INTRODUCTION BY KATIE KITAMURA
Like so many, I read for voice—and every now and then I fall for a voice so hard I’ll follow it anywhere. That’s what happened with Raven Leilani’s Luster, which took me on a roller coaster ride and through the doors of Comic Con. It took me into corporate offices hung with decorative katanas, and inside an alarmingly claustrophobic open marriage. The world of Luster is equal parts absurd and deadly, laced with microaggressions, structured by racial capitalism and sexual hierarchy.
It’s also, in Leilani’s hands, a world that is extremely funny. This is a book that made me want to laugh and cry and rage, sometimes all on a single page. Reading certain passages in Leilani’s novel is like watching a virtuoso dash off a cadenza, or an acrobat perform a high wire routine. There’s the technical brilliance of her long and spooling sentences, but really what you notice is the daring—the fearlessness of the language Leilani lays down, like a gauntlet before the reader.
In this excerpt, Edie navigates the social theater of her job at a children’s publishing imprint. Leilani’s Edie is a remarkable character, bristling with intelligence, both clear-eyed and painfully vulnerable. She is a creature of hunger, and what a pleasure it is to watch her find and take her desire. The shape of her want is chaotic, idiosyncratic and sometimes awkward. But above all it is thrillingly alive. Edie occupies the pages of this exceptional book, with her irrepressible wit, her courage and her scorching honesty—about the world she observes, and the person she is becoming.
– Katie Kitamura
Author of A Separation
All the Men I’ve Slept with at Work
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Chapter 2, Excerpted from Luster
by Raven Leilani
On Thursday morning the hot water isn’t running and there is a new mouse caught in the trap. My roommate and I have been supporting a family of mice for six months. We have gone through a series of traps and yelled at each other in Home Depot about what constitutes a humane death. My roommate wanted to bomb the place, but none of our windows open. So we have these plain glue traps which are engineered to smell like peanut butter. The thing is, to unstick the mouse I have to go outside and pour canola oil on its feet. Yes, there are always tunnels in my bread. Yes my landlord, a twenty-three- year-old, Flat-Tummy-Tea, Instagram shill who inherited the building from her grandfather, is ignoring my emails. But we are all trying to eat. So when I’m outside trying to release this distressed, balding mouse while the fat calico is watching from the deli across the street, it’s like this mouse infestation and I are in it together. When I go back inside, I think about how little the mouse wants. I think about the chicken grease and peanut butter. I think about how before lunchtime, one of the bodega cats will rise from a crate of Irish Spring and welcome the mouse into its jaws.
I go back inside and throw on my least wrinkled dress. I look into the mirror and practice my smile because they moved me to a desk where my manager can see my face, and I have noticed her growing concern. Management claims they moved me so that I am more accessible to staff, but I know it is because of Mark. My first year two years on the job, I sat in the outer limits of the office, where the children’s imprint transitions into epub-only romance. There, I was fortunate enough to face a wall, where I could blow my nose privately. Now I am social. I show my teeth to my coworkers and feign surprise at the dysfunction of the MTA. There is a part of me that is proud to be involved in these small interactions, which confirm that I am here and semi-visible and that New York is squatting over other people’s faces too, but another part of me is sweating through the kabuki, trying to extend my hand and go off script.
I have about ten hours until my date with Eric, which means I have to eat as little as possible. I cannot anticipate the overreactions of my stomach, so if I think there is even the slightest possibility of sex, I have to starve. Sometimes the sex is worth it and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes there is a premature ejaculation and it is eleven pm and I have twenty minutes to make it to the closest McDonald’s with an intact ice cream machine. I pack a can of black olives for lunch. I roll on some lipstick, hoping the maintenance of the color will make me less inclined to eat.
By the time I push my way onto the train, the sun is nuking all the garbage in Manhattan. We stall for traffic at Montrose, Lorimer, and Union Square, and the dark tunnel walls make mirrors of the windows. I turn away from my reflection and a man is masturbating under a dirty velvet throw. I almost lose a seat to a woman who gets on at 23rd, but luckily her pregnancy slows her down. I arrive at work eighteen minutes late, and the editorial assistants are already directing the wave of phone calls to publicity.
I am the Managing Editorial Coordinator for our children’s imprint, meaning I occasionally tell the editorial assistants to fact-check how guppies digest food. I call meetings where we discuss why bears are over, and why children only want to read about fish. The editorial assistants do not invite me to lunch. I try to be approachable. I try to understand my group of pithy, nihilists who all hail from the later end of Gen Z. There is only one EA I try to avoid, and this is the one who comes first thing this Thursday morning to my new, centrally located desk.
