Tanzina Vega: ''I wanted to write a story about a Black woman who fails a lot.'' This is what Raven Leilani told The New York Times about her first novel. Luster is the story of Edie, a Black woman in her 20s living in Brooklyn, who's making a bit of a mess as she seeks human connection, professional fulfillment, and artistic self-actualization. Edie is indeed a Black woman who fails a lot, but because Leilani does not ask us to adore or reject her, she wrote. Instead, she writes Edie is human, stunningly, recognizably human. I sat down with Raven Leilani to discuss Luster and asked if she would read a passage from the text. The first time she started reading, she flubbed the line a bit.
Raven Leilani: Sorry, I do that a lot. [laughs]
Tanzina: But the second reading was perfect.
Raven Leilani: I've woken up from dreams where my hands are slick with oil and turpentine and lost the inspiration by the time I brushed my teeth. The last time I painted, I was 21, the president was Black, I had more serotonin and I was less afraid of men. Now the cyan in yellow come out hard. I need hot water to make the mix. I work with the paint, let the acrylic dry, and when it isn't right, I rework it again. I remain as faithful as I can to scale. I mix 13 shades of green, 5 shades of purple I don't need. My palette knife breaks into, the wind is almost 5:00 AM. I have a passable replication of Eric's face. The slope of his nose and the soft red light of the dash.
I rinse my brushes and washed on coming in smoky metropolitan corn. Somewhere in Essex County, Eric is in bed with his wife. It's not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or a home security system, that way the length of our marriage never goes off, is that there are gray anonymous hours like this, hours when I am desperate, when I'm ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.
Tanzina: The mistake, the correction, the perfection. Author Raven Leilani is leaving breadcrumbs to the origins of her novel. Joining me now is Raven Leilani to talk through Edie's lyrical, complicated journey of failing, flailing, creating, and consuming. Raven, welcome to The Takeaway.
Raven Leilani: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: I am struck that the first time that we learn that your protagonist is an artist is when we're actually learning that she isn't making her art or hasn't been making it. Can you tell me about that decision to introduce the art by talking about not making the art?
Raven Leilani: That was the core of this project, where I wanted to talk about art-making. In talking about art-making, I felt that I had to talk about failure, and I felt that I had to talk about doubt, and also what you just mentioned, which is a huge part of making art, which is not making it. [chuckles] I thought it was important to introduce her journey in a way that felt true, especially as it applied to my life.
Tanzina: Part of what is gripping from the first line of this book is I've read that you've said that you wanted to write a story about a Black woman who fails a lot. From the beginning, we get that this is going to be a very imperfect shero for us in this text. Talk to me about what attracts you to exploring Black girl stumbles instead of Black girl magic.
Raven Leilani: Yes, I feel like the stumbles are also part of the magic. For me, as I started this project as a imperfect Black woman myself, I wanted to commit that reality to the page. I thought it was important because I do think that that dimension of both being human and art-making, there's a temptation to neat in that and to make it tidy, and for our heroines to be pristine and to be able to neatly chart their moral allegiances.
For me, I wanted her to have the space to be fallible. That felt freeing to me and necessary. I wanted her to be able to-- when she's hurt, you feel that she's hurt, when she's angry, you feel that she's angry, and that she be able to respond in kind and that your empathy for her isn't entirely tethered to whether she's behaving well.
Tanzina: I wonder if that pressure is particularly strong for Black sheroes that the fallibility margin has not been as robust for Black women who are taking up that space on the page.
Raven Leilani: That's right. I feel like it's been in the either. We talk about depictions of women in art and in culture, we talk a lot about their unlikeability. I feel like that conversation is one I have always and often wanted to have around the cultural space that Black women take up, and why I wanted her to be fallible and to be able to make mistakes is I wanted to write against the idea of stoicism. I wanted to write against the idea that to be silent about your pain is virtuous, or that it perhaps would earn you the benefit of your doubt that you're human. It felt important that she be able to be messy. [laughs]
Tanzina: She is messy. [crosstalk]
Raven Leilani: Yes, she is.
Tanzina: Just to be clear, this isn't just like some, oh, all humans make mistakes kind of thing, no, like straight up.
Raven Leilani: Oh, yes.
Tanzina: First pages. She is messy.
Raven Leilani: Yes. I should say as a writer partly it was incredibly fun to write, but that too is important that not every response be necessarily justified by the infrastructure that is around here that is both racist and sexist, but also that she had moments where she is quite in the wrong as we are.
Tanzina: Something about that does feel more human, that we don't explain every poor choice, every messy, maybe bad choice is the wrong way to think of it, but every messy decision as being the inevitable outcome of structural racism or of trauma, but that sometimes we're just making a mess and it's not an oil painting.
