Raven Leilani on Being Drawn to the Unlikeable Woman
The Zadie Smith-approved author talks about her debut novel, ‘Luster’
Writer Raven Leilani has been quarantining with her partner in Brooklyn for the past four months. They haven’t left the city, and they don’t plan on doing so any time soon. While sheltering in place, similar to the main character in her debut novel, she’s been painting a lot. “A really wonderful friend sent me a bunch of canvases in the beginning, and when I paint, I feel like time ceases to exist, and during this moment, I really needed something absorbing to really help pass the days,” she says. More recently, of course, she’s been preparing to launch her book into the world, something she describes as being “the most insane, most surreal moment in my life.”
Luster follows twentysomething Edie on her search for meaning while working an administrative job in New York City. When she stumbles into the lives (and the open marriage) of Eric, his autopsist wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter Akila, things get messy as she finds herself unemployed and struggling to find her voice as an artist.
Ahead, we chat with Leilani about the kind of writing she likes to read, creating complex Black women characters, and the concept of loneliness.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
ZORA: What made you want to write Luster. What was the inspiration?
Raven Leilani: I started with art, which is a theme that creeps into a lot of my work simply because that was my first love, my first obsession, my first adult disappointment in terms of understanding what it means to come up against my own limits. I think there’s something very formative about knowing you want to put some kind of art out there — not even just visual art — and having a thing you want to say and understanding that you absolutely still need to work on the fundamentals, on the skill set that will allow you to communicate that thing effectively. It’s a deeply frustrating thing to not be able to communicate that, and I remember feeling that in the early days when I thought that I would work in the fine arts, and that is a feeling that I often wanted to tease apart on the page.
“I feel like when I started this book, it was important to me to write a young Black woman who is hungry and dogged and deeply fallible and who is allowed latitude to make mistakes.”
I’m drawn to fiction, to movies, to TV that inhabits the real estate of what I think is really well-worn territory of what we call the unlikeable woman, which technically means a complex and honest depiction of womanhood. And how many of those women are Black when we’re usually talking about that? I really personally wanted to add more to that canon because I’m not the first to do it. When I think of even just my contemporaries, I think of Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, which is brilliant and gorgeous, and I feel like when I started this book, it was important to me to write a young Black woman who is hungry and dogged and deeply fallible and who is allowed latitude to make mistakes. Because I think that a pristine depiction of a woman doesn’t allow for those more strange, more weird and contradictory parts of being human.
Were there other influences you took from your own life to build the characters?
For most of my life, the time and space in which I could create art often came after a 9–5. It was work that I created that no one saw. Even while I was writing this book, I was in an MFA program full time, and I was working a full-time job and a couple of part-time gigs on the side, and that sort of frantic, truly trying to keep the balance energy is deeply in the book. It’s deeply in the writing around how Edie tries to serve those primary survival needs and also create art.
All of your characters grapple with their own version of loneliness, and I feel like loneliness has taken on new meaning for a lot of people during the quarantine. Has your concept of loneliness changed at all since writing the book and in these new times?
I think that’s totally right; there’s so many different degrees of loneliness. I feel like writing about the pressurized environment of trying to navigate personal and professional spaces as a Black woman and the performance that’s required of you is, in fact, talking about loneliness.
I’m a deeply introverted person. With the quarantine, I feel like I’ve had to think more about the real need for other human beings. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends of mine who have gone through this alone, and there is something untenable about that. There’s something innate in all of us that is seeking tenderness and care, and during this moment where we’ve had to isolate and also we’re called on to actually act as a community to get this thing under control, it’s a very complicated thing.
Part of the reason why I love this city is because it’s so dense, and I love being surrounded by people, but I do miss those really close-quarter moments with other people. There truly isn’t any substitute for that, and I think, as far as the book is concerned, what is really truly guiding a lot of the choices Edie makes is that wanting to seek connection, wanting to be witnessed, to be made real.
The book strikes a good balance of being funny in a dry humor way and also being pretty dark at times. How did you go about establishing the tone?
When I generally start out with a writing project, I feel like I know very little about it. I have to write to find it out. And as I was writing the environments through which Edie moves through, the pressure of them, the frenzy of them all fed into the tone. But at the same time, with humor, when I was really in the middle of it, there were absolutely moments where I wrote something that was funny to me, and I hoped that it would be funny to other people. But I think the humor primarily is coming from the fact that you are privy to her interior. You’re privy to her private, perverse, most candid thoughts, and you also then see the exterior — the performance, the curation, the indignity of that. And I think those two things up against each other, you understand more fully her rage. And I think the humor is absolutely within that rage.
Who are your influences?
I like to read a book where I feel the person writing it is having some fun. The person whose writing is enjoying themselves, and I think Toni Morrison — it feels weird to ever invoke her name because she’s so clearly a master, and I think everybody reads her and aspires — but I would say, absolutely, there’s a real beauty and tenderness to how she crafts her language. I would say also [Vladimir] Nabokov, Carmen Maria Machado, Jennifer Egan, Susan Choi — I really, really gravitate to writers who have that high energy, who make me excited and, honestly, sometimes jealous and make me want to reach for that level of intricacy in the language.
Do you have an audience that you’re writing for? And if so what do you hope they take away from the book?
I definitely wrote this book with the intent for it to be read. [laughs] I wrote this for Black women because I just wanted to write more about the messiness of being Black and dogged and hungry and just trying to get over in the middle of impossible demands on our bodies, on our minds. It was important to me to write about that story without judgment. Because I think that there are so many people and institutions invested in the policing of our feelings and behavior, and, ultimately, I find that it is dehumanizing, and I wanted to write against that. I wanted to write against the idea of respectability as a thing that is worth anyone’s time.
I also obviously want other people to come to the book. So if there’s an audience coming to this, what I hope they see is a deeply human portrait of a person who is navigating modern and brutal demands that are social and economic and what that means — what kind of bearing that has on our making.