Raven Leilani, LUSTER

Raven Leilani, LUSTER

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Raven. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Raven Leilani: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: This is such a pleasure. First of all, your book, Luster, has been on every single list of good books. You must be over the moon. It’s gotten so much attention and success and everything. What has this been like for you?

Raven: It’s been really, really surreal. Truly, when we acquired the book, I think the main concern in the publishing industry at the moment, a year ago in the before time, was how do you publish a book during what is sure to be a very insane election year? Then we had the year we had. There’s so many things that happened that almost make it feel inappropriate in a way to be talking about my book. I feel really heartened that people have rallied around books and that people are connecting with my book. That’s really the dream, is that you put the book out there and people care about it. I used to work in publishing. I’ve also seen the other side of it. My expectations were very managed. I had an idea of how this goes. It’s really just surpassed my expectations.

Zibby: It’s amazing. For people who don’t know what Luster is about, can you give a little synopsis about the plot? Then what inspired you to write this book and come up with the story?

Raven: In a nutshell, Luster is about a young black woman who is trying to lay claim to the right to make art. It’s also about her relationship with a man who has an open marriage, but more so the relationship that she develops with his wife and child. That’s the general plot. In writing this, I’ll say when I start any project, I don’t really know what it’s going to be and what it is or even what I mean by it until I’m maybe halfway through. When I got to the page, the thing that was really in me was I wanted to depict a black woman who is full of yearning and desire and was seeking connection in a way that feels human. I wanted to make room for her to stumble, to make mistakes, but also for her to express that earnest id part. I wanted to write about art. That was sort of the second half and more just because it’s the thing that always finds its way into my work. Artmaking but also the role of failure in artmaking is really important to me because I think that is eighty percent of the endeavor. I wanted to talk bluntly about that.

Zibby: Do you perceive all different forms of creativity as art regardless of the medium?

Raven: Yes, a hundred percent. I think that no matter what you’re making, if you’re making it, you’re making something from nothing, there are hurdles that you have to jump in order to be able to realize that vision. It’s a hard and occasionally demoralizing state to be in, when you have a thing that you want to communicate and you cannot effectively articulate it or create it. I wanted to write about how you potentially move from that state into one that feels generative. For me, being able to write about it in a way that felt honest I hoped would feel liberating. I know that while I was writing this, I was in my MFA. I was in school. I was working full time. That is generally the framework around how I wrote anything. Really, anything I’ve ever written has been those off hours after my nine to five. My journey to even writing this book, it was really jagged. It wasn’t straightforward progress. I felt it was important to talk about the idea of it, that sometimes there are hurdles. Sometimes there are detours. That’s okay.

Zibby: Take me back to the very beginning of you to find out how we got. Where were you born? When did you start to like writing? When did you know you were a writer? Just take me along your jagged path that you just referred to.

Raven: It’s funny. I’ve been writing technically for a while. The event of my childhood was when my mom and I would go to Waldenbooks. We’d get one new sketchbook and one new journal. I actually currently have an entire wooden chest of all the journals I kept. I was constantly writing. I grew up Seventh Day Adventist. Part of that is keeping the Sabbath. My means of rebellion was writing privately, these little private stories. It really wasn’t until pretty recently where I really wanted to make a real go of it. I was living in DC. I’d been there for four or five years working and paying my student loans and just trying to work. Then it was 2016, 2017 and I decided to come back to New York to pursue my MFA. I was really looking for a community of writers. With an MFA, you never know. You don’t know what that will actually yield ultimately. I knew I needed an environment where there was a certain seriousness and rigor around the work. You can find that in a number of different ways. That was the moment where I was like, I’m really, really going to try and do this thing. It was four years ago. I was like, I feel really serious about this. I have to at least try it and go after it. I will say in the years before that, I was really just doing, like I mentioned, I was writing after work and writing short stories and submitting them everywhere, like hundreds of places. I mean, not hundreds of stories. I kept an Excel document with all the rejections from the literary magazines. Those were the first steps I took to try and be serious about it. It’s honestly been a journey. Most of the work has been work that is private and so almost invisible. Right now, I’ll say it feels like a dream to have a visible thing in the world.

Zibby: It’s so amazing. By the way, just little tip as an aside, I also kept a whole cabinet of all my journals from the diaries I kept growing up. I have different formats and whatever was trendy at that time, the different cars. I have piles and piles. Recently, my thirteen-year-old stumbled upon them. Keep them locked up until you’re ready to have all these questions of whatever it is there.

Raven: That’s so funny you say that because when I was getting all of that stuff out of storage — it was my parent’s storage. I was taking it home with me. My boyfriend was with me. He happened to pick up one of the journals. I was like, no, you cannot see that.

