Monday, January 18

Raven Leilani: ‘I try to replicate a version of sex on the page where the reader feels like a voyeur’ | books


A A couple of months before graduating from New York University’s MFA fiction program, Raven Leilani was in Zadie Smith’s class when she received a text message from her agent saying that an offer had been made for her first novel. Gloss. When it was published in the US a year later last summer, it went straight to the New York Times bestseller list and made an admiring debut. review in the New Yorker. Its UK publication this month has been announced with interviews in fashion magazines, including Vogue.

The novel has been “received in a way that I honestly couldn’t even hope for,” says Leilani from her Brooklyn apartment. As Edie, the starring artist of GlossThe author, now 30, had spent many years “tenaciously practicing her craft,” writing down whatever nine-to-five job she was doing to pay the rent, while updating a spreadsheet of rejection letters. But although finally having his book “in the world” has been “incredible and surreal”, it has also been a very difficult year. In April, he lost his father to the coronavirus. His brother died of a rare neurodegenerative disease in September. “Can I curse?” Leilani asks politely. “It was a real madness.”

Gloss takes on racism, sexism, and capitalism in a feverish flurry of sex, clever remarks, and a fury that is driven so much by television hits Girls and Fleabag as well as the acclaimed literary contemporaries Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh. Written on a high-voltage register, the novel gleefully delights in subverting literary expectations. Edie, a 23-year-old editorial assistant, is having an affair with Eric, who is in his 40s (sweetly correcting his typos online). So far in the nineteenth century with broadband. “The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during work hours, bathed in blue light from the computer,” he begins. But Edie has been recruited to have sex in the open marriage of a suburban couple, in which the rules were set by Eric’s wife, Rebecca. In a power shift narrative, Edie ends up moving into the family home while Eric is away, borrows Rebecca’s clothes, and befriends her adopted daughter, Akila, the only black girl in the neighborhood. Rebecca, a medical pathologist who wields pruning shears as her bone cutter, could have been a despised and vindictive wife. Instead, Leilani brings the two women together “to create a kind of unstable and combustible union, which was a lot of fun to write.”

“The last four years have been catastrophic”: protesters outside the White House, Washington, in November. Photograph: Bryan Dozier / REX / Shutterstock

The title is a game of “lust” and glitter, a kind of varnish. “For me, the book is about desire and what it means to try to take advantage of the right to make art as a young black woman,” she explains. “It had those two main poles of the book: there is the body and then there is art.” Leilani is also an artist; art was her “first love” – ​​the confinement has sent her back to her easel. “It was like a switch was flipped and I started painting like crazy.” Above all, she wanted to “faithfully represent the conscience of a black woman,” to write a character “who has chosen respectability,” who “lives in defiance of the containment experiment that I think all black women are trying to live against. . In short, a young woman who was “human, by which I mean fallible. Edie’s journey is brutal. Not only does he spoil the page a lot personally, but in the search for his art he constantly fails. It takes a lot to retain that glow, that longing in the midst of an environment that is invested in reassuring you, dampening that spirit. “The novel is fueled by” the rage of having this self that is sublimated while trying to project the most curated and palatable form to the world”.

As enthusiastically noted, the novel does not shy away from what Leilani calls “the sticky logistics of sex.” She credits an Audre Lorde I try giving him “permission to open up and be honest with my feelings.” For her, a “special ingredient of sex that really jumps off the screen or the page is a power swing.” This is where the imbalances the novel rests on are most obvious: from sexism in the workplace, where Edie is fired for “sexually inappropriate” behavior, despite the enthusiastic participation of everyone from Jake in TI to the art director Mark; to her relationship with Eric, as partial to a point of violence as to the use of a semicolon; and the erotic chill between Rebecca and Edie. “Sex was very important to me,” he says. “I try to portray him in the way that moves me when I see him, when he’s awkward and silly, which he often is. To represent it that way is to make it tender; what it looks like when two bodies, especially two bodies that are very different, meet. So I try to reproduce a version of sex on the page where you, as a reader, feel like a voyeur, because for me that is the most enjoyable kind of sex to watch and read. “

Although the novel is 100% fiction, it did “what all writers do. I used the data that was there. “This data includes everything from a passion for comics and disco music, particularly Donna Summer (” I needed that little bit of joy “); the creepy technicalities of Rebecca’s work (her mother was technical mortuary, “she was really interested in how we send the dead”); to her own experiences working in a library, a low-paid editorial job, and a stint in the gig economy as a Postmates courier to fund her MFA. As we know, Edie is “the chief editorial coordinator” for a children’s label, “which means I occasionally tell editorial assistants to check out how guppies digest food.”

