Screams of consciousness

11 April 2021 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers

Luster ★★★★★
Raven Leilani
Picador, R330

'The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light." Thus reads the opening sentence of 30-year-old American writer and visual artist Raven Leilani's thought-provoking, indelible, and deeply funny debut novel, Luster.

Longlisted for the UK's Women's Prize for Fiction ("It's completely surreal!" she laughs in response to this achievement), the first 22 words of this book are a deliciously apt intro for a title in which "lust is seeded in the word", Leilani tells me from her sunny Brooklyn apartment during our Zoom interview. "This is a book about desire, the body, the lustre of when you draw together the fantasy of the thing versus the reality of the thing, and maintaining the idea of that fantasy. Maintaining your inner lustre and artistry in a world adamant about dampening or challenging your artistry."

This is also a book that explores the racism, sexism, exploitation and prejudice that permeates and imperils the lives of young black women in America, as conveyed via Leilani's 23-year-old protagonist, Edie.

A millennial living in a mice-infested apartment with a 23-year-old "Flat Tummy Tea Instagram shill" as landlord, stuck in a menial admin job in publishing, shagging questionable men, and being denied the opportunity to actively pursue her art can be read as #RelatableContent for many 20-somethings.

"I'm not Edie, and Edie is not me," Leilani says when asked to what extent she relates to Edie, adding that she did write from her experience as a young, black woman trying to assert her capability and artistry; trying to carve out a living in a very unstable economy; and who works numerous "deeply brutal and dehumanising jobs".

Climbing up and coming up against sexism and racism in professional spheres, doing everything you can to make a little bit of money - which ultimately is never enough - and the task of maintaining the love of the thing that feeds you (creating art) are further similarities they share.

Art and the body and how Edie relates to her body and her needs was her way in, Leilani says of starting Luster, with the body spoken of in the first sentence being that of Eric - a white, middle-aged archivist who lives in suburban New Jersey and is in a semi-open marriage with his fan-of-living-room-yoga-and-garden-tending medical examiner wife Rebecca, with whom he has a 12-year-old adopted black daughter, Akila.

Eric was going to be white and middle-aged from the get-go, as Leilani was interested in exploring the power dynamic between an older (white) man and how Edie both privately grapples with it and enjoys it.

Fired from her job, kicked out by her trust-fund baby landlord, and having nowhere else to go (her drug addict mother committed suicide and "the man I call my father" died five years after her mother), Edie finds herself living with this unlikely nuclear family of sorts - "It's a tricky label to put on what they are!" Leilani laughs.

Edie's engaging, stream-of-consciousness observations of her everyday life are delivered in first-person narrative in the present tense - a storytelling mode Leilani says she was certain of employing from day one.

She describes her decision to use the first person as "almost necessary", because the speaker is a black woman, her external reality is a performance and there needed to be a window into her mind. Presenting the important immediacy of all Edie's experiences was best conveyed via the present tense, she adds.

Her body is imperilled in these public spaces, she has to be more vigilant, her study is heightened.

One of Edie's jobs is as an in-app food delivery person, which sees her traversing New York on a bike, observing and detailing the habits of the inhabitants of the city that never sleeps: "Most of the time, I stay in Brooklyn. I get the first orders of no-pulp orange juice and champagne out of the way. Make pit stops for vanilla Juul pods, small orders of LaCroix and Pampers. I make my home base Holy Cross Cemetery so I can hydrate in relative peace, and also because it's smack-dab in the middle of Flatbush, the orders come in from all sides. Technically, I'm not allowed to transport anything that qualifies as a drug, but there are prep school kids who need bubble tea and Marlboros, dog walkers who need boxed wine and leave detailed instructions about where in Prospect to make the drop, pump-and-dumping mommies who emerge from the Grand Army market, desperate for gin."

Edie's attentiveness to those around her is reminiscent of the flâneurs of yore - yet instead of a white man who has the leisure to stroll around town casually studying his surrounds, Edie is forced into these spaces as a means to make ends meet. Leilani says that a flâneur had the privilege of being safe to move around the world and to be outward and studious. The same doesn't apply to Edie: "Her body is imperilled in these public spaces, she has to be more vigilant, her study is heightened."

