August 10, 2020

Raven Leilani

On her stunning debut: ‘Desire and powerlessness create a combustible byproduct’
Interview by
Raven Leilani discusses the want and rage of her female characters in Luster.
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The events in Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, are indeed dramatic: A young Black woman named Edie begins a relationship with an older white man named Eric, who’s in an open marriage with Rebecca, who is also white. When Edie loses her job and apartment, Rebecca moves Edie into their home, where the younger woman becomes a type of mentor for the couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila. This arrangement is fraught with strange, unspoken tension, with power, violence and control forming a complicated structure that holds aloft their generational, social and racial imbalances.

But for all this drama, what is most transfixing about Luster is Leilani’s uncanny ability to pin her characters down and to preserve the utter truth of Edie’s thoughts from one harrowing moment to the next. Leilani answered questions via email about the economic precarity of her young Black protagonist, the want and rage of her female characters and what a “millennial novel” even is, anyway.

There seem to be three layers (or possibly more) to the title: lust (a feeling of desire), luster (the sheen of something that is desired) and lust-er (one who desires). What are you introducing to the reader with this title, and how does its meaning change?
Along with desire, I would say it is also about how luster is tarnished as Edie reconciles the fantasy she has cultivated with the reality of earnestly seeking it out. There is the luster of memory—death and grief underpin much of the story, and Edie’s painting is partly about preservation, art as record keeping—and luster is also speaking to the degradation of the body. Her body often doubles as currency, which comes at significant personal cost. A more optimistic take could be that she manages to preserve her luster despite this, and the preservation of nerve and daring and bodily autonomy while wanting unabashedly is what this is partly about.

“I think the sense of dread you feel, and what I felt writing it, was knowing it wasn’t going to end without some kind of carnage.”

The pacing in Luster is absolutely brilliant. The chapters are broken up into smaller passages, and sometimes a single paragraph is a total gut-punch, while other sections sweep along breathlessly for several pages, like when Edie loses her job and apartment back to back. Tell us about the rhythm of your writing and how you use that flow to tell the story.
Thank you so much for saying that. For me this was, and is, one of the hardest parts of writing. I knew the book was going to be short. When I write, I like to get in and get out, say what I need to say as immediately as I can. Part of it is craft, and part of is my own anxiety about maintaining the attention of my reader. So I think that, along with the frenzy of Edie’s experience, brought a kind of urgency to the structure. And I am obsessed with sustaining a high level of energy in the language, because it’s fun, and because it lends itself to a more robust depiction of chaos, and those are the scenes I live to write. So much of this book takes place in Edie’s mind, and I wanted readers to feel the tumult of that processing, the whittling down of that bandwidth.

Speaking of Edie’s lost job and apartment: I can’t think of a better representation of how quickly a person can slip from just-hanging-on to losing everything. With a blink, Edie tumbles from a low-paying publishing job into the gig economy. This seems like an important aspect of who Edie is—that things can tumble out of control, and she’s just doing what she can to keep going. Tell us a bit about Edie’s situation, and how this can happen.
It was important to me to write frankly about that precarity. As I tried to depict the messiness of the artist’s journey, I felt a responsibility to also talk about the social and economic forces that shape, or in this case, impede a person’s ability to follow that path. In Edie’s case, when we meet her she is a young, Black professional, prone to lapses of judgment, of course, but deeply engaged in the performance demanded of her at work and in her personal life. She understands what she is up against, and she is always calculating, always adjusting and always observing, because her survival depends on it. But those demands are impossible and ultimately dehumanizing, and for a lot of Black women, the margin for error is thin. I wanted to write about this tenuousness and how it shapes how, when or if you can make art.

Control and power—who has it and who wants it—play major roles in Luster. Edie seems to have given up on having control over her life, and she has a complicated relationship with sexual power and violence. Rebecca seeks control over her body (and, it seems, her adopted daughter’s body) but also over the open-marriage situation; she also dabbles in violence through her taste in concerts. What is at the root of all these bids for control?
When I came to this book and began the work of trying to honestly depict want and rage, especially within the lives of women, I found I was also writing about disorder. The disorder that is a byproduct of living in a body that is subject to extremes, and that is made unruly by how closely it is policed, and how it lives in defiance of that surveillance. So these characters are doing their best to create some sense of control, which can mean seizing it, wielding it against someone less powerful, as Rebecca does, relinquishing it entirely, as Edie does, and trying to maintain some homeostasis, as Akila does. I wanted to make room for their responses to be human, so I tried to present these contradictions in a way that was nonjudgmental.