The publication scenes are among the sharpest in the novel, including a tirade about the offerings of “Diversity,” a sad list of slave narratives, white martyrs, and urban gang violence, all the more acute in a year in which the industry has been criticized for its lack of inclusiveness. Leilani wanted to include “what it was like to write and try to create a space to do that while working on my job and dealing with the kind of war on all fronts that you face as a black woman.” And the novel strives to portray the precariousness of being a young man “without a safety net”, to a student loan without paying the misery, where the thrill of a date is not so much sex as a decent dinner. “Playing the story of a black American woman on the page meant talking about those parts that are unpleasant.”

Leilani was born in the Bronx, but the family moved to a small town near Albany in upstate New York when she was seven years old. His deeply religious home in the West Indies consisted only of his mother and father, a veteran like Edie; his two brothers were much older, “they had grown up and gone.” The youngest of her brothers gave her her first comic, putting her on the path to fandom: “Like Akila, I was a true geek.” And it was from him that she inherited her love of art. An illness, which he suffered for six years, prevented him from painting. “He took her hands first,” she says. “I saw an artist that I really loved and admired slowly losing the ability to make art.”

He was late for the books; As a child, the Bible was her primary reading and source for stories. When she was 17 years old, in her first year of university, she was sent to Florence for a year of study; it was the first time she had been away from home and she had to keep her faith for herself: “It didn’t work out.” Leaving the church was “a difficult and formative time” in his life. “He really was a person who believed deeply,” he says. But I felt it was the right thing to do. So I gave up my faith, after much agony. “As an absent believer (again like Edie), she is fascinated by the relationship between pain and God:” I am always very interested in how the wicked make sense of human tragedy, how the people make sense of nonsense. “

She sports a Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle …” tattoo on her wrist, “the first real piece of writing that touched me.” He began to write poems, and his prose is charged with intensity and rigor, seeking “a voice sensitive to language, really particular at the level of prayer.” These long, looping sentences start in one place and often lead to an unexpected place. “I think surprise is fundamental, especially in poetry, but also in comedy,” he says, always asking himself: “What is the truest but surprising way to frame this?” And this is no more evident than in sex scenes, like this one-page snippet of a Molly Bloomish line: “For a moment I reconsider my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil.” who made an autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitalia to cope with… ”The novel could be“ as dirty as it is from those early years of being as godly as me ”, she laughs. “It’s a heading correction.”

Her experience growing up in a small town where there were “only a handful of people of color” is reproduced in the novel. Edie feels watched the moment she enters the suburbs, and Edie and Akila are harassed by the police, who do not believe they live in the smart district. “Blacks have been recording our reality for a long time,” he says of the Black Lives Matter moment, in which his novel has landed. “It feels like a mixed blessing that it would take so much carnage, that we would need endless images to get here.” But he’s hopeful “because I feel like more people are deciding not to look the other way.”

Raven Leilani Luster

He is also cautiously optimistic about Joe Biden’s victory. “These last four years have been catastrophic,” he says. He considers the handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration to be responsible for his father’s death. “That is something I can take personally, a direct result of the government’s negligence and the utter apathy that this administration has for its people, especially its people of color. The consequences have been vast and dire. “

Gloss it was published after the death of his father. Both he and his brother, she says, made it possible for her to write it: “I’m grateful to be able to show you through my work how much they both meant to me.” For the first time he is able to dedicate himself to writing full time and has “tons” of ideas for future novels. “It’s where I’m happiest,” he says. “In the page.”

• Luster by Raven Leilani is a Picador publication (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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