Mottley, born and raised in Oakland, served as the city’s youth poet laureate in 2018. In an interview with KPIX, Mottley said she wrote her first novel at 14 years old, her second at 15 and that she started writing Nightcrawling at the age of 16, finished it by 17 and signed her publishing deal on her 18th birthday.


“I’ve been writing since I could. I think it’s just part of my nature to tell stories and to tell stories that we don’t get to hear,” she told KPIX.

Nightcrawling was published Tuesday and has been praised by James McBride and fellow Oakland author Tommy Orange, among others. It follows Kiara Johnson, the first-person narrator of the novel, as she becomes tied up in a scandal involving the Oakland Police Department while doing sex work, which sees her become the star witness in a blockbuster trial.

Mottley’s novel was inspired by the real-life story of Jasmine Abuslin, known as Celeste Guap, a young woman who was sexually exploited by as many as 30 law enforcement officers across seven different jurisdictions in the Bay Area in 2015 while she was a minor and the victim of sex trafficking.

Abuslin was 17 when she became sexually involved with Oakland Police Department officer Brendan O’Brien. Her name spread among the department and soon, Abuslin claimed, officers from all over the Bay Area started texting her, inquiring about her sex work. Abuslin said officers would provide her with information about confidential stings so that she could avoid going to jail for prostitution.

O’Brien shot himself in 2015 and left a suicide note that alerted OPD internal investigators to his and other officers’ sexual encounters with Abuslin.

Seven officers were eventually brought up on charges by the Alameda County District Attorney in 2016, while the city of Oakland fired four of their officers and put seven more on leave. Abuslin herself was sent to a drug rehab facility in Florida by the Richmond Police Department where she was charged with battery and imprisoned in Florida until 2016 before returning to California.

Mottley was just 13 years old when the OPD sexual exploitation scandal broke. She told KPIX that she remembers “being really kind of taken by the way that the media seemed to focus more on the police department than on the harm done to this girl, and the thousands of other girls and women that this happens to.”

“I hope that this book is either a mirror or a window,” the author continued. “Whether you see yourself reflected back to you through this book, or whether it’s not something you’ve experienced, but it expands your idea of our world and our country, I hope that more people think about the ways that we’re complicit in the harm of Black or brown girls and allow more Black girls to get to be kids and to experience ourselves as more than what the world expects of us.”

A co-sign from Oprah is a sure way for Mottley to reach more people. Mottley said in a statement that she was “absolutely floored when Ms. Winfrey popped up” during what she thought was an ordinary publishing meeting.

“It was the surprise of a lifetime,” she added.

Winfrey will speak with Mottley on June 30 for an interactive book club event on OprahDaily.com. Since starting her book club, Winfrey has often alternated between such established authors Toni Morrison and Richard Powers and such first-time authors as Mottley, Imbolo Mbue and Cynthia Bond.