Raven Leilani | 'I wanted to write a story about a young black woman who is unvarnished on the page'

Raven Leilani | 'I wanted to write a story about a young black woman who is unvarnished on the page'

"The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.” So begins Luster, the extraordinary début novel from American author Raven Leilani, which has caused a sensation in the US and deserves to do the same here. The unforgettable narrator, Edie, is a young black woman of precarious means who begins a relationship with an older, married, white man, Eric, whose wife has agreed to an open marriage.

At the beginning of the novel, Edie is 23 years old, living in New York, and just about managing to keep her head above water financially. She has a lowly, badly paid job in publishing as a “managing editorial co-ordinator” in a nearly all-white office, shares a mouse-infested apartment in Bushwick and can barely afford to eat. By her own admission, she has not had much success with men, reeling from one unsuitable hook-up to the next, often with her awful colleagues. Adrift, Edie really wants to be an artist but has struggled to paint for the past two years.

When Raven Leilani speaks to me over the phone from her home in Brooklyn, she explains: “I wanted to write a story about a young black woman who is unvarnished on the page.” Edie’s voice is terrific; wry, sharp, honest, often caustically funny. Edie is, says Leilani, “constantly engaging in these performances that are demanded of her, as a black woman, to survive.” The humour in the novel comes from, she thinks, “the discrepancy between what happens to her, and how we see her respond. The friction between her interior, which we are privy to as readers, and the external performance that is demanded of her. We can see that these are totally two different things.”

Power imbalance 

Of Edie’s initial attraction to middle-aged archivist Eric, Leilani says “I wanted to depict a black woman who is conspicuous in her yearning.” There is plenty of sex in the novel, which Leilani uses to explore the shifting sands of power within the relationship. “What initially makes their relationship exciting and thrilling and titillating for her is the power imbalance. I wanted to make room for what it looks like to surrender yourself to that imbalance, but also what it looks like when that relationship grows and you as a young woman begin to come into yourself and see your value, your own power.” She adds: “I wanted to show the messiness, the derangement of longing and the way the power oscillates.”

Their relationship is, of course, complicated by the fact that Eric has an open marriage. On one of their early dates, he produces a hand-written list of “rules” decided by his wife, Rebecca. One the most intriguing things about the novel is how Edie’s relationship with Eric gets sidelined once she meets Rebecca. Leilani is constantly subverting our expectations; the relationship between Edie and Rebecca is far from the traditional dynamic between the wife and the ‘other woman’ when one cannonballs into the other’s marriage.

Leilani agrees. “The wife is usually rendered as overtly villainous, a jealous scold who wants nothing to do with the arrangement but I thought it would be more interesting to push that a little bit and try depict what it would look like for a woman to actively invite this kind of disruption into her marriage.”

“There’s one way to have written this book in which Rebecca and Edie just fight over a man, right? But that’s not super-interesting, and it doesn’t do justice to the interior lives of these women.” Instead, Leilani wanted to explore a more complex relationship: “What it looks like to see two serious women trying to assert their needs, to assert their power and what it looks like for these different women, from two different life experiences, to have to reconcile those differences as they move towards each other.”

Their differences are stark, Rebecca is white and “comfortable”, financially-speaking, whereas Edie “is coming from a place of great precarity”. This precarity is thrown into sharp relief when Edie fails to survive yet another disciplinary meeting with HR, and is sacked from her publishing role. She is then forced to take a job deliver- ing food on a pushbike to pay her rent, an experience that reveals the harsh reality of what it means to survive in the gig economy right now in New York City.

A precarious existence

Edie’s struggle to make her art when she has to spend all her time thinking about how she is going to pay the rent, buy food (she is quite literally on the breadline), and pay back her student loans is a central theme of the novel. All these demands on her time use up not only her physical energy, but a sort of physic energy. Leilani says “I wanted to write honestly about what that looks like—to try and seek meaning in your [creative] work, and trying to carve out space to do that private work, when you are also trying to live. For a lot of people, it’s a very difficult and precarious balance.”

It’s a balance that Leilani herself is familiar with. Now aged 30, she was born in the Bronx and grew up in Albany in upstate New York. She began writing Luster when she was halfway through a two-year MFA in Fiction at NYU where her tutors included Katie Kitamura and Zadie Smith. Smith was an influence on the novel (Leilani has said “she pushed me to be brave in depicting a human black woman who makes mistakes”), as was Mary Gaitskill’s work and she is also a big fan of this year’s British Book of the Year winner Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie: “I think our characters are in the same universe, you know.”

Luster was written during her studies, and while she was also holding down a full-time job at a publisher. In her early writing life, she had always juggled jobs with writing in every spare minute. “I think there’s much to be said about the means you need to make art,” she observes, “so this book is very much about what that balance is like, and often what it looks like to try and create from a place of exhaustion.”

Book Extract 
The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing. His messages come with impeccable punctuation. He is fond of words like taste and spread. The empty text field is full of possibilities. Of course I worry about IT remoting into my computer, or my internet history warranting yet another disciplinary meeting with HR. But the risk. The thrill of a third pair of unseen eyes. The idea that someone in the office, with that sweet, post-lunch break optimism, might come across the thread and see how tenderly Eric and I have built this private world. In his first message, he points out a few typos in my online profile and tells me he has an open marriage. His profile pictures are candid and loose— a grainy photo of him asleep in the sand, a photo of him shaving, taken from behind. It is this last photo that moves me. The dirty tile and the soft recession of steam. His face in the mirror, stern with quiet scrutiny. I save the photo to my phone so I can look at it on the train. Women look over my shoulder and smile, and I let them believe he is mine. Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts.