“It was really beautiful and moody.” Sat in her Brooklyn apartment, Raven Leilani is feeling nostalgic for this time last year, walking the streets of rainy London in search of some of her favourite art at the National Portrait Gallery. Long-time dwellers may depict January to be a drearier affair. Cold, crying and drawn-out, perhaps. Though, through Leilani’s lens, these scenes transform into something radically more poetic. Much like the novelist’s delectable debut, Luster; a searing coming-of-age tale that explores the rich complexities of desire, duality of selfhood and high-maintenance art of self-deception.
Images | Miranda Barnes
The protagonist, Edie - a young Black aspiring artist who quickly becomes embroiled in a relationship with a wealthy, older white man, Eric, whose only recently opened up his 13-year-old marriage – records her observations and internal warring in such visceral, sometimes violent, detail. Constantly grappling with questions of containment. Who is she? How do people see her? Who could she be?
In its early pages Edie reveals fantasies – the erotic and domestic often bitterly entangled – that can never fully be realised. I want us to fight in public. And when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me. I want us to have a long, fruitful bird-watching career, and then I want us to find out we have cancer at exactly the same time. Then I remember his wife, the coaster eases downwards, and we fall.
“The majority of the story is fiction,” Raven says. “But [the] artist journey of a young Black woman, I have a lot in common with.” Born in the Bronx, painting was her first creative pursuit, having grown up in a family of visual artists (“painting made me fall in love with the human form, and I think that finds its way onto the page.”) When she was 22 years-old she started to take writing seriously. “I’m sure there’s some people who never get rejected but I wasn’t one of them,” she reflects on the five years thereafter, submitting short stories and poetry to literary journals and magazines. “I remember the way it hurt – like the first five or so times I was rejected – but then after a while it became part of the process. You harden in a way you need to be. To look at your work with a cold eye.”
Just before joining the prestigious MFA programme at New York University, she had already finished a book (at its core, a story about fandom, of which there are shades in Luster). A simple question from her peers led her on a different path: is this something you really want to be in the world? “I went home and looked at my pages and I realised no. I have to do something different,” she says. “It didn’t feel triumphant by any stretch. I was full of panic. Like… what do I do now?” Meeting her mentor and professor, Zadie Smith, was affirming: “she encouraged me to be free on the page, to write what was true.”
“There is a temptation when you are writing a character from a marginalised community to want that representation to be pristine,” Leilani says. “Like you’re irresponsible if it’s not. But Edie understands that she is engaged in a number of performances that are suited to whatever room she’s in. It’s self-protected. It’s understanding that in order to be safe in the world, as a Black woman, you have to be studious and shrewd.”
Power runs through Luster’s veins. Manifested in different ways: economic, emotional and, most obviously, sexual. The scenes when she is intimate with Eric are explicit, to the extent that reading it feels like your face is pressed up against a keyhole. And yet, the fiercest lines of lust occur in the in-between moments. Privately. When Edie is alone, hungry to be touched ("it’s fun to delve into the consciousness of a woman who desperately wants to be laid,” Raven says). At one point she turns up to a club in cutoffs and sneakers, “so ready to fuck” that when someone brushes up against her on the train she makes “a scary, involuntary noise.”
“Writing a character that’s not having sex is maybe more fun. It puts an electricity into the sex that eventually does happen. Like the first time with Eric – it’s scary and ecstatic. Then there’s an element of that extreme intimacy when she’s in his house that changes the way they can have sex. It becomes less of this exciting detour with a stranger, where there’s this mystery to untangle.”
Sex is also a way to chart Edie’s liberation, as she begins to reclaim her own artistic agency. Acknowledging Eric with a more critical gaze. Becoming aware of how she has become subsumed by the authority of his lived experience whilst diminishing her own. Raven cites Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider essays as a source of inspiration here (particularly one that explores the erotic – which Lorde deems as a deeply female, unrealised feeling or expression, our deepest cravings – as a source of power).
The main character is in her early 20s. And we are reminded of this fact constantly. In conversations she has with Eric (often striving to be “taken seriously,” and made to feel 'less' than him). At points she is envious of what he has – resources, stability – in comparison to her own extreme precarity. It’s a unique point of growth, where we’re still forming and looking to others around us for answers. A time when we’re so easily malleable and yet resistant to chance all at once. Where romance is at its most vulnerable. Dangerous. But we relish in the excitement, the potentially destructiveness of it, nonetheless. Like double-edged swords of our own making.
But really the story is applicable to so many of us. Something that renders painfully true, if we dig hard enough into our personal archive. Those relationships where we project a curated sense of who we are: someone fun, uncomplicated, undemanding.
For whose benefit? “Ironically [we do this] so that we can be seen,” Raven agrees. “But to diminish yourself is to make it impossible to be seen. [Later] Edie understands she’s worthy of fully inhabiting all of the things that are perhaps unsavoury or contradictory, but that are human. Just to be able to claim your full humanity…I think for a lot of women it’s a journey.”
'Luster' by Raven Leilani, published by Picador, is out now, available to buy here