Rebecca performs autopsies, which you’ve said in other interviews that you learned about by watching your mother work. Why did you give Rebecca this job? What does it say about her?
My mother worked as a medical examiner at the VA, and I was really struck by the tenderness and rigor of that work. I gave Rebecca this job because this work made an enormous impression on me, and I really wanted to write more about it, but it was also a great window into Rebecca’s character. She is a person who likes to know how things work. She likes to keep a record, and the body is a record. It is another way into writing about the work of witnessing and preservation. Eric does it as an archivist. Edie does it through painting.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Luster.

There’s something sinister about Rebecca’s apparent kindness when she invites Edie to move in, partially because it’s clear that Edie has been brought in to be a type of mentor to Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s adopted Black daughter. What is this sense of dread we feel?
I think the sense of dread you feel, and what I felt writing it, was knowing it wasn’t going to end without some kind of carnage. You get to know Edie before she becomes a part of this family, and you understand her desperation. Desire and powerlessness create a combustible byproduct, and that is threatening to an arrangement that is predicated on rules. There is never any real sense of balance, and this instability feeds this feeling of dread. And also, you understand that in this new environment, Edie is imperiled in a different way. The surveillance is overt, and her unruliness becomes more prominent and more dangerous.

Luster feels like a defining millennial novel the way Ling Ma’s Severance did, but I have trouble pinpointing why—perhaps because Luster seems to acknowledge something dark and truthful about the world, but without overt complaint. How would you define a millennial novel, and is Luster quintessentially millennial?
I think the connective tissue between a lot of millennial fiction is a sense of rootlessness, desperation, a disgust with and complicity in the farce of work under late capitalism and occasionally, total surrender to this debasement, but I have to admit I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generalizations that find their way into the critical response to books authored primarily by women, which to differing degrees are grappling with how to assert personhood and find meaning within a context of extreme social and economic precarity. Of course there is much to lampoon, and I think a balanced work is also spotlighting the parts of millennial life that are ridiculous, though I don’t feel at all qualified to speak for a generation. I didn’t set out to write a millennial novel, but it absolutely is one, partly because my own experience is deeply present in the work. Edie’s life is pressurized by the intersections of her identity, by racism, sexism and class, and I felt moved to write it because it felt urgent to me, and I noticed, too, that when we talk about millennials, we often seem to be talking about millennials who are white.

Like Edie, you are a talented painter, primarily of portraits. Does your writing world overlap with your painting? Is it a similar creative process, or are you tapping into something completely separate when you paint?
I think my writing world overlaps with my painting world in that art is always creeping into my fiction. I’m obsessed with the role of failure in art-making, probably because this was the first creative endeavor where I felt the frustration of coming up against my own limits and being unable to communicate what was in my mind. It’s a horrible feeling, and I can handle that feeling with writing because if I work long enough, I’ll find my way through. With painting, if it comes together, it feels like luck. Most of my painting process is correcting mistakes. It’s very disorganized, which is very much how I write, but with writing I have a little more control. They both feel like time travel. During the days I’d like to exist a little less, writing or painting is a great anesthetic.

How did the writing of this novel change you? Or perhaps, what most surprised you in the writing of it?
I’m not sure if this is how you mean it, but writing this novel and having it now be a thing in the world has forced me to articulate its intent in a way I don’t think I would have otherwise. It’s made me more rigorous, having to justify why I did what I did, which is not how I write. Not to diminish the role of craft, but I’m always just feeling my way through. What feels good, what feels true. Talking with people who’ve taken such care with it has been so illuminating; in some ways the book has become new to me again.

What are your writing rituals?
My main ritual is to write in bed, totally alone. Regularly, even if I don’t feel particularly inspired. I like the idea of going to get a coffee and working around people, but I can’t shake the feeling of being in public, and I can’t write in that kind of defensive posture.


Author photo © Evan Davis.

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By Raven Leilani
ISBN 9780374194321

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