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In Raven Leilani's Debut Novel, a Young Artist Navigates All the Things

Author Raven Leilani spoke with The Check-In's Janet Saidi, and joined a Zoom talk with Columbia's Skylark Bookshop, as part of its "Must Read TV" series, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

When Raven Leilani wrote her debut novel Luster, she never imagined its themes of contemporary sexuality and race relations would feel so pressing on its release. But with race on the forefront of the nation’s collective conscience, the book feels like a reflection of our current landscape.

“As a writer… when you release a book like this that does touch on these issues… you do not hope that it will be relevant,” Leilani told KBIA’s Janet Saidi on The Check In. “It would be a wonderful thing if I could point to those sections in the book, and those were distant. That it was history.”

Luster has received acclaim from readers and critics alike, and the book is now a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post Bestseller. 

The novel is reflective of Leilani’s life. Just like the protagonist Edie, Leilani is a young Black woman who works in publishing and fosters a passion for creating art. When she loses her job and home, her life becomes upended. When she finally finds a place to stay, it comes with its own obstacles to navigate. 

Leilani says Edie was a reflection of her own experiences being a Black artist in the U.S. “I wrote the book as a black person who has moved through the world, in a body that, you know, with a hyper awareness that I am in a body that is in peril,” she said.

Leilani’s writing style is influenced by her love of painting and the precise wordplay of poetry, which was the first writing she truly fell in love with. Her attention to detail and labored-over sentences conjure vivid images upon reading.

“There's an element of art making, at least with painting ... that requires a close degree of observation,” she said. “I'm in love with art, it was the very first thing I ever loved. ... This book was really my opportunity to have the space to tell a bigger and more complex story about what it is to try and lay claim to that art. Especially if you are a young black woman.”


Janet Saidi is a producer and professor at KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism.