‘Writing about sex can be profound ... but also deeply silly’

Author Raven Leilani is interested in what she calls the ‘deeply psychic labour’ of being a minority attempting to sublimate themselves in order to survive. Photograph: Miranda Barnes
After a widely successful debut novel, gaining her the label “voice of a generation”, Raven Leilani soars to the top

Raven Leilani was named after a bird by her mother for a very specific reason – she wanted her daughter to be a person who soared. With the publication of her debut novel Luster, the story of aspiring artist Edie, a 23-year-old black woman embarking on an affair with a married man twice her age, Leilani soared into the New York Times bestseller list in the summer of 2020. As we speak, she’s on Zoom from her home in the Bronx and planning to spread her wings further: first as a writer in residence in Mississippi and afterwards to Los Angeles where there is a HBO television adaptation of her novel in train. That’s not the reason for the relocation though. “My heart is here in New York but I’m a warm weather person,” she explains.

The acclaim for her novel, which she wrote while studying for an MFA at New York University (NYU) with Zadie Smith as her thesis adviser, has been life-changing. She is still processing the material changes in her circumstances. “I never expected to be able to do this full-time,” she says, after listing the jobs she took to pay rent and eat, over a five-year period, while writing on the side. They include a stint in a publishing house, as an archivist with the US Department of Defence and as an employee of a delivery app schlepping everything from soup to office supplies to people around the city by bike.

By the time she landed at NYU in 2017 she had a few stories and poems published along with a slew of rejection emails. “I had come to realise that the moments of acceptance are few and far between… I knew what it felt like to weather rejection.”

'I wanted to be very careful to illustrate that any marginalised person is working against a very, very thin margin for error. And that informs your mobility'

She was also halfway through Luster, which formed the basis of her thesis, when she began her masters. The mentorship of White Teeth author Zadie Smith was “hugely important”. She was someone “I could relate my anxieties to around the emotional work of writing, and I admire her so deeply. It was an incredible privilege.” Leilani was actually in one of Smith’s classes when her phone buzzed with the news that Luster had been acquired for publication.

“A crazy thing,” the now 31-year-old recalls of that day in 2019. “To be in Zadie’s class when I got the call, when I think back it felt like the stars aligned… just being with my peers who I’d been with for these years, being able to tell my closest friends what was happening. I stayed for the rest of the class and afterwards I met my editor at a restaurant down the street. It was an absolutely surreal night.”

Luster’s protagonist Edie is a messy, flailing, fallible black woman – she makes casual jokes about her abortion, is matter-of-fact about deeply inappropriate workplace sexual encounters. She is a young woman who has no interest in the pursuit of respectability. It’s this messiness that makes Luster such an endearing and engrossing read, that and the unflinching portrait of the New York city that Edie inhabits. Here she is on the subway: “I turn away from my reflection and a man is masturbating under a tarp.”

When Edie is reprimanded at work, she shares a moment outside the office with the only other black woman in the office, Aria, who has a different approach to navigating her professional life as a member of a minority. In this telling scene Aria informs Edie that there is “actually a brief window where they don’t know to what extent you are black. And you have to get in there. You have to get in the room. And if I have to, I will shuck and jive when I get there until the room I am in is at the top.”

One of many glowing reviews on publication described Luster as an unstable ballet of race, sex and power. Leilani’s characters act in ways that often defy explanation

Leilani says: “I wanted to be very careful to illustrate that any marginalised person is working against a very, very thin margin for error. And that informs your mobility. Aria has opted in, and is moving within those extremely spare limits as a means to survive. She’s making herself smaller in an attempt to secure what Edie is also trying to secure. Edie is not necessarily actively opting out but is a person who is incapable of acting. And that too is a kind of freedom, the freedom toward chaos.”

Leilani is interested in what she calls the “deeply psychic labour” of being a minority attempting to sublimate themselves in order to survive. The challenge of getting in the room. “Ultimately it comes at a cost, right?”

One of many glowing reviews on publication described Luster as “an unstable ballet of race, sex and power. Leilani’s characters act in ways that often defy explanation, and that is part of what makes them so alive, and so mesmerising… sharp, strange, propellant and a whole lot of fun.”

Sharp is the word used most often about her work and there is also a disarming freshness to both her style and the themes she explores. We’re used to seeing “messy white girls” in everything from Sex And The City to Girls and Fleabag, but somewhat less visible are fictional black women behaving badly and existing outside narrow value judgments. It feels new.

'I am interested in what is defined as pleasure as a young woman, the way you refine that definition is by having bad sex… for many of us that was how we evolved, how we come into understanding of our own agency'

Leilani appreciates the compliment but is keen to give kudos to women who have paved the way. “I think I am part of a tradition of black women who have been writing about fallible black women… my hope for this book was to place it in a modern context. I had a personal stake in what it means to strive and be black in the workplace, what it means to seek out intimacy [as a black woman] and the joy and abjection that are involved. But I wouldn’t have had the ability to write this kind of messy story about a black woman who fails if not for the kind of texts that came before and opened the door to the possibility of how we exist outside of this respectability.

“I see myself hopefully as part of a tradition trying to look closely at the interior lives of black women and there are a lot of writers who are approaching that subject from different angles. I am just one of them.”

She has no problem addressing the question of how much of her life is reflected in the novel. “It’s fiction but it came from me so there is a lot of me in it,” she says.

Like Edie, she has a passion for painting and worked a string of jobs, some menial and low paid, which allowed her to work away privately at what she really loved doing. “This is specific to a lot of people of my generation who are trying to navigate a kind of economic instability while trying to find purpose,” she says.

