“The idea of the strong black woman who is noble and virtuous for how much pain she can bear and how well she bears it is extremely dehumanizing.”
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What do you want to do with your life and how much are you willing to struggle for it? Bestselling debut novelist Raven Leilani has written a luminous book that explores this question. Luster is a fearless, and sometimes funny, story about a complicated, maybe even a bit perverse, black millennial, who finds some of what she thinks she wants out of life with a digital archivist named Eric, a white man twice her age in an open marriage. And then from his wife. And then from their daughter.
Raven Leilani’s work has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Narrative, Yale Review, Conjunctions, The Cut and New England Review, among other publications. She won Narrative’s Ninth Annual Poetry Contest and the Matt Clark Editor’s Choice Prize, as well as short fiction prizes from Bat City Review and Blue Earth Review. Luster is her first novel.
Below is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation Raven had with Bookable Podcast host Amanda Stern. You can listen to Bookable on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On today’s show… what do you really want?
OK, wait, I’m not talking about a rent controlled apartment or a hybrid car, although that would be nice… No dear listener, this is about what you want to do with your life.
Or maybe it’s even better to ask: what are you willing to struggle for?
Because what we spend our time on, especially when that involves hard work, reveals our character and our aspirations.
Well our guest today, she has written a luminous debut novel all about one woman’s struggle to do what she wants.
Time for an introduction!
I’m Raven Leilani and I’m the author of Luster.
Luster is a fearless and funny novel about a complicated, and perverse black millennial, who doesn’t have the time or money to do what she wants, and so instead, she gets involved with a man in an open marriage. And his wife. And their daughter.
When the book starts you meet Edie who’s the main character.
Edie is 23, living in Brooklyn and dealing with all of the frustrations and detours that go along with being young in a big city.
You know she is an aspiring artist and you meet her in a moment when she hasn’t made anything for a while.
Being young in NYC often means having to sacrifice your calling in order to work four jobs just to pay for one apartment.
The bulk of the book really follows her artistic journey, she’s a painter, and when I knew I was going to talk about art and artists, I knew I wanted to talk about failure. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to grapple with those artistic limits and what that process looks like, how strange it can be, how non linear it is. I started with desire that is really important to me.
I feel like the books that I connect with most, they tend to have a real, an earnest core, earnest in the way that desire and want is reflected or replicated in a way that is not bracketed in judgment, but that allows for that desire to be a little dark, to be a little jagged, to be a little deranged. So I knew that I wanted to write a young black woman who is fully situated in that, in wanting to create and wanting to be touched. And maybe the word is want. That was where I started.
From Luster, pg. 12
“I finish my beer and try not to show how overjoyed I am that none of my need and loathing have come across. “You’re kind of aloof,” he says, and all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice.
Aloof is a casual lean, a choice. It is not a girl in Bushwick, licking clean a can of tuna.”
So, she’s just started dating Eric, a white, middle-aged man who’s in an open marriage. Edie is self-destructive enough for this idea to appeal to her. But why did she choose Eric? What need is she seeking to fulfill by choosing this man who’s in an open marriage and a white man?
So, the first sort of hallmarks of their relationship is, one, there is a screen between them. It kind of collapses the sort of normal dynamic that she’s used to where she has to, well, I mean, it’s a different kind of curation. But it does allow a certain kind of looseness that when they meet, there is still sort of a barrier between them that allows her to slightly show a little bit of the ooze inside.
What intrigues her about Eric is his way of being in the world. His absolute refusal to perform is interesting and maybe even a little confusing to her. That’s a state that she cannot exist in because she needs to survive. And so I think there’s a part of her that is both intrigued and envious and that admires that he can be his self. He can be himself and that is part of him being white.
They went on a date and she’s noticing these things about him and they have this conversation, where he tells her that he wants her to be herself. She understands sort of, I guess, intuitively that he means it, but he kind of doesn’t. She’s still in the business of managing those impressions of people around her, and it’s a thing that she can’t stop doing even in the romantic sphere.
So I would say there’s that which is that she’s met a person who exists in almost an opposite way that she does, in a way that is liberating to be able to be yourself. But also, he is a much older man and she really digs that power imbalance. There’s a certain amount of I think … There’s something seductive about surrendering that control and I think that’s more present later on in the book. But I think she really is excited by that imbalance. At the same time, it feeds the ways that she is unseen in the book.
So I would say, it’s that power imbalance but it’s also the freedom that she sees that he has in the world. The earnestness that she sees he can easily express. When they’re in Six Flags and she sees him enjoying himself. That’s an interesting thing. She is watching him enjoying himself and cataloging that enjoyment as opposed to enjoying it herself.
