Luster's Raven Leilani grapples with the messy millennial and the American dream
Raven Leilani is having a very good summer. We’re speaking the day after the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize long list went out, which was also the night the first shipment of her books arrived at her building’s doorstep: 28 boxes, (probably) dozens of trips up and down to her apartment in the pouring rain. The scenario has the potential to be the stuff of both New York nightmares and dreams — the city can turn on a dime, depending on your circumstances and, often, your own perceived success — but standing in the rain staring at a few hundred copies of your debut novel, which is poised to be one of the (if not the) books of the summer is like the really good kind of movie montage.
Luster’s narrator, Edie, hasn’t ascended to this view of the city that’s often reserved for a privileged (or lucky, or both) few. Edie is in her early 20s, she’s working a criminally underpaid assistant job at a prominent children’s book publisher where she’s one of the only Black employees, her somehow-still-unaffordable apartment offers too many indignities to list (many are of the vermin variety), she’s drowning in debt and stress and coping by dating an older man in an open marriage. “I didn’t write this book with the intention of making a statement or even creating a ‘millennial book’ but I did,” Leilani, 29, says on the phone from one of her now-regular walks through the city. “When I wrote this I was kind of disgruntled about trying to balance work and art and I just drew from my experiences.”
Leilani’s circumstances don’t match her protagonists, but she identifies with plenty of the structural barriers to success that Edie faces: financial necessity informed her choice for both school and a first post-college job, the latter of which would shape her entire career's trajectory (and not in the way she would have liked). She lived in Washington, D.C. for five years — working what she describes as an “odd string” of jobs, most notably as a “submarine librarian” (her words) for the Department of Defense — before acting on her lingering itch to move to New York and try to make it as a writer. She wrote Luster two years ago during an MFA program at NYU while working a full-time job to pay the rent after five previous years of working a full-time job and workshopping her writing at night (often during open mic nights at the legendary Busboys & Poets). “I think there’s an element of searching for balance that found its way into Edie,” she says. “There is a hunger and a desperation to her, and I myself was often grappling with those feelings of hunger.”
Edie, as far as messy millennials go, is really quite messy. It must be said. It makes the novel so utterly readable, to page through the minutiae of all of her mistakes. She's slept with several people at work and her more formal relationship with Eric, the married father, is a lesson in the many ways that destructive youth collides with highly problematic and dangerous men-with-a-complex. Leilani was deliberate about all of it. “I wanted to see a Black woman on the page who f---s up, who is allowed to f--- up,” she says, laughing at her own language. “I’ve always been drawn to the well-worn territory of the unlikable woman — that shorthand that we all use for complex women — but I think it’s rare to see that woman be Black.” Leilani describes Edie as giving a constant careful performance in her personal and professional spheres (spheres that are overwhelmingly white) to the detriment of her humanity. “Her response to that is to act out," she says. “Her response to that is rage.” To those readers who might bristle at her protagonist's confusing decisions: “You have to understand that she’s not necessarily making bad choices; it’s that there are no good options to choose from.”
Luster, for its part, has had a storied journey to full novel-hood. Leilani secured an agent while still in her MFA program (she had about three chapters of the tome written); Zadie Smith was her then-thesis advisor and would become a strong early advocate for the book (even providing the coveted cover blurb). Luster was the summer’s biggest Galley Brag on Instagram. Leilani will kick off the book’s release with Emma Roberts’ book club and will be joined on tour with authors like Brit Bennett and Lisa Taddeo. She’s officially “made it,” a trajectory far beyond the reality of her narrator — a dream New York ending for a very New York book.
“There’s an element of, dare I talk about it, the American dream,” Leilani says. “It’s truly unattainable in the way it’s been presented — I love the creative hunger but the grind can be dehumanizing. I came to New York with a mission. It’s almost like, it’s okay, I can leave now. [Laughs] It’s okay to leave now.”