Against Respectability: A Conversation with Raven Leilani

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Raven Leilani is a writer we should all be reading. In her stellar debut novel, Luster, we follow Edie, a sex-positive twenty-something Black woman, through a complicated series of events (both hilarious and harrowing) beginning with job loss, eviction, and the move into the house of a white married couple as the third in their open marriage. Eric, the husband, corrects Edie’s sexting grammar and Rebecca, the wife engages in cunning microagressions that are difficult not to admire for their complexity, but the real surprise, in my opinion, is their adopted Black teenage daughter, Akila. Edie herself is a flaneur—a type of character in Western literature who is most often written as a white male—on a journey of self-discovery towards her art.

I had trouble putting Edie into words. Kaitlyn Greenidge said it best over at VQR: “A Black-female flaneur necessarily complicates the position of this character. She embodies the individual that the flaneur usually observes and categorizes. And because of her race and gender, the false promise of an identity disconnected from a class or community is broken by her very nature.” Leilani has taken a story we know and given it to a character who is rarely seen and even rarer—for Black people in general and Black women especially—allowed the simple privilege of fucking up without mortal consequence.

An MFA graduate of NYU and former Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence, Raven Leilani has had work published in places such as Granta and the New England Review. I consider myself lucky to call her one of my internet friends, and in our first offline conversation we jumped all over the place and landed on this discussion of sex writing, the privileges afforded or not afforded to different characters, and the intended audience of Luster.

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The Rumpus: So, what’s the origin story of Luster?

Raven Leilani: I’d written a book before Luster, and I moved to New York for my MFA, and I thought this book would be my first novel. But there was a rigor about the MFA that reoriented me. I went home, looked at the book and thought, I could mean it more. So, I wrote Luster. I wanted to write a story that had all of my concerns of my previous project: a Black woman who is finding her way to her art and who is trying to contend with the social and economic barriers to pursuing that path.

Previously, I had been preoccupied with the originality of the work, but when I wrote that way, the work felt empty, pretentious. I was lucky to find mentors who asked me to articulate what I meant, and to my embarrassment, often I couldn’t explain myself. Then I started writing with the intention to be clear and communicative, which is the more vulnerable thing. I couldn’t have written Luster without that. Once I was willing to be direct and candid, I could write a character like Edie. And I felt less anxiety about potentially treading familiar territory—an artist’s journey, a dysfunctional marriage—because I think there is a way to imbue a story with a kind of specificity that makes it new.

Rumpus: I love sex writing, but it’s hard to come by!  But you maintain a standard where the sex writing seems like it is in everyday life: sometimes it’s mundane; sometimes it’s extraordinary.

Leilani: That was really important to me. And it’s fun to write. I’d get texts from friends as I was writing this, or emails when ARCs were out, and the email would say something like, is it okay that this is making me hot? And my feeling is, absolutely! That’s what you want, for a reader to have a response, but more seriously, sex, like work, is something I wanted to see represented on the page. Sex—how you have it, if you have it—is deeply relevant to character. In this book, it is just one more way to explore the private negotiations that are made around the body. The sex that I’m always drawn towards is the sex that is open about how silly and strange it can be. 

Rumpus: And funny, and gross. I didn’t make the assumption that this book was based on your life, but I do want to ask the question: do you consider this autofiction?

Leilani: I wouldn’t consider it autofiction. There’s a lot of me in it, but mostly in the way I always write toward my obsessions. I’ve always been really obsessed with talking about art and the way you find your way to it. And I’ve always been obsessed with failure, which is integral to pursuing anything.

Rumpus: I love the Kirkus review of Luster, especially the last line: “Leilani’s characters act in ways that often defy explanation, and that is part of what makes them so alive and so mesmerizing: Whose behavior, in real life, can be reduced to simple cause and effect?” That’s what I loved about this book, because if you had told me all the places we were going I could not have guessed any of them, but at the same time every moment felt right, like of course this is what happens next. Is this absurdism? Is there a niche genre you’d fit this in, or are you doing something new?

Leilani: As I was writing this, I was honestly preoccupied with all the ways my project wasn’t new. An aspiring artist getting absolutely flattened by New York. A dysfunctional suburban marriage. But Edie is a Black woman, one that is angry and wanton, and I hoped that would recontextualize the terrain. There are absurdities throughout, for sure. For one, the fact of Black woman moving through the world as freely as she does. She is a person who will simply let herself in.

In real life, we navigate public spaces with enormous consideration, and frequently have to defend our right to take up that space. And we know that question is a matter of life and death. There is absurdity in the relentlessness of living at these intersections, and you know, there’s clown school. But I wanted to make room for my characters to wander, to explore, and express the contradictions that make us human. I wanted my characters to have room to make mistakes. Once you commit to allowing them to fuck up, narrative has to accommodate the shagginess of that. There’s a freedom in having a Black character hold all of those contradictions, or to try and depict human responses, which aren’t necessarily subject to rational judgement.

Rumpus: Yes! And that’s another part that made this book so surprising. I’ve read this kind of character as a white man a million times…

Leilani: Right.

Rumpus: …who flies through life and the reader is repeatedly asking, “What are you doing?! Like take five minutes and breathe before you do something else.” I wanted Edie to take five minutes and regroup, but she’s going a hundred miles per hour.

