Dozens filed into Scott Hall for the last Creative Writing program event of the quarter, eager to hear Raven Leilani read from her acclaimed debut novel, Luster, on February 29.  

Mariam Hirsi, a second-year in the Litowitz MA+MFA Program in Creative Writing and English, introduced Leilani as “a poet, painter, novelist and video game aficionado.”

Published in 2020, Luster is the story of Edie, a young Black woman involved with Eric and Rebecca, an older white couple in an open marriage. Hirsi said the story was centered on “sex, strife and strange men in New York City.” During the hour-long event, Leilani read an excerpt from Luster, followed by a Q&A section with the audience, with topics ranging from her experience with religion and speculative fiction to her creative process.

Prior to her novel, Leilani published short stories, some of which have been featured in publications such as The Cut, Granta and The Yale Review. She won a Pushcart Prize for “Breathing Exercise” in the latter publication.

In 2021, HBO ordered a television adaptation of Luster currently set to be run by actress Tessa Thompson.

“This is the last event I have in the foreseeable future. The book came out four years ago and I’ve been kind of going non-stop since,” Leilani said.

Leilani is a graduate of New York University’s MFA program, where she studied under writers Zadie Smith and Javier Zamora.

It was during this period of her life that Luster came to life, written “in a panic” when Leilani needed material for class.

“For the first time in my life, I felt like I had permission to write,” she said.

“It was the fastest thing I’ve ever written,” she said, noting that it felt like “a more honest document because I was self-editing less.”

In the event, Leilani touched on her creative history, telling the audience that she started her writing career as a poet. Even then, her poems were about “small, contained worlds.”

Leilani’s poetic background seems to have influenced her approach to writing prose –– her sentences are tight and deliberate, with no superfluous words. But she said she eventually realized that she “needed more real estate,” which spurred her shift to short stories and eventually long-form fiction.

“The way I write is an act of discovery,” Leilani explained,.“There’s a lot that I don’t know. But I generally have a skeleton –– this is what this chapter will be –– all the way to the end.”

As she writes, she discovers how closely linked those points are,  allowing her to determine whether an idea’s final form will be a short story or a longer work. Given the commitment a novel takes, one of Leilani’s biggest questions is whether the project is “something I’m going to be able to care about for two or three years.”

Audience members were especially interested in the way Leilani navigates sex in her work, with one attendee asking about the micro-logistics and power dynamics between characters in the prose. According to Leilani, sex is “one of the best factors to explore those power differentials.”

“Sex is language and is a dialogue, or, depending on how people are involved, can be more than a dialogue,” she said.

Edie was written as a “longing, earnest, yearning character,” she explained. Leilani sought to explore “the discrepancy between her private and public performance,” and the sex scenes are where she is able to unravel that performance.

Another audience member asked about how Leilani chose the town where Eric and Rebecca live. Leilani explained the appeal of upstate New York for such a setting, commenting on the sense of “stasis” and “malaise” that permeate the suburbs,  which she said are where nothing happens.

“When you introduce a Black person into that environment, the stakes are different, the surveillance is different,” Leilani said. A character might think, “I’m being watched, and any second it can go left.”

Thumbnail image by Yong-Yu Huang