Right. It’s a sort of way to describe what that relationship is.
Right. And also, hearing from him, his impression of her that doesn’t square with her impression of herself.
That’s right. That’s right. The kind of affirmation of her performance is working.
Yes. May we all strive for aloof.
From Luster, pg. 41
Ten days after having fucked him in the bed he shares with his wife I go right up to the door and find it unlocked, and no one is home,
So I walk around the house and pick up these cold lemons on the counter and roll them around in my hands, and I open the fridge and take a drink of milk and carry the carton up to the bedroom where a door opens to a closet with a collection of women’s clothes and I gather the silk and wool and cashmere in my hands and then there is a voice,
And I turn and standing in the doorway of the attached bathroom in yellow rubber gloves and a T-shirt that says YALE is his wife.”
So Eric has been married to Rebecca Walker for 13 years and they’ve recently adopted a black 12-year-old girl. She’s 12?
The daughter, they adopted a black 12-year-old girl named Akila, who is closer in age to Edie, than Edie is to Eric. I’m curious to know a few things. One, why did he and Rebecca choose to adopt a black daughter? Two, why did Eric choose to date someone closer in age to his adopted daughter than to himself? Three, why did he choose a black woman to date? Question number one, why did he and Rebecca choose to adopt a black daughter?
So I would say, Rebecca is very much almost out of frame with this choice. I feel like you can feel Eric’s desperation to make it work and to do a good job. You can also feel like Rebecca’s intent to create a household where a black kid might actually thrive and though they get a lot of things wrong naturally. In general, I think, I introduced him early as a person who they both cannot have children and they’ve adopted Akila. I think it’s more sort of the Akila side of the equation.
She’s been sort of bounced around for years. I think with Akila, what she’s looking for is also stability. I do think that originally, I’m sure this is all off-page, but that Eric and Rebecca, think or thought that they could create this kind of stability for Akila. Whether or not they succeed is, I feel like it’s kind of … it oscillates. I think more than anything, they’re trying to cobble together a family despite what their values will allow them to do. I think Akila, they chose Akila because they thought that they could make it work.
But they miss things, they miss things. They naturally miss things. You know later on in the book, it’s more apparent what Akila hasn’t been told.
I think there’s an element of wanting to cobble together a family and also not being entirely aware of what they would actually need to do to create a safe and instructional space for a child who is black and will move to the world in a black body.
And I would say in terms of Eric dating Edie, I don’t know that there’s much deliberation on that part. I feel like when I wrote that, I kind of imagined them just coming together through this online portal, where your guard is down in different way and you can interact without some of the, I think, barriers that you might have meeting face-to-face for the first time.
So I think there’s an element of vulnerability that is introduced in how they met. That is what drew them together more than Edie being black or 23 years his junior. Though, I would say like she’s 23 years his junior. He’s interacting with her, engaging with her, understanding and perhaps enjoying that she has seen a little less of the world that she can be a person who might kind of be able to witness him in the way that he would like to be witnessed as kind of a subject of awe, because she is so young.
The thing that she talks about later on in the book that you don’t really see from Eric’s POV. The idea of taking a girl out and showing her the wine list. I’m sure he makes a joke about that later. When it’s actually happening, this is maybe a horrible and gross word to use to talk about a relationship like this. The kind of seduction of tutelage, in the way that you feel and are excited by the power you have over a much younger partner.
As Edie and Eric’s relationship progresses, his wife Rebecca comes up with an interesting idea — she invites Edie to move into their home so that she can be a positive, and Black, role model for Akila.
Things don’t go exactly as planned when Edie reads Akila’s journal, which turns out to be well-written fan fiction.
I definitely made room in the book to talk about the sort of variety of the black experience and the way that Edie kind of still comes up against these personal boundaries, these kind of frictions between with people who might otherwise be … She might have a kinship with. This is in one way that they’re very much in the same boat is that the moment they meet at the anniversary party, Edie is sort of consumed with some other activity and Akila sneaks up on her.
At first, she kind of brushes her off as this child who’s wandering around. Then, Akila says something like, there are no black people in this neighborhood. This is the moment, I think, where Edie sees, I mean, she sees herself. She sees an isolated black girl who is trying to, well, I mean, at this moment, she doesn’t know all of this. An isolated black girl who is kind of moving through this environment in a way that is invisible. And I think their initial bond is through this kind of invisibility because they are visible to each other in a way that neither of them is visible to like the other characters.