Leilani: That’s right. That’s what I meant before about this story not being very new, but by making the character a Black woman it’s more conspicuous.

Rumpus: Okay, let’s talk about another character in particular. In my opinion, Rebecca could easily be a cut-and-dry villain, as the wife whose husband brings this young Black woman into their lives, but she’s more than that. Could you talk about writing her? 

Leilani: When I was writing Rebecca and I knew they were all going to be in this relationship together, I asked myself what’s the easiest way to do this and that was to make her an archetype: overtly horrible, overtly problematic. A jealous wife. The easy thing is to lift up a character like this and craft a sermon around it, and no doubt I’ve done that in some sections, but in general, I think people shut down when they glimpse a soapbox, and it is a little condescending and unproductive to deal entirely in extremes. I wanted to be sneakier, and I wanted to speak to the violence that is quiet, insidious. And in general, I wanted her to be a full, complex woman herself, who engages seriously with Edie.

You make her flat and villainous and there’s really no where to go from there. So my craft behind writing her was to think about how to write a woman within the context of this relationship who is not necessarily completely opposed to the union and what that means. It’s more interesting if she’s getting something out of it. Her relationship with Edie is fraught with fundamental social and economic differences, but also with the romance of seeing another woman’s honest face.

Rumpus: As the story unfolds, there were so many layers to your foreshadowing that different readers—people who identify as men, or white readers— are just not going to see until it’s too late.

Leilani: Right. You have a lot of books about the suburbs that are built around boredom, or the ennui of stasis, but when you’re Black in a place like that, those are really not the central problems. The moment Edie arrives, she doesn’t have the privilege of feeling aimless and bored, because she’s always being watched. If you’re Black reading this, you understand immediately how quickly that surveillance can become violence.

Rumpus: Edie often reminded me of the main characters from Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, and about the precariousness of Black life, especially as a Black woman. It almost seems like it’s mere luck when something doesn’t happen. There’s that scene where Edie’s making a delivery and the guy wants her to do something weird and I was just waiting for the worst-case scenario to occur.

Leilani: Yeah, when I was working for Postmates, it was always in the back of my mind. I took screenshots everywhere I went just so there would be proof of where I’d been. I was always hyperaware that the apartment building I was stepping into, as grim as it sounds, that I might not step back out again and there were some apartments that wouldn’t even let me in, because you know why. In writing these scenes, I felt like I was affording her a freedom on the page to wander in ways that a lot of us don’t have because we’re constantly aware of that precarity. She’s an active character, but that’s complicated when she’s a Black woman who is making active choices that in the real world would put her in danger.

Rumpus: That reminds of the way the first-person PoV works in Luster. You force us to do the work of questioning how much we can trust what Edie is telling us. Because she can be both extremely astute and then also obtuse, within the same chapter.

Leilani: Not to use hyperbole, but there’s nothing worse than a character who’s right about everything. For me it was important that she be wrong about things and she’s twenty-three, so she’s going to be wrong. The fact of her being an artist does mean she’s an observer, which was great for craft, because it allowed me to zero in. There’s a rage undergirding all of her observations and rage isn’t a clarifying lens. Rage is useful, but it’s hard to harness it in a way where the observations aren’t just an extension of the rage.

Rumpus: You establish that Edie is not necessarily a kind person, but then she meets Akila, the Black adopted daughter of Eric and Rebecca, and we observe that Edie can’t take seeing another Black woman who is struggling.

Leilani: Yeah, Edie sees Akila and the first thing Akila says is, “There are no Black people in this neighborhood.” That’s the thing that gets her attention. Edie sees a Black girl who is alone. It was important for this to be a fun book, which is why there are so many jokes, but it is also a book about loneliness and isolation. And Edie recognizes that in Akila right away. With that relationship, too, like with Edie and Rebecca’s, I didn’t want it to be uncomplicated. Akila is a character who has her own separate wants. She’s a person. Because of her history, her trust has to be earned. Edie and Akila don’t just fall in together. But it was important to me to build that kinship within a book with so many dark corners. It was important these Black girls find some relief in each other.

Rumpus: Who would you say is your intended audience?

Leilani: I wrote this for Black women. I wanted to write a character where room is made for the unruly. I wanted to write against respectability. Every Black woman I’ve spoken to about this book, the thing we end up talking about is, “I fucked up a lot. I was thrown a lot of detours.” I think it’s important to allow Black women leeway to stumble.

Rumpus: Yes!

Leilani: You know? When I started writing I thought, I’m going to write a messy fucking book, and it’s not going to make apologies. Edie’s going to make the same mistakes over and over again. I would obviously like other people to find something in this book, but for me, Black women were always my starting point. I didn’t want to legitimize the impossible standards that Black women are held to. Right now we’re seeing it online: Black women speaking out, and not just about the uppercase versions of what it means to move through the world, but the small demoralizing moments. Moments we are meant to bear with stoicism and with kindness, when those moments are violent. I’m tired of that. The expectation that we bear pain well, the idea that it is virtuous to do so, prioritizes our silence over our humanity. I wanted to write Black a woman who doesn’t handle it well. She buckles, she lashes out—she’s human.

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Photograph of Raven Leilani by Nina Subin.


Monet Patrice Thomas is a writer and poet from North Carolina. She is the interviews editor at The Rumpus and currently works and lives in Beijing, China. More from this author →