Raven Leilani on Writing a ‘Messy Black Woman’

Posted by Cybil on August 1, 2020
Luster is the breathtaking and often hilarious debut from novelist Raven Leilani.

The story follows Edie, a 23-year-old trying to find her way in New York City, up against some big forces: She lives in a tiny, mouse-infested apartment, she’s financially overwhelmed by her student loans, and she keeps getting involved with men who are painfully wrong for her. Professionally, she’s stumbling at her job in the publishing industry, where she’s one of just two young Black women in her office. 

Her life takes a series of unusual turns when she becomes romantically involved with Eric, a married 40-something white man in an open marriage. 

Luster has been championed by highly acclaimed authors, including Ling Ma, Brit Bennett, and Zadie Smith, who called the book “brilliant—and brutal.” Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw caught up with Leilani by phone this summer, at a time when she was beginning to venture out for walks after staying inside her Brooklyn apartment “for a long time” due to the pandemic. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: I loved your book. Are you tired of hearing people tell you this?

Raven Leilani: Never! Thank you.

GR: It was funny and profound and sad. I mean, I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said…  

RL: But It always feels good to hear.

GR: What’s it like, being on the cusp of having your first book come out? 

RL: It’s really crazy. I’m a severely introverted person, and I think there are parts of the book that speak to that. And so, it’s wild to be in the middle of a transition where those documents that I worked on at 2 a.m. in my apartment are out in the world. There’s something so cool about people taking the time to engage with it—especially in this moment, when I feel like everything is happening all at once. The process feels more intense in that way. 

GR: When you say “everything happening all at once,” you mean…  

RL: This moment that we’re in. Like, I feel a little bit feral, if I’m permitted to say that. It’s very odd to be debuting and have my work finally be public at a time when I’m at home, along with the rest of the world, watching, waiting to see how this is all going to play out.

GR: Your book addresses many topics that are being explored in mainstream conversations right now, including police brutality. 

RL: That’s right. I’m glad that people are now seeking out more information and trying to learn. The book I wrote was an extension of my own experience. And it just so happens that for a lot of Black Americans that experience is ordinary. That aspect of my book is a well-trodden area. It feels like more of an indictment of our country that this is as relevant as it is. 

GR: You mean that it’s been allowed to continue for so long? 

RL: Exactly. That I could write a scene like that and it will still be current. It’s not cast in the past. It’s right here all the time.

GR: I’m being vague to avoid spoilers. What I find interesting is that the incident of police brutality doesn’t seem particularly shocking to the character, and it’s not even a theme of the book. 

RL: Right. It’s an ordinary thing. I’m also learning to speak about the book without spoilers. And I tried in my book to talk about the idea of racism as not being this conspicuous, dramatic, and extraordinary thing. It’s mundane and ordinary. And that’s the problem. 

During this moment, I’ve had friends who are maybe looking at the world with new eyes call me or text me and say, “I remember that thing that happened...” Like some small microaggression that they were there to witness. And it’s an odd thing to say, “Oh, I don’t remember that.” Because it’s ordinary.

GR: What did you originally set out to examine in the book? 

RL: I wanted to write a book about a Black woman that allowed her the room to make mistakes. I wanted to write a book where my protagonist is not pristine and not particularly moral. I was hoping to create a portrait of a person who’s human, who’s flawed and fallible. 

I thought that was important, specifically for Black women. We live in a world where there are many institutions and people invested in policing our feelings and our bodies. It’s a tightrope that flattens our humanity. 

You see that in the book, through Edie’s constant calculation. She moves from room to room and decides which face she needs to have. That’s dehumanizing.

And I wanted to write a book in the first person, where, even as she’s doing that, you can see her anger and her rage and her humanity. So that was the starting point: I wanted to write a messy Black woman. 

GR: I’m thinking of how she’s constantly aware of how the white characters in the novel are reacting to her and her ability to shift their feelings toward her.

RL: Exactly. Because for a lot of us, how we survive is managing the feelings and the people around us, because sometimes those feelings become violent. 

But in thinking about how people see you and then shaping yourself so that you will be safe, you become not yourself. And you see that in the book where she’s trying to paint the self portrait, and she can’t. That is my figurative way of saying that—even in this private moment of making art—she still has to confront this distorted version of herself. 

