Spy Novels Made Me a Better Black Woman Writer

Aya de León
·11-min read
Photo credit: Ingrid Frahm - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Ingrid Frahm - Hearst Owned

From Harper's BAZAAR

When I was a senior in high school, I had an older boyfriend in community college. I watched my first 1960s James Bond movies with him. “Connery was the only real Bond,” he told me with his confident, lopsided grin. He was mad that George Lazenby, not Sean Connery, starred in the one Bond movie where the spy fell in love. His wife is killed right after the wedding, so Bond is technically a widower.

That same boyfriend was writing a novel about a Black spy who drove classic European cars. He was writing a novel? I thought that made him unimaginably cool. I had only encountered spy books written by white men. My boyfriend never let me read any of his work. But I was so eager to be the cool girlfriend who shared all his interests that I read one of the Bond books instead. I could barely stomach it. Ian Fleming’s 1960s prose was cold and detached. Bond was all doing and no emotion. Never shaken, nor stirred. The omniscient voice was fascinated with violence and objectifying women’s bodies. Fleming named women things like Pussy Galore and had every female character throwing herself at his protagonist. One day, my boyfriend mentioned that Connery said sometimes in a relationship, it was necessary to hit a woman.

In my senior year, I got into several East Coast colleges, and my family went to check them out. I had never heard of some of the schools. Like Columbia. Initially, I pronounced it like the country. “Co-LOAM-bi-ya.” My mom is Puerto Rican, and Spanish is my default pronunciation for unfamiliar words.

The day we visited Harvard was gorgeous. I went to the admissions office without an appointment. When we let them know that I had been accepted, the admissions officer came out to meet us in the hallway. She had stiff blonde hair and an even stiffer smile. She looked at me—a Black high school senior—and then at my mother, a white Latina in her 40s. She put her hand out to my mother and said, “Aya de León?” My mom and I laughed about it afterward. The woman pulled it together and sent some Brown students to welcome me. Later, I saw the sun set over the Charles River. That glowing pink ball was like nothing I’d seen in the Northern California sky back home. With the humid East Coast air, I could look directly into the sun. It felt like a sign.

That night, I called my boyfriend and told him I’d made my college decision. “So, you’re going to Yale?” he asked. Up until that day, Yale had been my first choice. “No,” I said. “I’m going to Harvard.” Unfortunately, it was the one school he had heard of. Static crackled on the phone in the silence that followed. “Hey, are you still there?” We broke up before I went off to school, but we got back together a few times while I was in college.

I dropped out of Harvard twice. They call it “taking time off.” One of our breakups took place when I was home during “time off” without much to do. I read a book a day to keep my mind off the breakup. Spy fiction written by white men. I can’t even remember those book titles. My boyfriend and I got back together, and my reading pace slowed down. Eventually—during an argument—the boyfriend shook me hard while I was crying. Another time, he forcefully banged on the roof of the car. He told me that he once saw his father drag his mother across the room by her hair. Before things could escalate, I broke up with him and quickly found a new boyfriend—much too soon. I had finally left the novelist boyfriend for good, but I took the love of spy fiction with me.

At Harvard, I never felt Black enough. Too Berkeley leftist, too mixed heritage. My mom’s people are from Puerto Rico, but she doesn’t speak Spanish. My high school Español would never fly with the Nuyoricans. I began to wear Black nationalism like a disguise. I read books from the Black Power era, like Soul on Ice. I reasoned that those titles—though steeped in misogyny—would teach me how to be properly Black. I will never forget the first Black spy book I read, The Spook Who Sat by the Door: Sam Greenlee’s novel about a secret militant who joins the CIA to learn their techniques so he can start a Black guerilla army.

I finally graduated and moved into the hood in Boston. I began dating, to shore up my Blackness, young men from the neighborhood I met on the bus or downtown by Filene’s Basement. One day, I ran across a bunch of militant Black people protesting. The group was called Free My People, and they weren’t Black nationalists, but Black internationalists. They did community organizing around police violence, street violence, and international solidarity work. I joined the group. Our meetings opened with check-ins, during which people talked openly about struggles in their lives. Prior to this, I had always thought self-help and therapy were for white people. But these folks talked about personal healing as part of changing the world. I went to the relationship support group, and it was mostly white. But I stayed. I was like the spook who sat by the door, learning the methods to take back to my community.

In Free My People, we studied the Black Panthers and Mao Tse-tung. We learned about COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program to take down militant organizations of the 1960s and ’70s. The FBI and police used a range of tactics against the Panthers. They murdered various leaders, but they also exploited conflict in the organizations to sow discord. In Free My People, we decided that our best defense against infiltration would be to have strong relationships that the FBI couldn’t leverage against us. At the same time, I was a budding writer. I began a story about an FBI agent who infiltrates a Black organization with strong relationships. As the undercover operation leads her in deeper with the group, her loyalty to the FBI begins to waver.

