Raven Leilani

On writing black interiority

Rizvana Bradley

When raven leilani’s debut novel, Luster, first found me, I wasn’t ready. It was winter in the Sonoran Desert, where I’d sought a fleeting refuge after the semester’s long haul. I wanted to read without having to ask how literature could be put to work, and instead allow it to work through me, murky and indeterminate.

But Luster didn’t just get under my skin. Encountering Leilani’s searing prose, and the entanglements between her characters—Edie, the twenty-three-year-old black protagonist; Eric, the mar­ried white man with whom she is having an affair; Rebecca, his white wife; and Akila, their adopted black daughter—felt like running my hands over the sharp surfaces of the world’s every­day cruelties. Leilani’s confrontations with the precarities of race, gender, and class conveyed the beauty and the devastation that are inherent in the politics of intimacy, the psychic life of antiblackness, and the difficult inheritances of femininity. I thought of the literary scholar Hortense Spillers’s assertion that the mythic figure of the black woman has come to demarcate “a sexual limit, at which point ‘sexuality’ did not have a name anymore.” Leilani seemed to be writ­ing into this namelessness, toward a grammar of the unspeakable psychic and corporeal life of black femininity.

This is true of Leilani’s writing and thinking beyond Luster, too. Her Pushcart Prize–winning short story, “Breathing Exercise” (first published in The Yale Review in 2020), follows a young black woman wracked by an undiagnosable illness. Here, as in Luster, she renders the particularities of black women’s experiences with­out seeking to reconcile their contradictions: between debasement and rapture, ecstasy and banality, the erotic and the abject, illness and resilience. No transgression or indecorum is off the table, and Leilani’s writing is always inflected with dark humor—even if, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s phrasing, “comedy is always comedy of survival.” (Still, there are few contemporary writers whose “com­edy stretches into darkness” with such grace and critical acumen, while also refusing “the desire for comedy as repair.”) In its humor and audacity, Leilani’s writing refuses to choose between the recu­perative reflexes of U.S. liberalism and the unequivocal antiblack violence these recuperations halfheartedly conceal. In this way, it manages somehow to slip beneath the racially gendered impasses of a contemporary literary imagination clearly reshaped yet pro­foundly unchanged by the politics of our so-called post–George Floyd moment.

Leilani’s work has received numerous literary awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and an HBO television adaptation of Luster recently began development. She and I corresponded over email in the winter of 2022 about artistry, survival, and the customary malign neglect of black women’s phys­iological well-being.

Rizvana Bradley

rizvana bradley Like many reviewers, I was struck by Luster’s critical, sometimes even excoriating, exposition of the quotidian rhythms of racialized, gendered life in the United States. This stance neither appeals to familiar progressive discourses of mul­ticulturalism and racial justice nor explicitly names the racially gendered antagonisms with which each page of the novel, not to mention each character within it, seems respectively to contend. (Toni Morrison might have called this a practice, paradoxically, of speaking “unspeakable things unspoken.”) How did you manage to refuse routine grammars of representation, which all too often demand that every injury or deviance be rendered easily legible to some ostensibly universal public?

raven leilani Now that it has been a few years since the book came out, I feel more able to articulate how my own life—my relation­ship to making art, how I was paying my bills, the ways I had been indoctrinated into specific social codes regarding carnality and misbehavior—shaped the preoccupations of the book. While I was writing about a black girl grappling with her artistry, I was grap­pling with my own. The book came in a panic, the fastest I’ve ever written anything, and it happened, like Edie’s paintings, between working hours. It was personal.

Everything I do starts in the personal, and if it doesn’t, it dies. My belief in the necessity of sexual and artistic error is present in the book, in Edie’s choices and miscalculations, but the ideological often becomes visible to me only belatedly, partly because when I’m writing, I’m purely in the feeling. My north star is: does it feel good, does it feel true? And what felt good and true was a black girl homing in on her tools, on the kind of sex she wants to have, on her thresholds for intimacy and failure—and rendering that with extreme specificity. It meant rendering, too, the things standing in the way. There were things in my way, including financial imped­iments that made time scarce and writing slow, and doubt in my ability to bring the vision inside of me outside of me. Edie was an embodiment of a wish for the right to be human about those impediments, to be fucked up by them, intolerant of them, and utterly bent on making that felt.

rb Luster itself is so much about the commitment to artmaking, specifically painting. There is a way in which your writing traces the formal practice of painting: the reader can feel the rough shap­ing of difficult feelings, expansive shifts and modulations, where the provisional sketch of a thought or feeling is gradually filled in by language. In your work, do painting and writing unfold in one another’s shadows?