“I don’t know how these reporters are getting our direct lines. Have you seen Kevin?” Aria is the most senior editorial assistant. She is also the only other black person in our department, which forces a comparison between us that never favors me. Not only is she always there to supply a factoid that no one knew about Dr. Seuss, she is also lovely. Lovely like only island women are; her skin like some warm, synthetic alloy. So she’s very popular around the office with her reflective Tobagonian eyes and apple cheeks, doing that unthreatening aw shucks schtick for all the professional whites. She plays the game well, I mean. Better than I do. And so when we are alone, even as we look at each other though borrowed faces, we see each other. I see her hunger, and she sees mine.
“I don’t know, maybe Kevin was finally beamed up by the Heritage Foundation,” I say, taking my coffee into my hand.
“This isn’t a joke to me,” she says. For the most part I’ve stopped worrying that she is compiling a list of reasons she should have my job, because now it is not a question of whether she will take my job, it is a question of when. The only thing that bothers me is that I still want to be her friend. On her first day, she came into the office meek and gorgeous, primed to be a token. And as you are wont to do—having always been the single other in the room, having somehow preserved hope that the next room might be different—she looked around, searching for me. When she found me, when we looked at each other that first time, finally released from our respective tokenism, I felt incredible relief.
And then I miscalculated. Too much anger shared too soon. Too much can you believe these white people. Too much fuck the police. We both graduated from the school of Twice as Good for Half as Much, but I’m sure she still finds this an acceptable price of admission. She still rearranges herself, waiting to be chosen. And she will be. Because it is an art—to be black and dogged and inoffensive. She is all these things and she is embarrassed that I am not.
I’d like to think the reason I’m not more dogged is because I know better. But sometimes I look at her and wonder if the problem isn’t her, but me. Maybe the problem is that I am weak and overly sensitive. Maybe the problem is that I am an office slut.
“They’re never going to give you the power you want,” I say because I’m jealous, and it is interesting how she wavers between her mask and this offering of conspiracy.
She leans down and there it is, that sweet, copyrighted black girl smell—jojoba oil, pink lotion, blue magic.
“How would you know? You’re still a managing editorial coordinator, and you’ve been here three years,” she says, and I could assert my seniority, but that would be embarrassing. The difference in our entire yearly salaries is one monthly student loan payment.
“We just got a bunch of proofs for that series we’re doing on bath time. Can you take care of those?” I say, turning away from her. I check my phone, hoping there might be a text from Eric. Some reassurance that our first date truly went well, or some indication that he is excited about tonight. I think about sending him a comprehensive list of things he is allowed to do to me, so that we are on the same page, but when I have a draft, it has kind of a boiled rabbit vibe. I try my hand at it a few more times before I give up and go to find Kevin, who has acquired the book at the center of this PR nightmare, an illustrated history for the conservative child, a lyrical meditation on the radicalism of the liberal media and the martyrdom of rural states.
If I have to be objective, the art in this book is something. The moody gouache sunsets over confederate camp. Lincoln’s saggy thought bubble as he looks into the future, disappointed by the state of his party. The photorealistic depictions of urban crime. I find Kevin walking around his office in one sock, talking on the phone as this G-rated agitprop flies off the shelves. And then I see Mark. I’m not proud of what I do then, which is duck into the stairwell and hold my breath. Of all the men I’ve slept with at work, this is the one who cost me the most. What they say about not shitting where you eat only holds if they pay you enough to eat. For the most part, this has been the best part of the job.
Onboarding with Mike, his little fingers and junior human resources lingo as I cajole him out of his pants. Jake from IT coming up the stairs at 6pm with his key fob, breathing on my neck about admin privileges while he addresses the service desk ticket about my broken monitor. Hamish from contracts in the nursing room with that blue streak in his hair and his hairy thighs asking me so sweetly if I could call him Lord. Tyler, Managing editor of Lifestyle and Self Help, his fanned glossies and sock garters, pushing my head down while he’s on the phone with the Dublin office. Vlad from the mailroom with his broken English and all the packing peanuts around us on the floor. Arjun from the British sales group with his slick black hair and cartoon villain forearms, all riled up by Scholastic poaching high performers on his team. Jake from IT, again, because these computers are shit and he has the prettiest dick I’ve ever seen. Tyrell from production with his halfway smile in the bathroom stall at the office Christmas party, string lights a fractal echo in his dark, reflective eyes. Michelle from legal sitting on the copier, nylons slung around her neck as fluorescents flicker overhead. Kieran from bodice rippers taking me from behind and going on and on about severing my body from my limbs and the whole time I’m laughing and I don’t know why. Jerry who is acquiring all the cancer- centric YA, making bank and soft love to me in the conference room with the aerial view of 30 Rock and I’m crying and I don’t know why. Joe from True Crime who doesn’t read at all and who comes loud and quick and calls me nigger and then mommy. Jason from STEM textbooks who wants me to cry just like I did for Kieran, which is an experience I do cry about, at home. Adam from Christian erotica coming on my face and I feel nothing. And then Jake, one more time, because my keyboard is on the fritz, but it isn’t Jake but John from IT who comes, sliding his hand beneath my shirt, telling me that Jake was in a bad car accident and it isn’t looking good.
