On a chilly Saturday afternoon in March, author Lauren Wilkinson and I took what she jokingly referred to as “a walking tour of gentrification” through the Harlem neighborhood that fostered some of her upbringing. As we walked, she pointed out all the spaces that play a role in her debut novel American Spy, a time-and-country-hopping, partially historical espionage thriller that opens up with the attempted murder of fictional protagonist Marie Mitchell, a Black female operative assigned to help take down Thomas Sankara, the real-life Marxist leader and president of Burkina Faso in the mid-80s. Only Marie falls in love with her target.
Since its February release, the novel has been featured on countless best books of 2019 lists, and earlier this month was name-checked on former president Barack Obama's annual summer reading list. I've spotted its bright yellow jacket on many subway rides and beach days in New York City. It's a riveting, often seductive story with through lines of racial and gender discourse that make it easily relatable even if you're not an FBI-trained spy.
On that blustery day, we met in front of Harlem's historic Theresa Towers and took the same walk Wilkinson's characters take in the 80s, pointing out the spaces they pass on the pages of her book; some are still standing, but most are gone. "It was a little tricky, writing the street not as it is now, but as I imagine it was when I was a toddler," says Wilkinson over email as we planned our meeting.
The real-life Sankara visited Harlem in 1984, but it's the Theresa Towers that Marie points out in Wilkinson's novel as the place where Fidel Castro, a hero of Sankara's, stayed in 1960. Wilkinson and I head down Adam Clayton Blvd, and she points out the local school where Sankara gives a rousing speech to the people of Harlem in her book. In that actual speech, Sankara spoke against American imperialism and said his "White House was Black Harlem." It's where Marie realizes she’s falling in love with the leader, bridging the worlds of fiction and history.
We continue on to the corner of 135th and Lenox, where an empty lot with some debris sits seemingly in waiting. It’s where the Pan Pan diner once served coffee and pie to the nurses that worked at the hospital across the street, and where Alicia Keys filmed the video for “You Don’t Know My Name.” Pan Pan, which burned down in November 2004 and has never been replaced or rebuilt, is also featured in her book as a meeting space for its protagonist to talk with her female informant.
Wilkinson told me about how Marie is an alumnus of City College of New York, not too far from Pan Pan. It's a choice the author made in homage to her mom, who also went to City College, and to further distinguish Marie's worldview. "[Marie] is really smart, and my mom is really smart too," Wilkinson explained. "[Going to an Ivy League university] is just not in her calculus of the world...I made that choice for a reason. It's about access. What does access really look like in a person's life?"
Among the empty storefronts that once held neighborhood shops and legendary spaces like the former Lenox Lounge (also featured in the book, but today stands empty and boarded up), there are signifiers of Harlem's transformation—a Whole Foods, a Starbucks. But there are also signs of its rich history and the emergence of local-owned businesses that pay homage to Harlem's past and the Black community that has called it home for generations, like the upscale retail shop Harlem Haberdashery, the hip watering hole Gin Fizz, the famous Sylvia's soul food restaurant, and the St. Nick projects nearby. “Most things change in New York, but never the projects,” said Wilkinson. ”I figured I could write about that. I could physically describe the projects in 2017 and that description would be almost identical to what they looked like 30 years earlier.”
And she did, documenting parts of history within a fictional world she created. "I realized that [Harlem was the] right setting because it felt like there was a legacy that I wanted to tap into," she said. "It just felt like an extension of a literary legacy that I was hoping to maybe add a spy novel to. That’s why I wanted to get the places we visited today right even though they no longer exist."
Eventually, we got a table at Red Rooster, a new-generation soul food spot, where we tucked into some creamy shrimp and grits and talked more about her novel and creating a character whose womanhood, humanity, and Blackness form an essential piece of her life as a spy.
The earliest seed of American Spy grew from a prompt given to her during a writing class she took while studying at Columbia University called "Suburbia and American Unhappiness." She imagined a typical suburban mom who survives an attempted assassination—because perhaps her life might not be so typical after all. When the short story was published in Granta, her agent asked if she could expand it into a novel. What followed was seven years of research and writing that took her to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the island of Martinique, and innumerable hours down a rabbit hole learning as much about the life of Thomas Sankara, the FBI, and Harlem from the 60s through the 90s, interviewing her own family for their personal memories of Harlem and in law enforcement (her grandfather was a police officer), as well as people who knew Sankara. When I asked what made her choose a window above the 361 Laundromat on Malcolm X Blvd as the setting for Marie's apartment, she explained that she saw the building in a photo from the era in which that part of the story takes place and she imagined Marie living there "looking out the windows."
That exhaustive research and painstaking determination to get it right was not an easy endeavor. "I don’t think I would have done it if I knew what it meant, to be totally honest," Wilkinson half-joked. And when some emailed her, pointing out a few inaccuracies in the novel, like that the city of Tenkodogo is four hours southeast of Ouagadougou and not "several hours north" as she wrote, the frustration she felt was understandable. "It was not easy for me, and I think that’s why I just want a little bit of slack from people when I made mistakes. I did make mistakes, but I also worked really hard on it," she said. "It was a sincere effort, and more of a sincere effort than I put into most things."
Even so, Wilkinson looked inward in crafting Marie, taking parts of herself ("She's me in a video game where you add smarts and confidence") and her mother to build the worlds the character navigates as the many parts of her identity intersect. In the book, Marie openly talks about the "two strikes" she has working against her as a Black woman in the FBI, and the fear she feels when on a jog in her own neighborhood and realizes she's being followed, bringing readers to understand the complexity of her life.
"It feels to me that James Bond is a very improbable spy. He’s very showy and has explosions accompany him wherever he goes. The personality doesn’t seem correct of the kind of person who is trying to accumulate information," she said. "It came more from feeling that conception seems inaccurate to me and wanting to fill in those spaces. I think that a person who could fill in those spaces is someone who doesn’t feel completely secure, who does feel like on some level they’re living a double life because how they’re perceived and how they perceive themselves is very different. That's where I started from, that conflict in a person."
It's through her own experience Wilkinson could build a spy with a specific world purview, who questions the work she does and deals with basic human conflicts, all heightened because of the nature of her life. "I kind of just wanted to be sure when I wrote my spy to make her an anti-Bond, who doesn’t feel like every avenue is open to them... It is a privilege to be able to look at a situation and say, 'I deserve to be here, I belong here.' Not everyone feels that way all the time, and I wanted to investigate that," Wilkinson said. "[Marie is] super capable, but sometimes you don’t know that you can do something until there are people around you that have done it already. It takes real gumption to be able to decide that these things are for you and that you can do them. I would rather write something from that perspective than from the perspective of somebody who never questions whether or not something is for them."
In telling a story of a Black spy living in Harlem, she tells the story of Black women and Harlem. "I wasn’t trying to make a comment on [Harlem's gentrification]," she said. "It just feels like these are the realities, whether or not I like it."
As we finished up at the Red Rooster, Wilkinson looked up and realized someone at a table behind us had a copy of American Spy, and was showing it to his friends. It's the first time she'd seen one in the wild like this, and it took her aback. She ended up taking a photo with the young fan, and we shared an incredulous laugh about that serendipitously timed moment that could have happened in a lot of places in the world. But it happened in Harlem.
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Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.