UPTOWN THIEF: Taking Me Back While Taking Us Forward

When I was growing up, I read widely. Fantasy, historical, the classics, adventure, you name it, I read it all. But two of my favorite BOURNE IDENTITYgenres were thrillers and romance. I loved the male-dominated, plot-propelled, chase/spy books of the 1980s by people like Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett. THE BOURNE IDENTITY? Oh, yes. EYE OF THE NEEDLE? For sure. I tore through those pulpy paperbacks like candy, hanging on every twist and turn.

Then there were the romances. And I’m not talking Harlequin. I’m talking about my 14-year-old self drooling over TheFlameAndTheFlowerbooks by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Catherine Coulter with titles like THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER and DEVIL’S EMBRACE. My friend Libby and I brought them home from the library by the dozen and traded them back and forth, turning down the corners of all the steamy scenes, not returning them until the very last day.

I didn’t care about the chauvinistic world those books built for me, where dashing deeds of derring-do were for men, and the women were decidedly the flowers, never the flames. I just cared about the story. Or — er — maybe not always the story.

Thirty years later, times have changed. Quite a bit in the romance genre (I haven’t read the OUTLANDER books, but TV Claire is quite the badass), less so in the world of heists and thrillers (who was the woman in Oceans Eleven? Anybody?). But there is still a long way to go before women are routinely portrayed in literature and film as being as in charge of their own destiny as characters like Jason Bourne. That journey is even further for women who aren’t white.

uptownthiefBut now there’s Aya’s book UPTOWN THIEF, which throws down a big, sexy, thrilling gauntlet in the name of empowering women of color through pulp fiction. Aimed straight at the young, urban women of color who read romances as greedily as I once did, UPTOWN THIEF gives them, along with the action and the corner-turn-worthy sex, a protagonist who looks like them, moves in the world in which they move, and who controls her destiny with authority. Marisol, take a bow, you Latina badass, you.

That’s not all Aya does, either. By setting her story in the New York sex industry, from its abused street “hoes” who find help at Marisol’s clinic to the glamorous life of a high-paid escort, Aya takes on society’s prejudices about sex work and makes a subversive but forceful argument in favor of legalizing and normalizing the sex trade, bringing it out of the shadows to take its place in the world of commerce as just another service bought and sold by willing participants. Of course, doing that would require turning the male-dominated socio-economic system on its head — something Marisol, Tyesha, and their partners in crime are all too happy to help facilitate with their thrilling heists of New York’s billionaire set.

I urge you to read this piece in The Washington Post about Aya and her book. It’s a terrific look at how this smart, talented woman has married her activism and her writing and wrapped them up in a sexy, exciting, page-turner of a package. Listening to her talk about UPTOWN THIEF in conversation with Carolina de Robertis at her launch last week, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Actually, I did stand up and cheer, along with everybody else in the room.

And the best news of all? There are two sequels in the works. Tyesha in Chicago? Hell, yes. Is it 2017 yet?

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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