As any twentysomething creative knows, the journey from aspiring artist to having “made it” is complicated. Writer Raven Leilani, 29, knows the struggle well, and it’s one she speaks to in her much-anticipated debut novel “Luster.”
“My own trajectory was kind of messy and not super linear,” says Leilani, speaking from Prospect Park in Brooklyn, located near her apartment. The young writer wanted to create an account of a journey that felt human, and one that’s guided by desire: for career, for connection and sex. “One that talks frankly about the mistake you make along the way, about what it means to really want and be guided by that,” she says.
“Luster” has so far received critical praise, and her literary peers have referenced the novel with excitement well ahead of its August release. At the beginning of the year, one of Leilani’s professors from NYU’s MFA creative writing program, Zadie Smith, wrote an essay praising Leilani’s work for the February issue of Harper’s Bazaar; the spread included a self-portrait painted by Leilani. Leilani shares an interest in portraiture with the protagonist of “Luster,” Edie. Unlike Leilani, Edie hasn’t yet established herself creatively.
Leilani began writing “Luster” as an MFA student, and credits the community of her writing program for helping her to articulate that story she wanted to portray. In addition to being a full-time student, she was also working full time, an experience that informed the struggle facing Edie: how to pursue her identity as an artist while facing the more urgent demand of making money and paying rent.
“Most of my work has been done after the 9 to 5,” Leilani says. “That frenzy made it into the work; you see Edie trying to balance those demands of work and survival and art, and I was doing the same thing.”
Her novel marries a dedication to literary craft with mainstream appeal. It’s an unusual page turner, with a storyline that captivates with dark comedic effect within the mundane, familiar stakes of everyday life. As a young woman figuring out what she wants and how to get it, Edie’s choices are complicated and at times shocking and always exciting from the vantage of a voyeur.
As a writer, Leilani’s work starts from a place of obsession. She’s published several works of shorter fiction, and “Luster,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, packs in many of the themes and topics she’s explored in those earlier works.
“What moves me to the page are stories and ideas that I’m obsessed with, that I cannot stop writing about.” For Leilani, those topics are art, faith, sex and parenthood. “What it is to be a child, the complicated relationships you have with parents, and the complicated relationships you have with romantic partners, especially when there’s a power imbalance,” she says.
While those are broad strokes, Leilani homes in through specific details and experiences for her characters, many of which she knows intimately: an interest in Comic Con, a childhood influenced by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the difficulty of painting an accurate portrait of a person, and the workings of an autopsist, which Leilani experienced through her mother’s own career as a medical examiner for the VA. And an interest in art and painting, which Leilani describes as her first creative love.
“It was also my first heartbreak in the way that every artist, any person who is trying to be an artist, has these moments in which they come up against their limits of their skill, of their will,” she says. “I don’t want to dismiss all of the other factors that are involved in being able to even attempt to make art, but one of those things is yourself.”
Central to the story is the idea of sexuality and desire, which Leilani approaches with frankness. The opening scene of “Luster” involves her protagonist, Edie, meeting an older man, Eric, at an amusement park in New Jersey for their first date.
But while that relationship is the impetus for the rest of the story, it moves aside to center on others: that between Edie and Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and between Edie and the couple’s adopted daughter, Akila, who — like Edie — is Black. “Generally relationships between women are always more compelling to me,” Leilani says.
After losing her job and Bushwick apartment in quick succession, Rebecca invites Edie to move into their suburban New Jersey home. It’s an unusual living arrangement, and the book is stuffed with paradoxes; the characters never react as you expect, but their choices ultimately read as genuine. Though the story at times veers dark, Leilani was intent on incorporating a sense of Black joy, particularly within the dynamic between Edie and Akila.
“I didn’t want the Black characters in this book to be defined primarily by the pain that they can endure, or the isolation that they are trying to reconcile,” says Leilani. “And in this way, bringing two Black women together, though they are in two different parts of their lives of the self-actualization, it was a way to explore the joy of community, the complexity of community.”
Leilani marked her book launch on Monday through Brooklyn bookstore Greenlight, with a Zoom conversation with comedian and author Samantha Irby. The past few months have been so busy with work around launching “Luster” that she hasn’t had much time to write, but Leilani has continued to paint.
“It’s almost functioned like a quarantine journal; I’ll look back on these paintings and see where I was, what I was doing, what colors I was feeling,” she says. “I haven’t had much time to write, but I do have a handful of books still in me that I’m really excited to get to.”
Whether or not Leilani has “made it,” the hurdle of continuing to create work is still there, if a bit lower than before.
“Even if you’ve — and I’ll put this in quotes — even if you’ve made it, you’re still going to keep doing that over and over again, you’re going to come up against your limits and it’s going to feel demoralizing and destabilizing,” she says. “And really the work gets done in being able to persevere, or being able to understand when you need to rest.”
More From the Eye: