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Raven Leilani, author of Luster, on how to be alone in New York City

The novelist joins the Vox Book Club to discuss her smash hit debut.

Raven Leilani talking about her novel Luster at the Vox Book Club.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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The Vox Book Club spent this February with Raven Leilani’s Luster, a rich and powerful debut novel about the artistic development of a young Black woman. Luster follows Edie, who dreams of becoming a painter but finds herself working a series of terrible entry-level jobs in New York City instead. At the end of her rope, she winds up moving in with her white boyfriend, his white wife, and their Black daughter in their peaceful house out in the suburbs. There, Edie can at last find time to paint — but violence and turmoil lurk around the corners.

At the end of the month, as is our tradition, we met up with Leilani live on Zoom. Together, we talked through the problems of navigating the world as a Black woman, how to make New York City a character in your novel, and what it means to become an artist, no matter what your medium is.

You can check out our full conversation in the video above or read highlights in the transcript below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

And if you’d like to keep the fun going, sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter and stay tuned for the discussion of our March book, Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

Now let’s talk art!

The vulnerability of this book is so important, especially because so much of what Edie is experiencing is being in these weirdly gate-keeping industries. Which is something that you’ve also experienced. Besides being in an MFA program, you worked in publishing for a while, and those are both places where people spend a lot of time talking about what it takes to make a book publishable and what’s allowed and what isn’t. So did you feel those expectations or those conversations shaping the way you were going into the novel?

A lot of the book came from that sense of what you have to do in order to advance as a Black woman in the workplace. You have to engage in that performance. You have to project a professional avatar, and I feel like that itself is very loaded. Often as you come to work with the reduced self, understanding that as a Black professional your margin for error is very thin. In fact, that’s why this book is published under Raven Leilani [rather than her full name, Raven Leilani Baptiste]. The very first things I ever published were short stories and poetry, which I published while I was working a handful of jobs. I felt that I had to keep my artistic pursuits separate from what was actually feeding me. And part of that was because I had felt I had to defer to that expectation that I’d be kind of a sterile avatar in order to get anywhere professionally.

But yes, I definitely, in writing this book, was thinking a lot specifically about the character Edie, who’s an aspiring artist. I was thinking about how to depict that in a way that felt honest. And for me, the most honest way of depicting that journey was showing how you navigate around the world to do the work that you need emotionally.

And then so much of what is at the heart of the book is about Edie’s artistic maturity and becoming a painter. I know you’ve worked as a painter as well, or it’s been an area of yours. So what was your experience in that medium like, and then what was it like to transition more toward writing?

It was really, truly my first love. That’s always how I talk about painting: the very first thing I really loved and wanted to do with my life.

I was in a really great public high school that had a wonderful art program that was really rigorous. We would constantly produce work, and the critique was essential to the program. I always had a canvas under my arm.

But any art form where critique is central, it orients you to be aware of your competition, your peers, and also makes you very realistic on where you are in your journey. So when I was graduating high school, I was applying to programs and trying to think if I was going to go to a strictly art school or a liberal arts school. And I looked at my work and it didn’t feel quite there yet.

And so this book partly came from that. Partly came from my obsession with art but also what it feels like to grapple with your limits and to grapple with self-doubt. That is where I started.

I have a love of the medium, but I also am very close with the emotional trajectory of art-making, and I really wanted to put that on the page. But it’s also something that now I come to on my own time, and I really love just even the tactile element. It was important for me to get on the page.

How do you feel the artistic and emotional journey of making a painting is different from the emotional journey of making a story or a novel? How do those two processes line up against each other?

Where they overlap for me is that both, for me, require a level of study that I think is necessary if you’re trying to replicate a reality that has texture, that has feeling, and that feels true. Both would require curiosity and studiousness.

How they’re different for me is that with writing, I never really know if the thing is going to pan out until the end, but I still do feel like I have some control over how it ends up. With painting, I don’t know if this will always be how it is for me, but it really isn’t until it’s done that I feel like it’s worked out. When I’m in my painting, I’m lost until it’s done.

And so, in a way, I guess, both are a kind of discovery. And practicing both has made me have to be kinder to myself and be more realistic about the process, which is really messy and which is absolutely not a photogenic kind of process. I really think that both have taught me that sometimes you kind of have to step away and rest.

But also — this is, I think, a metaphor that a lot of people use, but painting itself looks terrible until it’s done, right? You have to get those layers down one after the other, to trust that what happened, what will come out in the end will be good or will be something of substance. And with writing, I feel the same way. It’s a mess, until it’s done.

And I think the controlled messiness of the characters is part of what’s so compelling about Luster. Especially for Edie, because she is very unruly in a way that it feels like we rarely get to see Black women characters be. To have a character who gets to make casual jokes about her abortion feels like a very Fleabag, messy-white-girl kind of thing. So what did it mean to you to be able to develop what this character looks like as a Black woman?

It was really exhilarating, and it was really liberating. To be able to depict a Black woman who is fallible in that way, who’s grappling with her own darkness, but also the darkness that’s out there in the world she kind of has to contend with or to survive. It was important to me that her messiness not be pathologized.

When I came to this project, I knew that I wanted to write a messy Black woman. Because I am a messy Black woman, and most of us are, but I wanted to make space for that expression. Because in our culture, we valorize or reward the stoicism of Black women. And I think that that is, in a way, rewarding our silence. Black women who are stoic and who are intact in the face of adversity and trauma, we call them brave and we call them strong. But being able to feel is human. I think that the expectation that we have that stoicism is an extremely dehumanizing thing. And it also has real-world ramifications across the board. There’s a lot of reporting on this: Our pain is illegible, and one piece of that is that expectation of our stoicism.

So it was important to me to write against that, to write against respectability. And not even just allow her to be human, but also to make the wrong choices, as we all do, and in that way to present the human being as a whole, not necessarily well behaved. But I don’t think you have to be or should have to be well behaved to be afforded empathy.

That was my project in writing messy Black voices. It was reporting. I was reflecting the data that is in my life, in the lives of women I love, but I also was trying to write against that.

It’s wild how literal that can be. I’ve read studies that Black and Hispanic women are less likely to be given literal painkillers in the hospital.

There was a really wonderful essay about Luster in the Virginia Quarterly Review by Kaitlyn Greenidge, where she reads Edie as a black female flâneur: someone who observes the city and moors herself in it but is not a member of the community and doesn’t interact with it. So how were you thinking about Edie’s relationship with New York City, which is such a character in this book?

Edie is an aspiring artist. So it’s imperative that she be studious and that she’s curious and watchful. She does that literally in this book, where she’s cataloging her environment and trying to figure out a way toward her self-portrait through her environment and having trouble with it in that way. And her Blackness, too, is a big part of why she has to be studious and hypervigilant.

But as far as New York as a character, that, too, was my love of this city. And also the material, a crazy amount of material of the city you can consume. But also, sitting somewhere in the text, Edie is thinking, and the way she thinks about the city is through her love of the anonymity it grants. I feel that deeply as an introvert. The good feeling of feeling like you are faceless and lost. Those things sound terrible.

It’s easier to be alone in a crowd in New York than anywhere else.

You feel like you’re a part of something, like a living breathing organism that’s made by everyone here.

As a character, New York is this dense environment that she feels can grant her this anonymity that she doesn’t really enjoy in some parts of her life, as a person who is Black and female. But it also is a city that is full of motion and speed and rhythm and that, in sort of her darker moments, she is just trying to keep her head above water.

So it is both. It is both a place of peace, but also a place where she loses herself in not the great sense. It was important for me to kind of use that backdrop in the way that I had felt it personally.

And then, of course, she goes off to the suburbs where the Walkers are. And traditionally in this kind of novel, the suburbs are sort of stultifying. They’re a trap, and you have to get out. But for Edie, they become this really hostile place of surveillance where she’s just always being watched and there’s this threat of potential violence running through it. So how did you think about seeding that possibility of violence into the background of the novel?

That part of the book is two-sided. When she arrives in the suburbs, it’s a place she’s freed from having to think about rent. She’s actually able to turn her attention to her work and start painting. So it’s a place that is extremely fertile for her when she finally gets going, but also, because she is a Black woman, it is not this idyllic place of stasis. The malaise isn’t that nothing happens. There is this assumption that she doesn’t belong there, and she feels it immediately, and she feels how that surveillance can become violence.

When I wrote those scenes, I wanted to write both what that space and what that silence allows you in terms of your work, but also what is often behind that silence. The way that it can be violent even if it’s more covert, and the way that can become less covert at the drop of the hat.

And yet at the same time, there is all of that joy in this book. There’s the disco and there’s the Comic-Con. So how did you think about balancing those two emotional poles?

It was really important to me to have, in this book, a lot of dark corners, in this book that is about — I’m trying to replicate the consciousness of a Black woman. I felt a responsibility to tell the truth but also to make space for there to be joy. And so yes, there’s disco, partly because it’s a genre I really love and I feel like it embodies that joy. It was important for me to have these sites where the Black women can let down their guard and enjoy themselves and engage earnestly with something they love.

I want to talk a little bit about the pacing. It’s almost musical the way that sometimes Edie will be sort of hurtling through an experience in this really breakneck pace, like the first sex scene that is just this one single sentence. And then other times, it turns into this sort of languorous and fragmented timeline. So how did you think about feeling your way through to the right rhythm as you were writing?

When you’re writing, I feel like the worst thing you can do is to be thinking, “What will people think when they read this? Who’s gonna want to continue to the end?” When it comes to the structure, I was really thinking about any potential readers. I was thinking, how do I keep a reader with me? How do I make sure that they’re not bored and are reading toward something? That was a huge part of why I structured it that way and perhaps even why the book is short as it is. But also, you want to keep that excitement and life. So that I’m writing toward something but also so that the readers are reading toward something.

In the pacing, I think on a sentence level, language was my biggest tool. That sex scene you were talking about, in order to try and convey the frenzy and the desperation of this moment where she really, really wants to have sex with this person and she doesn’t understand why it’s not happening. I actually do think that the not having sex is also really interesting real estate. And so, in order to convey that frenzy, I use language.

I used long sentences, also, to help me transition in time. I was just talking with someone recently about why I did that, and part of it is because I think time is such a hard thing to kind of make palpable, the passing of time, and so I tried to do that with motion and with language.

So now let’s go to our audience Q&A. There are a couple of people who want to know about the choice to call the novel Luster. There are a few meanings there, right?

The title that I came in with was not the title that I ended up with. This was a real brainstorming session that I have with my editor, Jenna Johnson, who’s amazing. We landed on Luster, and as soon as I saw it in my Notes app, on the list of names I was considering, it felt right.

It felt right because it does have that most initial thing, which is that wordplay of lust. Desires are central to the book. And there is that luster of the fantasy up against the flesh, or the fantasy up against the real-life complications of pursuing something or trying to remain attached to a human being. And then also, more importantly, for me the title is about how to retain that when we’re trying to strive for something that is difficult, in a world that is difficult.

Edie is trying to remain intact, fighting a war on a number of fronts and trying to retain that spark, and God bless her, in the midst of a tumultuous year. And also in an environment that would have her dampen her spirit and her personhood.