rl Painting was my first medium, the first place I comprehended artistic failure. In hindsight, I see that this book started as a way to revisit that medium. The processes of writing and painting have overlaps—periods of utter bewilderment, where you are grasping for the shape of the thing; the complete collapse of time, when you begin to disappear into it; and of course, the constant aware­ness of your limits, which either force invention or bring the whole undertaking to a halt. In both mediums, there is romance and humiliation, a dance between the more material parts of artmaking and those that are unconscious, ecstatic. I like how you put it, a “provisional sketch,” a contour of a feeling. I like the looseness of that language. Painting and writing are about cultivating that kind of looseness, being porous and open to witnessing, reflecting back what you see with emotional honesty.

Writing interactions between women is always a dreamy prospect because I get to spend time in the brutal, data-rich territory of people who look.

rb Some critics have noted that Luster is an erotic novel. It opens with an extramarital affair, but later there’s a shift away from that escapade and toward the relationships among the three women, Edie, Rebecca, and Akila, who arguably supply the novel’s centripe­tal pull and displace Eric to a certain degree. Their entanglement is eccentric and even anomalous, defined by incongruencies that have to do not only with race but also with age and class. The dispar­ity between Edie’s and Akila’s respective experiences of blackness is particularly interesting; they differently inhabit yet nonetheless share a state of precarity. I think it’s important to attend to this riven commonality, which seems to me a dimension that has gone largely unexplored in Luster’s critical reception.

Akila’s and Edie’s relationship, mediated by Rebecca, gives rise to complex feelings of bitterness in each of them, but also to ten­derness and vulnerability. They are reluctantly thrown into inti­mate proximity, not merely by the fact of sharing physical space, but also by their shared exposure to the antiblackness that is woven through the minutiae of their domestic lives. There is a subtle cru­elty to this multiracial family drama, which Akila and Edie experi­ence as both a desire for and a resentment about being seen by each other in their unseen-ness.

rl Thank you for seeing that shift. It came from a crucial moment during the writing, a moment where the book rejected its original form, which was concerned principally with that initial romantic relationship, and showed me what I cared about more. Giving the narrative over to women, I think, heightens the requirement and quality of observation.

Women are incredible students of each other, and writing interactions between them is always a dreamy prospect because I get to spend time in the brutal, data-rich territory of people who look. There is always brutality in observation at close range, and I wanted to foreground the kind of friction of witnessing that occurs within the walls of a single house. With Akila and Edie there is a special kind of scrutiny that comes from the recognition of a shared black femme experience, though the paradox is that the connection makes them very alert to, and potentially unforgiving of, the places they diverge. And even for the parts that align, to see yourself in another isn’t always welcome, especially if what is being reflected back at you is lostness or need. It was important for me to have two black women confront each other in this way, and important also to have that confrontation end in tenderness.

rb In a 2019 conversation with me in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Saidiya Hartman stressed the importance of black women’s “prac­tice of regard for one another,” which she argues is “so important, so critical because Black women are treated with such little regard…in the world.” I’m interested in “regard” as a unique modality of attention, an art of noticing related to your comment about women being students of one another. How do you think about this qual­ity of attention as it manifests across the fault lines, and lines of identification, between your women characters?

rl Noticing is data collection but also data itself. There’s a lot of information in the details a person is inclined to notice, infor­mation in the extremity of the subjective response. For example, Rebecca’s punishing relationship to her own body has a particular resonance and legibility to Edie because of her own conditioning and dysmorphia. Because of Akila’s competence, which has formed to compensate for the negligence of adults, Edie’s incompetence is noticeable to her—and distasteful. To engage with what a charac­ter notices is to engage with their values and biography—what is familiar to them, what they yearn for, what they hope is not notice­able about themselves.

I loved writing the sex scenes. Scenes of bad sex, okay sex, sex that makes Edie believe, briefly, in God.

rb Many reviews of your novel highlight its erotic overtones yet stop short of really grappling with both the mundanity and miraculousness of its protagonist’s sexuality, which takes shape in a world that has always both demanded and condemned black women’s sexuality. You explore a complicated ambivalence, an inscrutable desire, that lies beneath the appearance of black femi­nine acquiescence to certain sexual demands—beneath the ruse of consent to violent forms of objectification—while simultaneously conveying the psychic toll such negotiations take. This brings up something elusive and profound about the general endurance of what Christina Sharpe might call “the sadomasochism of everyday black life.” In the novel, we see Edie willfully inhabiting these con­tradictory realities.

rl This relates to what I was saying earlier about unlearning the specific indoctrination that blunts a lot of black women’s free­dom to inhabit the contradictory and varied spectrum of sexuality. The no-win binary of hypersexualization or sexlessness: both are narrow, inhumane states that don’t account for the vast territory between the mammy and the slut. The hyperconsciousness of the tightrope between them is, to me, supremely unerotic. So to be earnestly sexual and able to fuck or not fuck on your own terms under that pressure is miraculous. To be so free of that pressure that sex can be quotidian is miraculous.