Zibby: Exactly. Some were pretty chaste, like, I had my first slow dance today, the green marker. All the yearbooks with all the messages in them, I’m like, let’s just keep all these yearbooks . Oh, my gosh. You never know where these things are going to end up. Meanwhile, Luster is so vivid and almost with this brazen sexuality. There is no holds barred. In fact, my niece was listening to us and I was like, this is not the podcast for her to be sitting on. I don’t know how this is going to go. Tell me about not only writing about all the sexual feelings and experiences and everything from not having the right batteries for the vibrator to all the fantasies before and getting ready for the — why is he not having sex with me? Just so much stuff, how do you feel now that that’s totally out there? How do you feel about that?

Raven: I will say I didn’t actually anticipate the intensity of the response to those things in the book because I feel like I just wrote it the only way I could, which was in a way that made room for that, the parts of bodily drama, the parts of sex that are concrete and ugly in a way. It’s important to talk about not being able to find the right batteries for the vibrator. This is a character who feels deeply and cares deeply and is really seeking that out in the world and making mistakes in service of that. It’s actually kind of tricky to talk about because there’s so much about Edie that’s sublimated. If we weren’t privy to her interior, to her candid thoughts, she would be a never different character if we only saw that external behavior. It’s not that she is always earnest in that she’s expressing herself, but her core is earnest in that she is full of yearning and full of desire and unabashed in a way that she tries to satisfy those carnal real human needs.

When writing the sex, that too, it felt like an extension of her seeking. Writing when she’s not having sex and then she’s dying to be touched, I didn’t want to write a character who was actually aloof. She makes jokes about wanting to be that and wanting to curate an image that looks like that. You mentioned fantasy, what it looks like when you come up against the fantasy and you have to reconcile it with the flesh as she does with Eric. The role that fantasy has in reinvigorating that connection between them, the way it’s obliterated when they get to know each other is really fun to play with. I think the realities of the body and of however many bodies in this space revealing themselves to each other is really fun real estate to play with. It was important for me to make room for the way to be silly and strange and contradictory and to be really direct about especially the drama inherent of the female body. There’s so much that’s always going on that I think we are conditioned not to talk about and also to pretty up. I wanted you to know what was happening with her bowels. I wanted that backstage work to be forward.

Zibby: What you just said a minute ago about how from looking at someone on the outside, looking at Edie on the outside, you wouldn’t know all the things going on on the inside, that’s the main gift of writing. You finally get to pull the curtain back on a person or a character and figure out what the internal monologue is. Then you figure out all the things that you can potentially share with somebody, so many things that you wouldn’t know because we don’t talk about. Maybe everybody’s looking for batteries, as an example, I’m just saying. I think that’s one of the greatest parts about being able to share the interior life of a character.

Raven: One hundred percent. Whenever the question of — I don’t know if people ask it anymore, so maybe I’m resurrecting an old argument or question. The idea of the death of the novel, the reason why it will never die is because the way you can represent consciousness on the page. I don’t think there is another medium that can depict it in that way.

Zibby: I totally agree, except perhaps memoir.

Raven: Right, which is writing as a medium.

Zibby: Writing as a medium is unparalleled access. Without it, I feel like we would lose so much connection with people. That’s what people are searching for every time they open a book, truly, is connection, no matter what form that may take even if it’s escapist or they want to forget their life own life. Now I’m sounding ridiculous.

Raven: No, that isn’t ridiculous. That is why I open a book, is because I want to be absorbed in the reality of someone either like me or totally unlike me. It’s like writing. Reading, it’s an act of discovery. This is my taste where I love feeling like I’m looking at a thing that is authentic in the way that it is not studied. I love the feeling of being a voyeur, of looking in on a private moment. I think the novel does that so well.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. It’s not like people are going to sit down and tell you about it. Somehow, it’s okay to write about it. Then we can read about it. Somehow, that’s all socially acceptable. Let’s just go with it.

Raven: Totally. Getting on a stage and performing this with the content of this book, I’m also a severely introverted person, so this is the only way I could have ever written a thing like this, is written it on the page and then released it into the world.

Zibby: I was so shy as a kid. I went a whole summer on a summer program not even opening my mouth and just thinking about language so much. How can some people talk when I’m finding it so impossible to even form a sentence? and just being such an observer all the time. Yet as soon as I would pick up a pencil or whatever, it’s like, whoosh!

Raven: Yes. I feel that so hard.

Zibby: Then it’s almost like people can’t know you until you have that release onto the page because it’s only a fraction of yourself that you present to the world.

Raven: To that, I will say that it’s funny, I feel like I’ve had some interactions since releasing the book where people who know me personally will say something like, “It is so strange interacting with you now that I know that that was inside you.” Writing, that medium, is the best way I know how to express, it’s not autobiography, but how to express myself. It is the only way I know how to say precisely what I mean. In real time, I feel like I never do.