I think with the fan-fiction, I mean, Edie is a snoop. She’s a really keen observer and she, I think, mercilessly so where she’s always kind of sifting through data and looking for things that she can use, especially when it comes to her art and trying to figure out and see more of what her environment is. That is part of it, but also her getting to know this house that she’s in. With the fan-fiction, I would say, I mean, part of that is, I myself am a huge fan and a huge geek. I mean, I just wanted to talk about fandom. I wanted to find a way to talk about a black girl who is a fan and that aspect of her life that is joy, because Akila has a lot of … There’s a lot of sadness to her story.
And I wanted to depict a black girl and I think, in some ways, Edie has disco and has art. It was important to me for these black characters to also have outlets that are about joy. But you know, Edie reads this fan-fiction and she actually tells Akila that it’s good, even though it’s very … like it’s a real violating breach of privacy and it is taken as such a terrible thing to do.
The end of that chapter or somewhere in that chapter, what happens is, Edie does for Akila what she’s kind of seeking from everyone, which is an affirmation of that what you’ve made is good. You get that here with the fan-fiction where she tells Akila what you’ve made is good. You kind of see that manifest in their relationship.
From Luster, Pg. 128
“Inside it smells like body butter and hot pockets, like a rank, pubescent Yankee Candle, but otherwise this is the most fantastic room in the house. The cutesy stay out sign on the door now seems out of step if not ironic, the room less the product of petulant stoicism and more a tribute to earnest fandom, the walls papered in dragons, wiccan infographics, and lithe Korean boys, quartz and drusy stones and dirty zirconia hanging from the strategically placed tacks, Gothic illustrations of woodland faeries on linen, steampunk goggles strapped to a wig stand where seven wigs are stacked in accordance to ROYGBIV.”
Really, truly language sentence level is so, so important to me. It’s always a difference between a book I like and a book I love. I would say, I write with my ears. I really am obsessed with that part of writing where it takes me, I mean, an afternoon sometimes for just one sentence, which I think sounds really, really precious but I kind of almost wish it wasn’t the case because it means that I write slowly.
But like I feel incapable of being able to move forward if something doesn’t really feel or sound right. You know early on, I was really obsessed with a kind of poetry that is … it accumulates speed. It has a real kind of texture and care to it. I remember there was a summer I was just obsessed with, and this isn’t super original, but with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, I listen to recording of that over and over and over again.
Then, you think that energy, you go to a poetry reading and the room is electric. I think that medium, it really lends itself to like a music, to like a real motion that I really, really need, and at least aspire to on the page. And I think too also because my subject is often … At least, I’m not hoping. I’m not trying to write ironic prose. The prose I really aspire to write is the prose that is full of want and full of desire and is earnest. It may be in a way that is uncool and a little bit embarrassing.
I will say like that that is kind of partly where the humor is coming from if the text is embarrassment. It is embarrassing to be human and to want and especially to want out loud as Edie does occasionally. And you know the energy of the world that she is met with is sort of like that the friction between that is, I think, that’s one way the humor is coming through. It also is her resignation to the world around her. Despite this want, the understatement of brutality that she is weathering is the humor, the friction between her interior and her exterior is the humor.
Then, the humor is rage. That is like the real, it’s coming from the rage too because I would admit, like truly when I started this book, I didn’t really intend for it to be as like joke dense as it is. I think there was a point I reached where I started like, I really like this. I really like writing a joke. I really like writing like this. I think I started with a character who wants deeply and who is also deeply angry. That really truly happened organically, but the language, it’s so, so important to me.
You know what? I will say, I really do admire the kind of other extreme too because I think it takes a different kind of discipline. I think restraint is maybe the hardest thing to do with any art. But I think that with my work, I really, really revel in a page that is a little unbridled. I really try to get in there and show the reader that I mean this like I really mean this and be vulnerable in that way that I think like overt expression is vulnerable. Yeah, that is just really important.
Raven Leilani, author of Luster. It’s published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available now.
Bookable is a production of Loud Tree Media. I’m your host Amanda Stern, five feet tall — and in a closed marriage with my dog Busy.
We’re produced by me, Beau Friedlander, and Andrew Dunn, who also mixed and sound-designed the show. Beau is Loud Tree’s editor-in-chief.
Find us on the web at ‘bookablepod.com’ — and please subscribe and rate us 5 stars on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows. That’s one of the best ways for other listeners to find Bookable.
Some book launches come with a side of merch, and Raven’s is no exception.
I’m wearing the luster nail polish.
Oh, I love that, and so am I, I actually just got it, I just got it.
Oh you did??
I feel like I can only do it like 3 times and I want to keep this forever.
Oh you have to. I still have the cookies from my first novel that came out in 2003 that my mom made.
Oh, I love it.
Read more: writingcooperative.com