Raven Leilani has one of this summer’s most anticipated fiction debuts, but in some ways, she is already anticipating the day the buzz dies down.
That is when she plans to take some time to grieve the loss of her father, Warren, who died from Covid-19 in April. “There’s an aspect of this moment — because of the enormity of it, you see the number of people who have died — it feels abstract,” she said in an interview. “But it’s not abstract at all. Every single number was a person, and one of those was my dad.”
Because of their complicated relationship, her parents’ separation when Leilani was in college and the forced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, she has had to process the loss alone. That kind of solitude is not what she is used to, having grown up first in the Bronx, then a suburb of Albany, N.Y., in a family of West Indian artists who encouraged her creativity.
For years, she juggled jobs and art, doing her writing at night or during work shifts. “The going was slow and the going was private,” Leilani said. “There was a frenzy to that grind.”
It’s a frenzy she captures in her novel, “Luster,” out on Tuesday. It follows Edie, a Black woman in her 20s scraping by on a publishing salary while trying to self-actualize as an artist. When Edie meets Eric, an older, married white man whose wife has agreed to an open marriage, Edie becomes entangled with them and their daughter — an adopted Black 12-year-old named Akila — in unexpected ways.
“I wanted to write a story about a Black woman who fails a lot and is sort of grasping for human connection and making mistakes,” Leilani, now 29, said. “I didn’t want her to be a pristine, neatly moral character.”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Leilani’s publisher, has named “Luster” its novel of August, part of a campaign this year highlighting reading “for solace, for protection, for instruction, for survival, for music.” “She is exactly the kind of writer that we’ve always published and that we’ve always been dedicated to publishing — someone who is an artist and a craftsman, but also someone who is speaking to her moment and our cultural history,” Jenna Johnson, who acquired the book for the publisher, said.
Ahead of its publication, “Luster” has already been praised by other writers, including Carmen Maria Machado, Brit Bennett and Angela Flournoy. In an email, Zadie Smith, who taught Leilani in grad school, called “Luster” a “daring, perverse, wildly funny book about how we use each other — especially how the old use the young, socially, economically and intimately.”
Machado, the author of “In the Dream House” and “Her Body and Other Parties,” said “Luster” “took me by the throat and didn’t really let me go,” particularly when it came to the way Leilani writes about sex. “They were hot and real and also did all the things I want sex scenes to do, which is feel realistic, sometimes be sexy, sometimes be unpleasant or stressful, but allowing for both, allowing for real bodies,” Machado said.
For Leilani, those scenes were her way to capture “a free Black girl” and the “perversity” of sexual thoughts when allowed to roam free. She also wanted to highlight a nonlinear artistic path, one that came in contact with the real world. “You talk to other writers and they’re sort of dogged by this specter of ‘I’m not making anything,’” she said, “but for most of us, that’s the reality of making art, is not making it.”
That Edie is a painter is no coincidence. As a teenager, Leilani expected that she would be a visual artist as well. She attended a high school with a strong art program, where she said she and her classmates engaged in serious critiques of their work. But when it came time to apply for college, she realized that she wasn’t quite good enough to make a career out of painting.
“I still loved it a lot, and I think you can see that in a lot of my writing, but with grappling with those artistic limits, I found that it took the love out of it a little bit,” she said. “With writing, that’s not the case. Even when it’s hard, I still love it.”
After graduating college in 2012, Leilani took the first job she could find, as an imaging specialist at Ancestry.com. She went on to work at a scientific journal, on a top-secret project for the Department of Defense and as a Postmates delivery person. When she moved from Washington to New York to pursue her M.F.A. at New York University in 2017, she joined Macmillan as a production associate.
“I’d write inside the HTML of the e-books, so it looked like I was making corrections,” she said, “but I was writing ‘Luster.’” At other jobs, she wrote on the backs of receipts or in email drafts. Leilani started writing under her first and middle name — her surname is Baptiste — as a way to separate her literary work from her employment.
Those years are present in much of her work. The job at the Department of Defense inspired the short story “Hard Water.” In 2016, she found herself having trouble breathing for half a year and turned the experience into the story “Breathing Exercise,” published in the Yale Review. And she was adamant that work play a big role in the lives of the characters in “Luster.”
“It was important to me,” Leilani said, “to have a book where characters have work, where characters have something they do and care about.”
Her early writing years involved a lot of trial and error, including a “sexy science fiction” novel and another that drew on her love of comic books and music. “I felt preoccupied with the idea of an original product. I wanted it to be weird and I wanted it to be strange and I wanted it to feel new,” she said. “But when I was working on those projects, they felt very opaque and without purpose.”
So when she got to grad school, she discarded them and thought, “I can do better. And not just do better, but write something that I really mean.” “Luster,” Leilani said, “was an experiment in speaking honestly and in committing to a distinct point of view.”
Her goal in developing the character of Edie was to melt away the “studiedness” that people — especially Black people — learn as a survival mechanism in a world where they are constantly surveilled. “I wanted Edie to take up space,” she said. “I wanted her to always be articulating to us, even though she’s not articulating to the people in her environment, what she wanted.”
In a review of the book in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the writer Kaitlyn Greenidge described Edie as a Black flâneur, one who walks through the city cataloging her surroundings, blending in as best she can with the crowd.
“She is playing with language in such an invigorating way,” Greenidge said in an interview. “People say that about literary novels all the time: ‘oh, the language, the language, the language.’ But oftentimes that ends up in inscrutable or not very exciting sentences. That is not the case with Raven. Her use of language is truly surprising.”
Leilani, who often clears her head with long walks around New York City, was struck by the flâneur comparison. She credits poetry as formative to her writing. “There’s something beautiful about rhythm, about style, about pattern,” she said. “I think because I started with a love of poetry, the way I sort of transitioned into writing prose and novel-length stuff and short fiction is that I still felt obsessed by the part of writing that is about language.” She often obsesses over sentence-level changes and won’t move on until she gets it just right.
Now she writes full-time, spending most of her days seated on her bed, slowly making a dent in it while she writes until “the sun is gone.”
“Because so much of my life has been work, has been a deferral of my dream to make anything in terms of my art,” Leilani said, “it feels incredible that my days right now can be about that. It feels magical.”