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  • NYS Writers Institute

An excerpt from Raven Leilani's debut novel Luster


Debut novelist Raven Leilani joins us for two events on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Read an excerpt from Luster below.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

4:30 p.m. — Craft Talk, Multi-Purpose Room, Campus Center West 7:30 p.m. — Reading / Q&A, Recital Hall, UAlbany Performing Arts Center University at Albany 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222 View map Free and open to the public.

An emerging star of American fiction, Raven Leilani spent her young adulthood in Latham and attended Shaker High School. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Luster (2020), was an instant New York Times bestseller and “Notable Book of the Year.”

It tells the story of a young Black woman who becomes romantically involved with an older white man in an open marriage, and gets entangled in the complexities of his family life. Barack Obama named Luster one of his favorite books of 2020, and the New York Times reviewer said it “reads like summer: sentences like ice that crackle or melt into a languorous drip; plot suddenly, wildly flying forward like a bike down a hill."

Excerpt from Luster:

Chapter 1

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing. His messages come with impeccable punctuation. He is fond of words like taste and spread. The empty text field is full of possibilities. Of course I worry about IT remoting into my computer, or my internet history warranting yet another disciplinary meeting with HR. But the risk. The thrill of a third pair of unseen eyes. The idea that someone in the office, with that sweet, post-lunch-break optimism, might come across the thread and see how tenderly Eric and I have built this private world.

In his first message, he points out a few typos in my online profile and tells me he has an open marriage. His profile pictures are candid and loose—a grainy photo of him asleep in the sand, a photo of him shaving, taken from behind. It is this last photo that moves me. The dirty tile and the soft recession of steam. His face in the mirror, stern with quiet scrutiny. I save the photo to my phone so I can look at it on the train. Women look over my shoulder and smile, and I let them believe he is mine.

Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts. Here’s a fact: I have great breasts, which have warped my spine. More facts: My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk. It always goes well initially, but then I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent. Eric is different. Two weeks into our correspondence, he tells me about the cancer that ravaged half of his maternal family. He tells me about an aunt he loved who made potions with fox hair and hemp. How she was buried with a corn husk doll she’d made of herself. Still, he describes his childhood home lovingly, the digressions of farmland between Milwaukee and Appleton, the yellow-breasted chats and tundra swans that would appear in his yard, looking for seed. When I talk about my childhood, I only talk about the happy parts. The VHS of Spice World I received for my fifth birthday, the Barbie I melted in the microwave when no one was home. Of course, the context of my childhood—the boy bands, the Lunchables, the impeachment of Bill Clinton—only emphasizes our generational gap. Eric is sensitive about his age and about mine, and he makes a considerable effort to manage the twenty-three-year discrepancy. 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. Compared to the inscrutable advances of younger men, it is a relief.

We talk for a month before our schedules align. We try to meet earlier, but things always come up. This is just one way his life is different from mine. There are people who count on him, and sometimes they need him urgently. Between his abrupt cancellations, I realize that I need him, too. In a way that makes my dreams delirious expressions of thirst—long stretches of yellow desert, cathedrals hemmed in dripping moss. By the time we set our first real date, I would’ve done anything. He wanted to go to Six Flags.

We decide to go on a Tuesday. When he rolls up in his white Volvo, I have only made it to the part of my pre-date routine where I try to find the most appropriate laugh. I put on three dresses before I find the right one. I tie up my braids and line my eyes. There are dishes in the sink and a pervasive salmon smell in the apartment, and I don’t want him to think it has anything to do with me. I put on a complex pair of underwear that is not so much underwear as a bundle of string, and I stand before the mirror. I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Outside, he is double-parked. He leans against the car and remains like this as I come out, his eyes bright and still. His hair is darker than I expected, a black so opaque it looks blue. His face is almost obscenely symmetrical, though one of his eyebrows is higher than the other, and it makes his smile seem a little smug. It is the second day of summer and all the city’s powers have no sway over him. I reach for his hand, trying not to swallow my tongue, and something feels strange. Of course there are nerves. In person he is a total daddy, his face alert and hard, softened only by the slight recession of his hair. But this strange feeling has nothing to do with that, nothing to do with me looking past his sensuous mouth and slightly askew nose for any indication that he is as nervous as I am. It is that it is 8:15 a.m. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.

“Edie,” I say, extending my hand.

“I know,” he says, his long fingers settling between mine, too gently. I wanted to be more forward, to fold him into an easy, extroverted hug. But what happens is this limp handshake, this aversion of my eyes, this unsurprising and immediate surrender of power.

Excerpted from Luster by Raven Leilani, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Copyright © 2020 Raven Leilani. All rights reserved.

Meet Raven Leilani on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the NYS Writers Institute at the University at Albany.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

4:30 p.m. — Craft Talk, Multi-Purpose Room, Campus Center West 7:30 p.m. — Reading / Q&A, Recital Hall, UAlbany Performing Arts Center University at Albany 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222 View map Free and open to the public.


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