Transcending Genre “The Boss” Brings Womanism To Urban Literature

The Boss book cover

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Book Reviews{ Dafina }
Released: May 30, 2017

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Who can resist a smart, badass bitch who wears cute clothes and stilettos and gives money stolen from douchebags to struggling women? I certainly can’t, and neither can the readers of  Aya de Leon’s “Justice Hustlers” series. The trilogy offers poetic and savvy descriptions of women’s inner and external challenges that are reminiscent of Sister Souljah’s or Ntozake Shange’s work. The Boss is de Leon’s follow up to 2016’s Uptown Thief, and it continues to defy the “urban literature” category by blending womanist principles with salacious, even delicious romantic plot twists.

Each “Justice Hustlers” book follows a different protagonist. The star of The Boss is Tyesha Couvillier, a stripper from Chicago who puts herself through graduate school, and then returns to the hood to take care of everyone who helped her. In the hands of a less skilled storyteller, the sex-positive bandits, robbers and queer characters who support Tyesha might be one-dimensional plot devices—think The Player’s Club meets Belly meets Set It Off! But de Leon is careful to provide backstory and context that delineates the motivation of her main characters. Tyesha’s story, like Marisol Rivera’s storyline in Uptown Thief, is really about her giving back to the community that supported her when she was at her lowest.

While it may seem that the series is just about sexy, scantily clad women who defy the expectations of the men who pay for their services, the core theme is wealth redistribution—or funneling money from misogynist men into the Maria de la Vega Community Health Clinic, where Tyesha works as executive director. The clinic is a safe, nonjudgmental space for women who have pimps, thugs, and miscreants in their lives who only want to use them for sex. It also serves as an important backdrop for conflict and salvation as Tyesha helps strippers at the One-Eyed King fight for a fair wage, health benefits, and a 401k.

As the women gear up for a strike to negotiate for their rights, Tyesha attracts the attention of celebrity rapper Thug Woofer, a bad boy with little hope of redemption. He pays her for sex, but he’s so drunk that he blacks out on a waterbed. She watches over him so he doesn’t choke on his own vomit and die. It’s not the classiest beginning to a love story, but true to de Leon’s style, it’s real—a reminder of what women have to put up with from ignorant ass men. They seem to be an ill-fated match from the outset of the book, but what makes them compelling is that they are both ambitious, hardworking kids from the hood.

Their romantic throughline holds a lot of scintillating and compelling storylines together: Woof, not Tyesha, waits until they’ve been on a few dates before initiating sex. Just as Tyesha begins trusting Woof, she learns that he’s producing a record with Car Willis, an R&B singer who’s a composite of a certain singer from Chicago who has been accused of peeing on little girls. It sends her reeling and doubtful that she can trust him to make ethical decisions. There’s even family drama that puts some of Tyesha’s intimacy issues with men, such as her tendency to use men for sex, in perspective.

Not only does The Boss respectfully illustrate the lives of women whose voices are otherwise silenced or dismissed, but it is subversive in its simplicity. As other genre-bending women of color writers before her, de Leon tackles ugly topics like sexual predators, how women are shamed for having agency over their sexuality, and what it means to be in community with other women who defy societal or gender norms. The worst thing about the book is that it ends, but the best thing is that there will be at least one more book in the series. 

Joshunda Sanders, a Black woman with short black hair, smiles brightly at the camera
by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.

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