GR: Art is a big theme in the book. And I’ve seen the incredible portraits on your website. I wondered if you went to art school? 

RL: That was one of the first things I thought I was going to do with my life. Growing up, my family was full of artists. But at the last moment, when I was about to ship off to college, I had a come-to-Jesus moment, where I was real about the skill I’d need to make a true go of it. And I simply did not have that. Not only that, but I didn’t have the will to be better. And that’s an important distinction, because I’ve never felt that with writing. When it’s hard, I still really love it. I still really want to be better. 

GR: When did you start writing?

RL: When I was around 12, maybe earlier. I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Among Seventh Day Adventists, the biggest thing we do—though I’m no longer practicing—is observance of the Sabbath. 

As a kid, I felt extremely restless. On the Sabbath, you can’t do anything secular from Friday night to Saturday night. When you’re a child or a teenager, it shapes your social life. Not just in having to explain to your friends at school what the Sabbath is, but you have to explain: I can’t dance because it’s my religion, I can’t come out on Friday night, I can’t listen to Britney Spears on Saturday. 

With respect to the good things that religion gave me, even though I’m atheist now, I was extremely desperate for stimulation growing up because of that. And so I began to write. And it was a secret because I was breaking the Sabbath to write. That was how I got through. 

And the second part is that I started writing fan fiction at a young age and I just kept doing it. It was the first way I started interacting with people reading my work. Reviewers would leave comments and I’d respond to them and update my chapters. It made writing a thing I really loved, a thing that I could escape into. 

GR: I enjoyed the chapters set in the publishing world, where Edie is one of two young Black women in the office. Here again, your book gets at conversations that are happening in the mainstream news, such as #PublishingSoWhite. I didn’t think your book was directly about that, but the ideas were explored in some scenes. Is that fair to say?

RL: Absolutely. I was definitely speaking to that. Like, there’s a section in the book where she goes to a Diversity Giveaway. [It’s a table with free books for employees: Three are about enslaved Black people, another is “a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.”

In some ways, it’s a hyperbolic commentary on the things you’re allowed to write when you’re trying to publish a book. And it’s not even like that is specific to Black people. Like, who gets to tell our stories? Often it’s not even us. And when we get to tell our stories, we have to wrestle with the desire for the archetypal stories—the stories that are reductive, the stories that people are most comfortable with. And I wanted to push against that comfort.

GR: As a writer, did you ever feel like you had to follow in that mold?

RL: I would say no just because I cannot write a thing I do not want to write. But as a Black woman who is a writer, you are aware that there are familiar stories that people are comfortable with, that you can perhaps tell. 

You’re aware of that pressure. You’re aware of the fact that if you tell a story that breaks from the archetype of what is familiar and comfortable that maybe you won’t be seen. But I was comfortable taking that risk. I just felt so moved to make something that felt honest. To write the parts that are a little ugly or a little unsavory is to write a human story. And so that was my main influence in writing. 

GR: That really shines through. I’m thinking of a tiny detail in the book when Edie snags a seat on a crowded subway from a pregnant woman. It’s such an honest moment, and one example of how she’s a complicated character. 

RL: That is a very cut-and-dry example of a bad thing that she did. And that leads to the mission statement, which is not to make something where I am asking the reader to like this person. In some ways, I’m asking the reader to see this person as human, even if they don’t like her. I don’t think that liking a person should be a prerequisite for understanding her humanity—yet in some ways it is.  

GR: Could you talk about your writing process? 

RL: My process is I cannot write around people! I have to be alone. That’s the first thing. I have friends who go to a café and write. I’d love to be at a table, outside, having a cappuccino. But when I’ve written outside, I’ve felt on guard in a way that I really need not to be when I’m writing. Being alone frees me to write the id onto the page. 

But the process is: I write what feels good and I write regularly. I don’t wait for inspiration. I have to jump into it. I do this thing where I say, “OK, write five sentences,” and inevitably after those five sentences, I’m in it, I’m going. And I’m also a person where It’s hard for me to get down a shitty draft. I’m sorry, am I allowed to curse? I need to feel—at least when I’m writing—that what I’m writing is the final iteration. So that means that it can take me a very long time to get even five sentences out. If I feel like something’s wrong with that fourth one, I cannot continue. Though, inevitably, you let it sit in the drawer, and you totally demolish it on the second pass anyway.