I loved writing the sex scenes. Scenes of bad sex, okay sex, sex that makes Edie believe, briefly, in God. There, too, I thought it was important that she be allowed error, the kind that is unpro­ductive and the kind that is preliminary to discovery and joy. In writing, there is also virtue in the unproductive, in the idea of play. There’s meaning in eschewing moralism and writing toward the gray area.

rb In your writing, you explore the acerbic quality of black fem­inist humor. In Luster, that humor is mobilized to pick apart and dislodge the carefully choreographed suburban landscape of post-racial acceptance that Edie stumbles into and to puncture the com­fortable veneer of political correctness. Can you speak to the part humor plays in your writing?

rl I know very little at the beginning of a project, so I was sur­prised by how immediately that sensibility developed, I think in part because the book starts with sex. There is the hyperbole of abjection, the exertion of id, and their extreme dissonance with the performance of composure. Incongruity is funny, and the book is built around incongruencies—steep power differentials; Edie’s permissiveness and her colder, interior eye; and, to borrow the quote you used, the sadomasochism of everyday black life and the deadpan response it necessitates. The response is deadpan because it flows from a recognition of the dailiness of that violence, or more bleakly, an erosion of the will to be moved by it or to make it special through the expression of your rage. I would like to call that humor refusal, but it is also a callus, a way to survive.

Because of that, the privacy of Edie’s mind is crucial to her self-preservation, but also to her humor, if only because very close observation is inherently funny, in addition to being brutal. The absurdity of your subject can be made apparent just by lingering on it, and the right to observe, and to report what you’ve observed, is more urgent when you’ve been conditioned not only to mistrust your eyes, but to be quiet about what you see.

The body’s capacity for pleasure, how acutely it orients you toward that biological imperative, is a comedy of its own.

rb Luster doesn’t flinch or cut away from the body and its viscerality. I’m interested in hearing more about the way the gut is explored in the novel, and how Edie’s metabolic breakdown is understood to be bound up with, or symptomatic of, the unbearable realities of racism and sexism. What is the relationship between the vis­ceral, indigestion, and what perhaps remains unnarratable within the novel?

rl I wanted Edie’s bodily reality to be concrete. She is not exactly engaging in self-care. She’s doing what’s expected, which is both nothing and very much, to make her sickness less visible as she goes about her life. But I wanted to make it visible, to make that covert management overt, show how it touches everything.

This summer, I went out to lunch with two artists I love. We ate, gossiped, and when the check came, all confessed that we were each headed to appointments to address physical pain. We’d spent hours together, and not one of us had felt that our pain was note­worthy enough to mention. It was revealed only coincidently, in talking about where we were going next. I have my own personal bias toward this subject as a person who has, for much of my adult life, been seeking help for ailments that are hard to address, whether because they present undramatically, or because I, with corrobora­tion from the people meant to help me, have convinced myself that what I was going through was unserious. It’s a common feminine experience, and obviously that has a special dimension when the woman is black. The ability to seek help and also be heard is, of course, bound up in racism and sexism, and so are the conditions themselves. Racism makes you sick.

rb Luster’s focus on the visceral strikes me as connected to its humor. It brings to mind the theory of humoralism, by which a person’s temperament and tendency to certain kinds of illness was believed to be determined by the balance and complex interaction among the four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. What is the relationship between the comic and the cor­poreal in your approach to writing in general, and the novel form in particular?

rl There is comedy in disrepair, and merit in even those observa­tions that don’t traffic in uplift. There’s comedy in extremity. Both ruin and drama are native to the body, especially one that is vul­nerable in the ways Edie’s is vulnerable. Writing about the body candidly means writing about the marriage between extremity and disrepair, or at least the absurdity of the frantic public maintenance that that condition requires. Pleasure too. Sex is silly. The body’s capacity for pleasure, how acutely it orients you toward that bio­logical imperative, is a comedy of its own.

Rizvana Bradley is Assistant Professor of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Picturing Catastrophe

The visual politics of racial reckoning
Rizvana Bradley

Olga Tokarczuk

The Nobel laureate on her new novel
Rhian Sasseen
Jennifer Croft


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.