Interview with Aya de León

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León was published this month by Kensington Books. I talk to the author of the adult thriller about her new release, and her motivations for writing about climate change.

Tell us about your new book.

A Spy in the Struggle is about a millennial Black woman who has followed all the rules, but can’t seem to find the success she’s been promised. She graduated Harvard Law and joined a top corporate law firm, but when they’re indicted for securities fraud, she turns whistleblower to cover herself. Then, when she can’t get another job in corporate law, she goes to work for the FBI. They send her to infiltrate a Bay Area eco-racial justice organization. In the process, she begins to have doubts that she’s on the wrong side.

How does climate change play into the plot?

This multi-generational organization has an ongoing campaign against a biotech company in their low-income Black and Brown Bay Area city. It’s sort of every horrible environmental scourge possible, from toxic dumping to rising cancer rates near the lab to producing dangerous chemical weapons. They are also the prototype shady corporation promising capitalist solutions to climate change, in the form of designer biofuels that they promise will have zero emissions, but actually have a huge carbon footprint to produce. Also, there’s a critique of a fictional mainstream environmental organization that has created a number of nature preserves and solicited donations based on those holdings, but it comes out that they are also allowing fossil fuel drilling on those lands. It is actually in response to this scandal that the mainstream green organization begins funding these multi-cultural projects throughout the US. However, because they are so poorly funded, they are generally ineffective. However, this particular one is very effective, and attracts the attention of the FBI.

The organization is focused on youth leadership and is making clear connections between racial justice and climate justice.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I started writing it in my 20s, when I was part of an intergenerational African American community organizing group. We speculated about what would happen if we were ever infiltrated by the FBI. In the early 00s, I decided to include an environmental justice angle. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything was important in grounding the deceitful practices of mainstream environmental organizations. I also had to study FBI procedures to get those details right.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change?

On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein.

Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?

I had been “concerned” about climate change, but everything came home to me with Hurricane Maria in 2017. I am part of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, and I could no longer look away from the issue. I began to call myself a climate activist. I wrote SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2019. Later that year, I became active in climate organizing. In 2020, I became a founding blogger with The Daily Dose: Feminist Voices for the Green New Deal.

Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?

Currently, people are obsessed with books set in the past or in the dystopic future. It’s as if we want to rewind to the time before the crisis was looming, or fast forward to a time after it’s all fallen apart. We don’t want to be in the time when we need to take action. Which is why I think it’s necessary to set books in the present where protagonists are compelled to begin to act on the climate crisis. This is true of Side Chick Nation, as well as another of my novels-in-progress.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?

Whoever we are, wherever we’re from, wherever we live now, and whatever we’re doing, climate is our issue, and the climate movement needs us. The biggest shift right now needs to be from the encouragement to do individual things, particularly with regard to consumer waste (reduce/reuse/recycle) to putting our energy toward policy changes at the corporate, military and governmental level: (Green New Deal/cutting the military budget/ending fossil fuel dependence). It’s no longer about individual solutions, but planetary ones.

You can find out more about A Spy in the Struggle here.

Aya de León

Aya de León directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley, teaching poetry and spoken word. In spring 2021, she will be a visiting professor in the graduate creative writing program at the University of San Francisco. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In December 2020 Kensington will publish her first standalone novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about FBI infiltration of an African American eco-racial justice organization. In June 2020, Aya published her first children’s chapter book, EQUALITY GIRLS AND THE PURPLE REFLECTO-RAY, about a girl who uses her superpowers to confront the president’s sexism. Aya is a founding blogger with The Daily Dose: Feminist Voices for the Green New Deal, and she organizes with the climate movement and the Movement for Black Lives.
Aya’s work has also appeared in Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry. Aya has organized elementary school students for the climate movement, and has written about it for Mutha Magazine. She also delivered the 2019 Afro ComicCon keynote address on Afro-Futurism as a call for Black people to join the climate movement and save the future. Aya is at work on a YA black/Latina spy girl series for teens called GOING DARK. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA.


Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the Carnegie-longlisted British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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