GR: Who are some of your biggest writing influences? 

RL: I love Claudia Rankine. Her work is brilliant and precise, particularly in the way that it is observant. That’s the kind of writing that I love, writing that’s borderline scientific, in the way that observation underpins science. Toni Morrison is obvious and probably everyone’s answer. But her writing, on a sentence level, even beyond her themes, is so abundant and beautiful. What makes me love a book rather than just like it is that energy on a sentence level. Nabokov, too, has that. Morgan Parker is a poet that I love reading. Brit Bennett is also incredible and tender in the way she writes about Black womanhood, Black motherhood. Carmen Maria Machado’s story in Her Body and Other Parties was really important to me in actually writing this book, because it’s a brilliant lesson in craft. I love Ottessa Moshfegh because there’s something so uncut and honest about her prose. And Zadie, too, her humor is deeply funny. 

GR: Zadie Smith was your professor at NYU, is that right?  

RL: Yes. It was wonderful. I feel really grateful that our paths have happened to cross. She was also my adviser as I was writing this book, and she was so generous. She pushed me to be brave, to write what I want, and that that was really, really valuable.  

GR: Can you say more about how she pushed you to be brave? 

RL: It relates to what we were talking about earlier. There is a temptation, especially if you’ve worked in publishing, to tell the story that people are looking for from you. And I felt when writing this project that...this wasn’t that. 

I wondered what my responsibility was, as a Black woman writer, to be fair and kind to my Black characters. It’s so weird because I’ve said that writing this, I was writing up against the idea of respectability, an idea of the pristine character. But you still do feel that pull to make it clean, just to make it more palatable. At least, I did. And It was really important for me to hear from people who’ve been through it, who are veterans. You need to write what you want. You need to write what is your truth. Write honestly and don’t think about the rest. And that freed me up. So much of this endeavor is about feeling that you have the freedom to write in that way.

GR: What are you reading these days? 

RL: There are so many good books out now! Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is brilliant. C Pam Zhang’s book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. I really enjoy her prose. I love Lakewood by Megan Giddings. I love A Burning by Megha Majumdar. I also love a memoir that’s coming out the same day as mine, called Being Lolita by Alisson Wood. She was in my program and I watched her work on it. I’m really excited for that. I like These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card. And Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang. And Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby. Whenever I pick up one of her books, I just feel light, like I’m with a friend. 

GR: What advice do you find yourself giving to people who are trying to write their first book?  

RL: You have to be in love with what you’re writing. Someone might read that and feel it’s too sentimental an idea of what a creative project is, because it’s going to be hard. You have to push through and you can’t wait for inspiration, because it’s a practice. You just have to put in the hours and work. 

But on a core level, there has to be some obsession, some love that is moving you to write. Because the moment you begin to defer to what you think people want you to write, your readers check out. It’s very easy to sense when a writer is bored with their subject matter. 

When I talk to my students about this, I say: Lean into the private, specific things you think maybe no one else will relate to, because those tend to be the things that are actually universal. Those private, specific—maybe even shameful—things that you think are only particular to you? I guarantee they’re not. 


Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, will be available in the U.S. on August 4. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye Can't wait to read this after reading this thoughtful feisty interview,
Thanks for including some new titles that I will pursue.

message 2: by Harry (new)

Harry Hill Great interview It certainly made me want to read Luster.

message 3: by Shaundra (new)

Shaundra I was intrigued by the abstract. Now, this open, poignant interview really makes me want to read this book. Heads off to add now.

message 4: by TMR (new)

TMR I would love to read this.

message 6: by Hector (new)

Hector Fenwick How can I be interviewed?

message 7: by Agnes (new)

Agnes I want read the book.you are a lovely daughter I’m mrs dissanayake.....from kandy Srilanka

message 8: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Bacon I don't think I would like to read this book, starting off negative, a choice to write about anything (fantasy) starts off sad

message 9: by Milé (new)

Milé Mothibe I second most comments so far. I'll be adding this book to my shopping cart, pronto.

message 10: by Shanica (new)

Shanica I was led to this post/interview because of an email I received and when I started reading the interview, it felt like an reenactment of the actual one on one, though I wasn't there. So I had to finish it. I'm glad I did. I will definitely add this author to my collection.

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