Leilani says she went about sketching out the characters of (white, middle-class) library archivist Eric and (white, middle-class) Rebecca, by writing away from caricature, taking a more tender, more private and more specific approach towards fully fleshed-out characters. With the character of Akila, Leilani says she was writing away from Edie's own experiences and her own familial context, describing it as "black girlhood in the way that comes together in an environment that is built to see her or offer her guidance to grow up whole and protect herself".

There's a passage in the book where Edie witnesses Akila struggling to pull a comb through her hair, and advises her to "start from the ends" - only to be met by Akila getting up and closing her bedroom door. Leilani says this was included because "I wanted to explore a different kind of iteration of a black girl who doesn't miss the opportunity to have real camaraderie with someone who's trying to find herself".

She adds that Edie recognises the previous iteration of herself in this child who's growing up in an isolated context, emphasising the façade she puts up depending on the person she's with or the environment she's in. Edie has inside knowledge of Akila's lived experience, which offers necessary relief in the text amid the darker themes, she says, adding that their forced cohabitation is "an opportunity for both black women to have someone who sees them".

A literal example of necessary relief is conveyed when Akila attempts to bleach her hair, leaving it in for too long. "I don't know a single black woman who hasn't had that experience!" Leilani exclaims, soberly acknowledging that "that kind of care has enormous bearing on your self-esteem, your self-concept, learning how to help care for yourself. All young girls need it, and not all girls receive it."

One of the darker themes of Luster - racism - is explored in its most overt and veiled manifestations, with Edie overhearing Akila's teenaged tutor Pradeep saying to her that "a monkey could do this" as she struggles to solve a maths problem.

Both Leilani and I comment on my use of air quotes when I ask about this "subtle" form of racism, because although it's seemingly less "visible", it's undeniably antagonistic.

"It's way more insidious and invisible," she says, "to convey racism that is lower case. You're less able to condemn it because it's less visible and easier to dismiss."

I wanted to speak to what it looks like to
move through an environment that is both covertly and overtly hostile to you.

Edie and Akila both understand that Pradeep's comment is racially charged, Leilani says, adding that the business of racism is rooted in orienting black people to not trust their own eyes, to live in a world that gaslights you.

"An incident like that is not overtly violent, yet extremely violent," she says, adding that it is difficult to convey quiet racism to someone who isn't black.

A later part of the book features an incident where Edie and Akila are manhandled by police officers outside Akila's house - a "recognisable, shareable racism that we are too familiar with".

"But when they ask if I live in the house, I hesitate, and Akila crosses her arms and says that she does, her tenor markedly less reverent than mine. One of the officers turns to look at her, and I can feel the impending spiral of this exchange, my fear of the officers' increasing proximity tempered somewhat by the oddness of our shared incredulity at Akila's departure from the script."

Edie, moving through an environment where she feels the surveillance, understands how that surveillance can become violent, says Leilani. "I wanted to speak to that reality. What it looks like to move through an environment that is both covertly and overtly hostile to you. How quickly that can happen."

Racism isn't the only trauma Edie has been subjected to her in her two-odd decades of existence, and this is depicted in her art work - specifically a painting of her mother's suicide. Her mother is her first foray into depicting a subject both private and intimate and even grotesque, says Leilani. After giving her a Polaroid camera as a teen, her mother was initially willing to be photographed, but eventually asked Edie to stop photographing her because she didn't like the way she looked. Says Edie: "I thought her resistance was petty and vain, a boring thing I'd seen less interesting adult women do, then I looked at the pictures and knew that she was right. She wasn't simply unphotogenic. She was bare in a way that film betrayed so dramatically that she became grotesque."

The mission in Edie's art is to paint toward that sort of voyeuristic spirit, says Leilani, trying to do that to herself - by replicating her face on canvas. Yet she can't. "She spends so much time performing that her subconscious is distorted."

Edie's familial context is one of instability, and Leilani acknowledges that children who grow up with instability try to find a grip by either distancing themselves, creating their own imagined worlds, "or to be hypervigilant where you do not feel free to be vulnerable".

In between her hasty evacuation and relocation to Eric and Rebecca's house, Edie leaves the painting she made of her mother's suicide behind in her apartment. Leilani describes this act as a loose metaphor for the art she has to leave behind in order to eat: art comes at the expense of working day jobs.

Or, as she succinctly puts it, "there's no humanity in capitalism". Viva!