Shhh! My Favorite Things Are a Secret…

Fotosearch_u17549431One of my favorite things in fiction has to do with stealth, sneakiness, and subversion. I love spy stories and heists. My books are full of secrets, both stealthy secret missions and family secrets long buried.

The other thing that I love is stealth in the process of delivering subversive messages. One of my favorite things about women’s fiction, romance, and genre fiction in general, is how much the mainstream underestimates the potential of this literature to impact our society. The prevailing assumption is that the most influential books are the “big” books, the ones that win prizes and get put on reading lists in elite colleges as “great literature.” There is a corollary assumption that mass market literature, even if it is being very widely read, is lacking in impact. And any impact that it might be presumed to have is usually negative. Terms used to dismiss commercial literature include “fluff” “lightweight” at best and “trash” at worst. There is a further presumption that genre fiction, particularly those with a pre-set structure like romance or mystery, are just an endless loop of the same story, with changes only in minor details. Such entertainment reading is presumed to have little educational potential overall and even less possibility for complex political concepts.

And yet it is precisely this investment of genre readers in the structure and tropes of their chosen genre that creates the possibility for stealthy messaging that disrupts the expectations of the values that are often associated with those genres. Because these forms of storytelling are so utterly underestimated, they can be profound opportunities to impart subversive messages.

One of my favorite finds on The Debutante Ball was when Louise shared one of her favorite books of 2015, DIETLAND by Sarai Walker. Sarai’s book begins as a typical “chick lit”: twenty-something writer figuring out work, love, and beauty in the big city, yet it becomes a story of feminist terrorism in response to violence against women. My own book, UPTOWN THIEF, is a similar stealth project. Categorized as “urban women’s fiction,” a sub genre connected to “street lit,” known for its ghetto fabulousness, focus on “getting money,” consumerism of affluent designer brands, competition between women for male favor and “ride or die” women who put their men first. In UPTOWN THIEF, the whole heist story has a focus on acquiring wealth, but with the ultimate end of redistributing it. There are fabulous shoes and gowns, but they’re either knockoffs in the underground economy or created by fictional female designers who specialize in plus-sized women. And the women leaders on this heist team don’t compete over men and don’t put them first, although they do encounter a number of women who chronically compete for male attention.

In particular, one my all-time favorite things is when young women who don’t consider themselves feminists or political activists are drawn to my work. Among activist artists, there is a criticism that we are often “preaching to the choir.” UPTOWN THIEF is about casting as wide a net as possible–far beyond the choir. I have attempted to create a complex, lovable, flawed, thieving heroine that my audiences of women can root for. And yet the core of my message, about social justice and women’s empowerment, is being delivered full-strength. Knowing that the message influences audiences–that would be my favorite thing of all.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

2 Replies to “Shhh! My Favorite Things Are a Secret…”

  1. Excellent post.

    When I read it, I thought immediately about movies, and the messages conveyed by “genre” pictures which are usually though of as being all spectacle and no substance. I immediately though of 20-30 examples (which I’ll spare you, though I may write a blog post). I’m still thinking of more, but here’s a few:

    The use of mutants as a metaphor for gay people in the X-men movies, at least those directed by Bryan Singer. The recent movies by Tarantino (well, all the way through his filmography, but it became more explicit around the time of the Kill Bill movies). The Resident Evil series (a multinational corporation that is willing to do anything, even to the point of destroying the viability of the planet — opposed by a ragtag crew led by women).

    The Star Wars prequels have a very specific message, but mostly people just talk about how lousy they are. 🙂

    And this applies to comedy, too — Mel Brooks has said that the only way he was able to make a movie like Blazing Saddles at the time he made it was by making it a comedy.

    Anyway, I’ll stop myself here, but, yes, there’s a lot of stealth messaging out there. 🙂

  2. I’ll add “Mad Max: Fury Road” to that list, Anthony. A feminist message cloaked in a post-apolcalyptic shoot-em-up aimed at teenaged boys. Aya, I love this post, and I love that you’ve embedded Trojan horse feminism in the classically masculine heist genre. Your book can’t come out soon enough for me.

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