There is a lot of excruciating sex in the book. The title Luster is a very obvious nod to the content. Lust and longing are constant motifs in the novel from awkward, sometimes violent encounters with her married lover to the casual and darkly funny sex of unfortunate workplace assignations.

“It’s really important to me,” she says. “Writing towards intimacy and exploration and attraction… I am interested in what is defined as pleasure as a young woman, the way you refine that definition is by having bad sex… for many of us that was how we evolved, how we come into understanding of our own agency. I wanted to depict this particular part of Edie’s sexual journey, where she is free to yearn and want.”

Raven Leilani. Photograph: Nina Subin
Raven Leilani. Photograph: Nina Subin

Her favourite thing to write about is the “psychic mechanics” of longing. “I do think it’s almost like a madness that you feel in that space of longing and it’s almost more fun to write than sex itself. I mean a lot of the book is her not having sex.”

Indeed, Edie’s chronic IBS and body image issues both serve to frustrate her longing for sexual intimacy. “Writing about sex can be profound and revelatory but also deeply silly and strange and awkward. And in writing about the awkward parts of sex you get to explore what is tender about it.”

“I love Rooney,” she says of Mayo writer Sally Rooney. “And one of the reasons I love her work is because of the way she writes sex.” It’s worth pointing out that however vast the differences in their backgrounds, the two women have much in common being writers around the same age with wildly successful debut novels that saw them burdened and blessed with the “voice of a generation” label.

In a surprising and yet somehow deeply plausible turn of events, early in the novel Edie ends up moving in with her married lover Eric and his wife Rebecca. The couple have an open and somewhat fractious marriage and an adopted daughter, a black teenager called Akila. I tell Leilani that what was even more intriguing to me than the romantic affair, was the unlikely, tension-filled vaguely erotic friendship that develops between Edie and the much older medical examiner Rebecca.

“Thank you,” she says. “It was one of those moments when the book kind of tells you where it wants to go. That dynamic felt way more exciting and interesting so I kind of moved away from him… because it is a woman seeing another woman, there’s almost an inability to hide… especially when the woman is kind of a kindred spirit.” She praises fellow American author Lisa Taddeo and her book Animal for “articulating this better than I ever can”.

“Despite the major ways in which they [Rebecca and Edie] are different, they begin to show their more private faces to each other. And so they are constantly on their toes around each other and it is both the deepness of that connection and the precarity of that union that exists because they are coming from two very separate life experiences.”

She’s now slowly writing her second novel while teaching at the John Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi

Like Edie, Leilani’s own upbringing was intensely religious and while she describes this aspect of her background as “formative” she has long since rejected bible-based faith. She comes from a sprawling West Indian family of artists, painters and musicians. The family suffered two tragic losses in 2020 when in March of that year Leilani’s father died from Covid and six months later her older brother, a painter who inspired and encouraged his little sister’s creativity, died of complications from a rare neuro-degenerative disease.

“It was a difficult year,” she says. And then: “It was difficult for a lot of people.” It was the year of the pandemic, the year her book was published, with all the public acclaim and recognition that came with it and at the same time it was a time of devastating loss and grief.

“I think there will be a lifetime of cycling through that grief. But there are moments now where I can feel the bright spots.”

When we talk about race and racism in the post-Trump America of Joe Biden, Leilani strikes an optimistic note but this only came only after consultation with “my elders”. “I went to them and I asked ‘Can I feel that something is different, that something is changing?’ and they said yes, so then I felt confident or more confident in being able to fully feel that optimism.”

At the same time she notes “those wounds are extremely profound and entrenched in our country and in our culture and it takes a lot of really deliberate undoing and a willingness to look at it directly and admit that it’s there… and even that is quite difficult for a lot of people”.

Still, she is trying to keep her glass half-full as the other alternative is “a kind of nihilism, the feeling that nothing will change and nothing matters. But I do think the people who came before me, who have made it possible for me to be sitting here talking to you about a book I got to write with a feeling of freedom, they made changes because they believed things could be better. And that’s the example I try to follow.”

'That’s why [my mother] named me, Ravens soar like that. When I was born, she wanted me to be a person who soared'

Her mother is another huge influence. “She did a lot of really, really hard physical labour. She was a caretaker. And then she worked at Rebecca’s job, she was a medical examiner in a veteran’s hospital. And so I saw her work and that’s sort of where that came from. She worked as a seamstress for a while and as a hairdresser for a while. She’s my whole heart. And she really set me up to do this, you know, she made me into a person who would persist, because she is also that way. In fact, that’s actually why she named me, Ravens soar like that. When I was born, she wanted me to be a person who soared.”

As predicted by her mother at birth, Raven Leilani continues to soar. She’s now slowly writing her second novel while teaching at the John Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. After that, there’s the move to sunny LA with her partner, a technical writer. She says she never dreamed she would have the kind of mobility or opportunity that’s come from her successful debut novel. “I did not expect it, you know I worked in publishing so I had a really managed expectation of what it looks like when you publish a book. I didn’t expect the response and it feels really good, it feels incredible and I think it probably always will.”

She has different freedoms in her life now, ones she “will never, ever take for granted. Because I do still remember what it was like to be on a delivery and spilling someone’s soup and feeling, God, they are going to report me to the app. And so I get to grapple with the fact that this is my reality now, it has changed my life. Sometimes it feels like there are actually no words but I’m sure I will find them.”

Luster by Raven Leilani is available in paperback now