Zibby: That’s why sometimes when I talk to people and they’re like, “How can you be so open? How do you write all that stuff? I could never,” I’m like, the harder part is going through the rest of life without being able to say it out loud. The easiest part is that it can come out this way. I guess there’s always, do you feel comfortable sharing it? If I couldn’t do that, I don’t know how I would even sort through what I was thinking and feeling. Anyway, I digressed from your amazing novel a little bit. I also wanted to talk about the way you talk about race in the book because you did such a beautiful job. I was sort of disappointed with myself because I always like to find quotes that maybe people don’t talk about that much. When I was reading your book in the Kindle, I was like, this is a great quote. It’s like, eighty-one people have also highlighted this. I was like, oh, for god’s sakes. I’ll read it anyway because I still thought it was interesting. This is the passage where Edie is comparing herself to somebody, another up-and-coming black woman in her office and talking about the competition and that she feels she’s about to be passed over and also their relationship between each other. You said, “And then I miscalculated. Too much anger shared too soon. Too much, can you believe these white people? Too much F the police. We both graduated from the school of twice as good for half as much, but I’m sure she still finds this an acceptable price of admission. She still rearranges herself waiting to be chosen, and she will be because it is an art to be black and dogged and inoffensive. She is all these things, and she is embarrassed that I am not.” Tell me about this popular passage.

Raven: Writing those scenes, I wanted to be really careful because I didn’t want to make any grand statements around a correct way to be black. I wanted to write two professional black women who have very different tactics to pretty much the same needs, which is survival. They’re both, in their own way, trying to survive in an environment that does not allow them any real margin for error. Aria’s response to this is to adhere to this impossible standard, to flatten herself to make herself more palatable. Edie’s response is refusal in a way. The fact that they cannot find kinship is each other is perhaps — they may both be actually complicit in that, but more to blame is the environment that has pit them against each other. It was interesting to write these two black women who are both hungry, who are both trying to advance, and who can see that in each other, who in a, perhaps, different context would be able to seek in each other but are unable to, which I think is really real but also devastating in a way that they are both really truly in need of a friend and of kinship. Because of their environment and because of the demands that are foisted upon them in how they might survive in this environment, it makes it almost impossible. Those were real sad sections to write even though Edie within her mind is deeply judgmental of Aria, and also envious. Those were scenes where I really just wanted to talk about some of the ways that that hunger can manifest and the way a lot of black women are meant to rise to the occasion in a way that flattens them.

Zibby: Interesting. There’s been so much talk in the news and everywhere right now, it’s so of the moment, talking about black women in publishing or black people in general in publishing and the shift that’s occurring and how it has been and how we hope it will be. What has your in real life experience been, not in your character’s life, being in this industry? Do you think that it’s ripe for change?

Raven: Yeah, I think that there’s a real reckoning happening. Just a few months ago, I feel like a lot of black people working within this industry were very vocal about not just the uppercase versions of marginalization that they experience in this industry, but the very small demoralizing almost mundane moments. There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of what kind of stories we prioritize, who we allow to tell them, and who we invest in. I do think that, I hope, that that reckoning will usher in a different way of going about inclusion. I feel like those words like inclusion, diversity, in practice have become kind of like these sexy, almost — I don’t know how to articulate it. These things that actually mean so much and that make us better and make our art better, I think it cannot be a surface-level change. It has to happen in a real fundamental way before we make any progress.

Zibby: So what is coming next for you, Raven? Are you working on a new book? What’s the plan?

Raven: I’m really excited to start working on my second book. I’m not really in the work of that yet. I have a handful of books still in me that I would love to be real whenever I have a moment. Currently, I’m really taken up with the task of ushering this book into the world. It is in the world, but that’s mostly what I’m doing right now.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Raven: That too is kind of a dream, that that could be my work. At some point when this dies down a bit, I’ll be able to get back to work, get back to the page.

Zibby: Enjoy it. Soak it all up. It’s amazing. Last question, do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Raven: One hundred percent. A common concern and question that I think that I was trying to mull over and also that I know a lot of writers who are trying to get their work out there are thinking about it, which is when can I call myself a writer? I think you call yourself a writer because you’re doing the work, because you’re actively working on your craft. It is really wonderful to receive affirmation and validation and acceptance from a literary journal . I do think that, for me at least, those moments, they were kind of rare. Much more of the process was doing that private work and trying to figure out what worked and what would stick. I feel like the private work is meaningful work. As long as you are putting in the work, then you are a writer. As long as you’re working on that craft, you are a writer. That’s what I would say.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Thank you so much. Sorry for all my distractions. Thank you for rolling with it. I appreciate it.

Raven: No, not at all.

Zibby: Thanks for sharing everything. I’m going to think of you next time I’m doing a mental purge on the page. You’re out there doing the same thing wherever you are and sharing that connection. Thank you so much for coming on.

Raven: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Raven: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Raven Leilani, LUSTER