And somewhere in between, Mark. Mark, head of the art department, where the air smells like warm paper and everyone is happy. Where there are silky sheaves of sixteen by twenty four and the printers are sighing in self-generated heat, churning out deep blacks and high whites like clockwork, panels as clear as water, so saturated that if you touch it fresh you can feel the wet. The people in the art department move around the building in smiling clusters, concept work cradled in their arms. They have passionate debates in the elevator about embossing and verdana and courier new. They have their own hours and their own dress code, each in that chic, dorky limbo that is the domain of the old art school kid. And all I want is to be one of them. I want to order takeout from the dumpling house across the street and stay in the office until ten, revising the vista behind Frank the Fox from ultramarine to cerulean to cyan. I have applied three times. I have interviewed twice. And in both cases they have asked me to do more work on my basic figure drawing skills. Mark told me that they would keep my resume on file, and so I went and flunked some night classes I could not afford, thwarted by the dimples in human muscle and especially by the metatarsal bones in the foot. I stuck to graphite and paper, hoping that unlike paint, the medium would afford me more control, but my figures kept blurring under the heel of my hand.
When it comes to this, I cannot help feeling that I am at the end of a fluctuation that originated with a single butterfly. I mean, with one half degree of difference, everything I want could be mine. I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost. The difference between being there when it happens and stepping out just in time to see it on the news. Still, I can’t help feeling that in the closest arm of the multiverse, there is a version of me that is fatter and happier, smiling in my own studio, paint behind my ears. But whenever I have tried to paint in the last two years, I feel paralyzed.
And Mark is not exactly pressed against the chapel ceiling or projecting this bleached, Warholian cool. He is a grown man in a duster who keeps fresh orchids in his office, collects polymer toys, and does Groening-esque renditions of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. And one day it was raining and 8pm, and he and I shared an elevator. He showed me panel of a cunnilingual octopus and the care he had taken to render this piece knocks me right over and onto his cock. But it isn’t like the others—the ecstatic rutting and cushy ether of the void—it is like I really need him. Because there are men who are an answer to a biological imperative, whom I chew and swallow, and there are men I hold in my mouth until they dissolve. These men are often authority figures. And so Mark was very kind, taking me out and deepening my palate and ordering all the wine. He took me back to his apartment, the sort of New York Real Estate that seems impossible, lousy with light and square footage like some telegenic Hollywood lie.
The sex is okay but sort of beside the point, because in his drawing room there are buckets of prismacolors, copic markers, and oils. Rolls of raw canvas, cans of lumpy gesso and turpentine. Filberts, brights, and flats bound with soft camel hair. And while he has a light taste for libertarianism, he doesn’t ask me to do outdoor activities, so it kind of squares. We spend weekends in bed, moving quickly out of the first nervous touches into the realm where we are undeterred by the odd turns of the id. But of course, my failure is hanging between us. He is infinitely more talented in the thing I most want to do, and he seems to prefer it that way. It is silly how late this occurs to me, the carrots he dangles in his boredom, how casually he reaches for the stick. I see myself in the women who trail him, the moony typographers, the perky-breasted RISD grads. Still, eventually I go over to his house and beg him to look at my work. I get on my knees, offer up my sketchbook, and say goodbye to his apartment and the sinewy watercolors he sometimes shows me at 3 am. There is a painting that I love by Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes. In it, two women are decapitating a man. They hold him down as he struggles to push away the blade. It is a brutal, tenebristic masterpiece, drenched in carotid blood. When Gentileschi painted it, she was seventeen. She painted it after her mentor, Agostino Tassi, was convicted for her rape. As I am working on a piece inspired by this painting, my father dies. I bury him next to my mother, and for weeks I don’t sleep and the mice eat all my fruit. Mark sends his condolences in a card, but then he stops returning my calls. He sends the drawings I left at his house in an envelope simply labelled stuff, and I leave him some voicemails which mostly boil down to him being a hack who only draws four- fingered hands, to how he is an impossible dweeb who needs to be kept away from women and shot into space, and a few times, yes, I stand in front of his house in the middle of the night. I draft some emails I don’t send and wander the halls of the office with all the things I want to say to his face. But when I see him now, when I go back into the stairwell next to Kevin’s office and see how Mark has remained unchanged, how he is flanked by two women and proceeding gaily about his life, I lose my nerve.