Raven Leilani: Yes, 100%. I think that too it runs parallel to when artists journey, at least for me, the idea that it's trial and error, and the idea that the trial and error shouldn't deter you from trying to move forward or from trying to make progress or from trying to make the thing you're trying to make or be the person you're trying to be. But yes, that it's part of it. That was hugely important, as I wrote, and also just incredibly fun.
Tanzina: Spending some time with Edie was interesting and fun, but she's very solitary as a character. Why that choice? Is that just how she came to you?
Raven Leilani: I have to own up to the fact that perhaps the author is showing through the text in this case because I am a deeply solitary soul myself. I think I gravitate toward those stories. On a craft sense, I wanted all the room to be hers. I wanted that even though it's in first person present. I wanted the entirety of that landscape to be her interior. Also, this story is a story about a person who is, while trying to make art, and I guess they're intertwined. She's trying to survive, she's trying to eat and pay her student loans, and there's a certain kind of emotional bandwidth, that phrase when you're in the midst of that grind.
The kind of situation that she's in, the precarity that she is experiencing almost precludes that emotional engagement, which was something that I absolutely wanted to write toward.
Tanzina: There is a lot of sex. [laughs] For me, that's an interesting tension, right? She's very solitary in some ways, but then she's not all by herself. There's some very interesting, adventurous, messy in many different ways of thinking about messy, sex going on. Talk to me about how that maybe informs the title of Luster or just informed the story you wanted to tell us?
Raven Leilani: Oh, absolutely. I think there are a number of kinds of sex in this book, and some of that sex is still quite interior and solitary, even if there's another person in the room. Part of the fun was being able to show all of those iterations of emotional engagement. You're right, it does relate back both the body and what is carnal, but also the act of making art relate back to that title, which took me a long time to find, how to kind of retain that faith in yourself that I'm trying so hard not to use the word Luster. [chuckles]
How do I retain that essential want and yearning when you're up against the hyperbole of the world around you. That hyperbole is in the sex. Absolutely, and in those moments, I get to show Edie in her messy way seeking out intimacy. At the bottom, the core of this book is the need to make art and the need to be witnessed, the need to find intimacy. She attempts to do that through sex, she attempts to do that through her body in a number of different ways, some which are kind of static and some which are a kind of annihilation, and I wanted to make room for all of those.
Tanzina: As I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, that hunger as you described and what you read to us, that ravenous feeling, and whether it is a sexual hunger, whether it is in fact hunger for food, hunger to create, hunger to be more fully ourselves, there is maybe nothing that has-- over which the world has attempted to assert more control than women's hunger, so much of how we can explain all of world history is that. I'll just say that leapt off the page to me. Did you mean to put that in there? Is there something else you want to tell us about hunger?
Raven Leilani: I absolutely did. I think that I'm always going to be writing toward that subject in some way. It's something that I've been preoccupied with for a while. Again, that could be the author in the text as well. I think that in writing toward how to resolve that hunger if it's a thing that can be resolved, is a question that I've felt personally in my own life, but also a question that keeps coming up when I talk to friends of mine who are out there trying to carve out a life for themselves, not just the question of how to satisfy it but is like the hunger too much.
You've said it. I think often that hunger is sort of relegated to the space of too much especially when the person who is feeling the hunger is a woman especially when the woman is a Black woman. This project was also an attempt to present that hunger without pathology.
Tanzina: Hearing you speak now it puts into a somewhat different focus, this line very early on in the novel where Edie tells us in a very sort of straightforward way, "My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends and men lose interest in me when I talk." Just that sort of recitation of the things that are presumably meant to make women-- if you're not earning a lot, and you don't have a crew of friends and men aren't just enraptured of you, that is a failure of womanhood in some core way and yet, she tells us so early on and expects us to continue on the journey with her.
Raven Leilani: Yes. Well, that was incredibly important to me. I like those facts be presented baldly, but also that it be an earnest text. I think one of my biggest struggles, when I come to the page, is resisting the urge to hide behind the pros, resisting the urge not to say the difficult thing. It's difficult to be able to articulate or to have to articulate that you aren't performing in the way that is acceptable, that you need something that you don't quite have, and you don't know how to get it.
I think that to ask for help is one of the hardest things you can do to own what would make you feel good even when you don't have it in the moment is extremely vulnerable thing to do. That too was truly what was guiding me is I want to be vulnerable. I wanted Edie as a character to be earnest especially as her external maintenance doesn't really allow for that as she moved through the world and calculates, protects herself in the way she has to as a Black woman. That earnest presentation of the facts that too was really important.
Tanzina: Earnest, hungry, failing, exquisite. Raven Leilani is the author of Luster. Raven, thank you for taking the time.
Raven Leilani: Thank you for having me.
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