America has been talking a lot about Black women lately. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Oluwatoyin Salau, and Dominique Fells, among many others, have reignited conversations about the women who inhabit a strange space between invisibility and hypervisibility, for whom safety is rare. These discussions have turned into calls to protect their bodies in life and to say their names in death, but they have also led to a kind of deification that assuages feelings of guilt more than it honors lives. And amid the chatter, the identities of Black women get sanitized, oversimplified, and sometimes lost.
In a 2019 episode about Nina Simone on Revolutionary Left Radio, a leftist podcast about philosophy, history, and politics, the writer Zoé Samudzi reflects on this revisionism by analyzing the gap between the High Priestess of Soul’s brutal reality and her golden legacy. She attributes the chasm to a collective inability to accept parts of a Black woman’s life that do not fit into a prescribed narrative. “Nina was incredibly fucking messy,” Samudzi says of the singer, whose life was marked by racism, mental-health challenges, and physical abuse. “But it is the recognition of this messiness that forces you to understand the full humanity of Black women.” In other words, in order for Black women to be seen, their stories must include the good, the bad, and the ugly.
There are no perfect Black women in Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, and that is by design. In a recent interview, Leilani said that she wanted to write the story of a Black woman who was not a “pristine, neatly moral character.” And in Luster, she succeeds. Through Edie, her 23-year-old protagonist, Leilani tries to liberate the Black woman figure’s range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings from an inherent virtuousness or exceptionalism. This choice challenges readers to recognize Edie’s agency and see her as a young Black woman in progress.
Like most Millennials and older Gen Zers, Edie is barely getting by. Her low-paying job at a publishing house sucks; her apartment, a dilapidated space in Brooklyn that she shares with one roommate and a family of mice, also sucks; and her love life … well that, too, is complicated. Although she dreams of becoming an artist, her relationship to painting is avoidant, and she has spent the past two years moving her paints and brushes out of view. From the beginning, Edie admits her foibles and questionable judgment, especially when it comes to men. “This is not a statement of self-pity … It always goes well initially, but then I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent,” she says. Edie’s matter-of-fact confessions, underscored by Leilani’s caustic prose, are on-brand for Millennial literature of the past few years (see: Sally Rooney, Halle Butler, Ling Ma). But they also establish Edie’s unapologetic, albeit clumsy, self-awareness, coaxing readers to abandon whatever shame or secondhand embarrassment they might feel on her behalf.
Edie’s adventures begin when she starts an affair with Eric, a middle-aged white man who has an open marriage, an adopted daughter, and a mortgage. They meet online and their courtship blends old-school charm and new-age technology: “He follows me on Instagram and leaves lengthy comments on my posts. Retired internet slang interspersed with earnest remarks about how the light falls on my face.” As their relationship picks up, rules—set by Eric’s wife, Rebecca—are swiftly established (and then broken). Edie and Eric have sex in Eric’s New Jersey home, which leads to a confrontation between Rebecca and Edie that forces the two to acknowledge each other. When Edie is fired from her job and finds herself on the verge of homelessness, she moves in with Eric and Rebecca, forming a friendship with the latter and becoming a kind of babysitter to the couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila.
Edie’s informal residence in their home requires her to constantly renegotiate her relationship to them. Yes, she is still sleeping with Eric, but she is also Rebecca’s friend (sort of) and Akila’s mentor in all things Black. Edie makes the family her home base as she tries to figure out her life, searching for a new job and apartment. When she starts doing small chores around the home, envelopes of money begin appearing on her dresser. The money, she thinks at one point, “feels finite, tethered to the source in a way that makes it explicitly transactional, and so of course it is demeaning. But it is also demeaning to be broke.” Although Edie is not devoid of personal shame, she also understands the condition of her life in relation to this wealthy family enough to not overthink the exchange. She takes the money for what it is and uses it to support herself and her dream of being a painter, buying raw canvas and primer.
The most interesting moments in Luster are those between Edie and other Black women and girls, especially Akila, because they subvert expectations of what Black women should mean to one another. While Eric and Rebecca both hope that Edie will somehow get through to their adopted daughter, neither Akila nor Edie holds such a ridiculous fantasy. Their connection forms slowly and candidly. After Edie moves in, Akila, acutely aware of her delicate family balance, confronts her: “Please don’t mess this up,” she says. “Because if I’m going to have to move again, I just want to know. I have an insecure attachment style, and I just started calling them Mom and Dad. School is terrible, but I have my own room, and they let me close the door.” Edie, in turn, begins to recognize herself in the preteen. “I remember … the pride I took in being alone. But from the outside, the loneliness is palpable, and I think, She is too young.” Edie takes Akila to get her hair braided and helps her get ready for Comic-Con. Their relationship is not perfect, but it is tender.
When the time comes for Edie to leave Rebecca and Eric’s home, she thinks of Akila. “I know her life has been shaped principally by the sudden departure of people she trusts, and I am not going to buck the trend.” The statement feels harsh only if the expectation is that Akila and Edie’s happenstance meeting must lead to something transformational. What they do offer each other is proof that the other exists, which Edie ultimately realizes she needs. “It is not that I want company,” she thinks while sitting in her new apartment. “But that I want to be affirmed by another pair of eyes.” Edie spends the novel searching for confirmation of parts of herself and, in short, trying to be seen by those around her. Although this desire is not atypical of a young adult trying to figure herself out in the world, her status as a young Black woman complicates the question of who might finally offer her that affirmation.