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Raven Leilani: ‘I try to replicate a version of sex on the page where the reader feels like a voyeur’

Leilani’s buzzy debut novel Luster follows a young black artist drawn into an open marriage. The author talks about losing her faith, writing sex – and a year of family tragedy

A couple of months before graduating from New York University’s MFA fiction programme, Raven Leilani was in Zadie Smith’s class when she got a text from her agent saying that an offer had been made on her first novel, Luster. When it was published in the US a year later, last summer, it went straight on to the New York Times bestseller list and was given an admiring debut review in the New Yorker. Its publication in the UK this month has been heralded with interviews in glossy magazines, including Vogue.

The novel has been “received in a way that I honestly couldn’t even hope for”, Leilani says from her Brooklyn apartment. Like Edie, the artist protagonist of Luster, the author, now 30, had spent many years “doggedly practising her craft”, writing in betweenwhatever nine-to-five job she was doing to pay the rent, all the while updating a spreadsheet of rejection letters. But while finally having her book “out in the world” has been “incredible and surreal”, it has also been a very difficult year. In April, she lost her father to coronavirus. Her brother died of a rare neuro-degenerative disease in September. “Am I allowed to curse?” Leilani asks politely. “It’s been a true mindfuck.”

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