A few years later, I was back in the Bay Area. I found another support group, this time all Black. I also took a piece of advice from the previous group about unhealthy relationships. They encouraged people to take a break from dating and sex. I resisted at first, but when I finally let go of the last chaotic boyfriend, I had a ton of energy for my writing. After a year, I wanted to date, but it was like I had developed new eyes. I could see that many of the men I was attracted to were trouble. I began to excavate the childhood trauma that led me to make unhealthy relationship choices and stayed focused on healing and writing. And reading. I come across Mabel Maney’s Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy. The book is a James Bond parody about his lesbian twin sister, Jane Bond, who is tapped by Her Majesty to spy in his place when he is sent to rehab. This book was the redemption of all the Bond I had ever ingested: I got all the jokes.

I finally made a deep connection with a Black man who was very different from my usual type. A Caribbean immigrant who had been in the United States since his tweens. A couple weeks into the relationship, I asked him, “If we got into a serious relationship and were having trouble, would you go to counseling with me?” He said, “Sure, if we were committed.” We got married.

A few years later, I was in an MFA program working on my spy novel. My teacher, Leonard Chang, suggested that I read Francine Mathews’s spy novels The Cutout and Blown. The books had the same slick, third-person voice present in Fleming’s, but with a thread of emotion. This was the voice I had been looking for. The MFA was a low-residency program, and we stayed at a hotel. That same term, I had another teacher—a white guy. He liked to socialize during the residency, and there was a group of students he hung out with in the hotel bar, all guys. I saw him there most evenings when I went back to my room. In his writing workshop, I got inspired to write a new opening to the novel. I emailed it to him. Would he read it and give me feedback? “Sorry,” he responded. He didn’t have time. Later that same night, I saw him sitting with his guys at the hotel bar, head thrown back laughing. Totally carefree.

I finished my spy book and was pitching it to a literary agent at a writers’ conference. These were rare in the Bay Area. I sat down across from a 30-ish woman with a welcoming smile. “My novel is about FBI infiltration of a Black political organization,” I explained. “Told from the perspective of the infiltrator.” The agent blinked at me, a frown line between her sandy-brown eyebrows. “Who do you think would read that?” There was no trace of sarcasm in her voice. She simply could not imagine this book—so unlike any of the stories she’d ever read about Black people—could possibly have an audience. I left the encounter determined to write something even more commercial. Eventually, when I broke into the industry, I’d be able to sell all the previous books. I started writing a sex worker heist novel.

A few years later, my partner and I decided to have a baby. I still hadn’t sold a novel, and I was sinking into despair. In the new labor ecosystem of parenting, I worked part time and was supposed to be the primary parent and primary domestic worker. In couples therapy, I argued that the novel was labor and was likely to pay off someday. “When?” he asked. I had no idea. Every time I had a novel that wasn’t quite right, I just wrote another one, something that would be sure to sell. But it hadn’t happened, and now I had a baby. I was surrounded by dirty dishes and laundry. It was all I could do to get to work without smelling of spoiled milk. I wrote with the baby strapped to my chest while she napped. And I edited on my phone while she nursed. And I slipped out of bed in the early mornings to write when I wasn’t too exhausted.

I finally got a deal with Kensington Books for my heist novel. I finished four books in the heist series, and then my agent submitted the spy book to them as a possible standalone novel. They bought it and slated it for a 2020 release. I expected it would be released to very little fanfare. I was just happy that—decades after I had started the book—it would finally be published.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Then 2020 actually happened. In the pandemic, the Movement for Black Lives became the biggest movement in U.S. history. The entire country was questioning everything we knew about law enforcement. And the book I had written was about a spy infiltrating an organization in the Movement for Black Lives and the climate movement. A far cry from my old boyfriend's apolitical vision of an African-American spy who drove slick cars and had cool gizmos. A Black face can’t fix what’s wrong with James Bond. Fundamentally, he is a misogynist fantasy and an agent of empire. But what does it mean to be an agent against empire? A Spy in the Struggle is my first attempt to find out.

My high school boyfriend never did finish his spy novel. Maybe if we had stayed together, he would have. Because I would have been cheering him on instead of writing my own book. My female training was to pursue male partners doing things I couldn’t even admit to myself that I wanted to do. “That’s so cool!” I must have told him. “I can’t wait to read it!” Decades later, I shake my head at the ingenue role I played. Even though I did it unconsciously, I now see that I myself was the spy.

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