Raven Leilani Needs To Know How Her Characters Pay Rent

The Novelist Talks to Lux About Creativity Under Capitalism

Interview By Jennifer Wilson

A color treated portrait of a black lady wearing a red shirt

When Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, appeared last summer, many of us were living the most sanitized versions of our lives. We flinched at the sound of heavy breathing, felt enraged by the sight of lips, and singed our hands with alcohol wipes if we touched something or someone. That forced puritanism was precisely what made watching the novel’s main character Edie as she came home to her dirty, mouse-infested apartment after getting off a sweaty subway car before texting her married lover Eric (mixing households!?), irresistibly base.

Twenty-three-year-old Edie works at a New York City publishing company that pays her a salary typical of places that think you can eat prestige. (At least part of the appeal of a married man who lives in the suburbs is that he can buy her dinner.) When she loses her job, she starts working for a food delivery app; unable to afford city rent, she moves in with Eric and his family.

Luster is a novel about many things, but it is also about something we all tried to do this year — epidemiologically, psychologically, and financially. That is, survive. As Edie struggles with racism and tokenism at her first job and scalding herself with clam chowder at her next, readers are forced to confront the near impossibility of anyone who was not born into privilege living a creative life under capitalism. I spoke with Leilani about money, work, and why she “needs to know how characters eat and pay rent.”

JENNIFER WILSON You wrote Luster while you were enrolled in the M.F.A. program at NYU. I read that while you were a student there, you also worked a full-time job and a bunch of side gigs to make ends meet (including working as a delivery driver for Postmates — something you share with the novel’s protagonist, Edie). How did having to balance multiple jobs while in school influence the writing of Luster?

RAVEN LEILANI I worked for Postmates in addition to a full-time job before I even made the move to attend my MFA. My program offered me assistance — and I only applied to programs that could offer funding, because I still had a mountain of student debt from undergrad — but my time working for Postmates came immediately after I got the call that I got into my program. I remember the call very clearly. I was in D.C., and I was at work, on lunch. I remember the joy, and then immediately this feeling of: How do I afford this? Not the course credits, but the capital to uproot my life and live in a city as expensive as New York. So I signed up to be a courier. As soon as I got out of my full-time job, I put on my Postmates cap and started my route. I hoped I could build a cushion just in case I couldn’t find a job that paid enough or was flexible enough to accommodate my program once I was in New York. But when I got to New York, I found a full-time job at a trade publisher, about a week before my program started. I was also doing the work-study my program offered and editing for a literary magazine. I was exhausted — happy to be in a place where I had a different permission to write, but doing that work is more challenging when you arrive at the page already spent. That absolutely animated me to write Luster, that tension between having this art inside you, the will and the capability, and how that grind to survive frays the bandwidth you need to do it. 

JW What people, especially young women, have to do to survive is a major theme of the novel. This often results in young women having to squeeze resources out of one another, like Edie’s landlord — a 23-year-old woman who hawks tummy tea on Instagram and ignores her emails about the mouse problem. As Edie puts it: “We are all trying to eat.” How important is money to you when you are sketching out the relationships between your female characters?

RL Money is extremely important. I do want to say that there are books where money is not at the center because it simply has nothing to do with the project of the book, or perhaps the characters involved have enough of it where it is a given and so almost an invisible entity, but otherwise I personally need to know how characters eat and pay rent. This could be my own lack of imagination and inclination to write what I know, but these financials often have enormous bearing on life’s trajectory and plot. The example you cited is one of a handful of attempts I made to show different iterations of the grind. It’s worth noting that the landlord and part-time tummy-tea shill is making most of her capital on the back of her own family money (her family owns the building) and so her relationship to money is more casual than Edie’s. She can show up at her door and put her out without thinking, as Edie does about the mice, that ‘everybody is trying to eat.’ The dynamic is similar with Rebecca, whose power is predicated in part on Edie’s financial precarity. With Aria, the other Black woman in the office who is more willing to play the game, the conflict is fraught with the burden they both face trying to advance as Black women. Aria opting in, Edie opting out: Both are tactics of survival. 

JW Your fiction is filled with characters navigating the gig economy, living without health insurance, struggling to stay afloat financially. Do you feel like these qualities of your work are ever overlooked or given relatively less attention, and if so why?

RL I want to acknowledge that Black work is often dogged by the expectation that within our work there be tidy answers to huge existential questions, including our enormous and varied experience as Black people. I’ve gotten those questions, and I feel I’ve often failed to answer them well, but I’ve also been lucky that people have come to the book with imagination and generosity. Since the book came out, I’ve had many affirming conversations with writers and readers who noticed these economics in the text and in their own lives, as I did in mine. Plenty of writers before me have been on this beat and rendered it more fully, and it feels like a gift to have an opportunity to talk frankly about money. In my experience, the silence around need and about the very concrete way not having money can shape and upend a life only compounds the problem. So this book was my attempt to be transparent about that and how that need intersects with who gets to make art.

JW When we first meet Edie, she works for a publishing company in New York City. One day, they host a “Diversity Giveaway” in the lobby, which prompts a hilarious evisceration of the publishing industry’s approach to inclusivity. One of the books they are giving away is “a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pieces.” Were you responding here to pressures you faced yourself as someone entering the industry?

RL Absolutely. I read that passage now, and beyond a criticism of which appetites we prioritize and pander to when investing in Black art is my own anxiety. I was so hungry. I had this chaotic Black book that, to me, felt so good to write and that I wanted people to read, but I’d been a student of the industry for years, and I didn’t know if I could get a foot in the door. I kept lists of the moves this industry I wanted to enter was making, trying to get to know how that market worked. At the job with the trade publisher, I worked with all the imprints, and I was taking note of every new book that came in. I had real financial needs, and so the art was important, but so was the commerce. Part of the reason I think Luster has such frantic energy is because I was writing feeling like: Please God, let this work, let this book help me be able to go to the dentist. 

JW What’s your favorite luxury that shouldn’t be a luxury? 

RL Free time. I will never take for granted the freedom this book has given me. It is actually still a bit unreal to have time to take a long walk, to schedule doctor’s appointments, to sleep, to have the privilege to go more slowly about life. 

Jennifer Wilson is a Lux contributing editor, and a contributing writer at The Nation.

Illustration by Sharanya Durvasula and Chloe Scheffe. Original image by Nina Subin.