Luster by Raven Leilani | Contemporary Fiction | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 240 pages | Review by Aisha Yusuff
Luster by Raven Leilani tells the story of Edie, a twenty-three-year-old Black woman who works an administrative job in an almost all-white publishing firm and is trying to survive. The novel reads conversationally. Edie bares her thoughts to the reader until Eric, Edie’s love interest, and his family come into the picture. Eric is a middle-aged white man who engages Edie in a problematic relationship while in an open marriage to Rebecca, a coroner, and raising Akila, their adopted Black daughter. From here, the prose departs from its character-driven aura.
The Over-sexualization and Adultification of Black Women and Girls
Naturally, Edie shares commentaries on race, class, and Black hair with the reader but with an unsettling detached nature that only a person who understands being a Black woman can write convincingly. Luster opens with an attention-grabbing first sentence that sets the stage for the theme of over-sexualization of Black girls and women seen throughout the book. The damaging effects of over-sexualization are seen by the sadness in which Edie recounts anecdotes of her life.
Over-sexualization of Black women goes hand in hand with the age-long act of ascribing adulthood to young Black girls. Through Edie, Leilani recounts the ascribed adulthood of Black girls dispassionately, mirroring the way in which the harmful effects of adultification on Black girls are often dismissed in society. A case in point is a scene from Akila’s tae kwon do class, where she spars with another classmate. After Akila wins, a white parent observing the class says, “That pairing seems a little unfair. Look at her.”The parent effectively attributes Akila’s win to her being Black. The parent does not consider Akila’s precision during the spar or that the opponent is the same age and holds the same belt as Akila. Akila’s Blackness gives her a physical ‘advantage’ of being bigger and stronger than the white children.
In addition to the over-sexualization and adulitification of Black women and girls, Black women’s tendency to minimize their efforts and talents is hyper-visible in Luster. Edie repeatedly does this during her time at the publishing firm, and more importantly, every time a discussion her artistry arises. This self-deprecation takes many forms. These include believing that anyone can do what she does, ascribing her wins or skills to everything but herself, as well as when she attributes her artistic prolificacy entirely as a consequence of her sexual relationship with Eric. Self-doubt is one of the many ways in which Black women internalize the trauma of being a marginalized group, especially in the job market where they have to work many times harder than their white and male counterparts for less recognition and pay. This is particularly difficult in our contemporary era in which women in their early 20s live with the immense pressure to become career success stories in their “now.”
A Provocative Writing Style
Luster examines other themes such as police brutality, the gender wage gap, tokenism, mental health, and mental health stigma. These themes, however, are highlighted in Edie’s detached narrative style. For example, in one scene, Edie describes being catcalled, “I rinse cheesecake from my hair and get back to my route, where the men who line the street remind me that technically, yes, I do have a pussy, and that I will live in terror of protecting it for the rest of my life.” She then goes on as if she did not just share a gruesome and horrifying reality for many women.
Luster is a provocative book that may be polarizing for some readers precisely because of the style and tone. However, even Edie recognizes the subjectivity of art. While at her desk at the publishing firm, she notes that what corporate vendors call ‘errors in book files’ are not; they are deliberate choices in writing style: “This is human; this is style,” she asserts.
The heavy themes in Luster are discussed subtly and are not overwhelming. This stylistic choice fits the contemporary feel that Leilani intends. The paragraphs are short and created using double spacing to cater to the short attention span that Gen Z has been accused of having. However, within these paragraphs, some sentences run long, surviving only on multiple commas, which suggests that Leilani, in fact, demands the reader’s attention. This, in addition to her flow and style, makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable. Luster is truly a beautiful, sad, funny, reflective, and unsettling debut.
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