At the risk of coming across as pretentious, I love coming-of-age stories. Dramatizing the emotional and mental transition of growing up and with that, growing into oneself is comforting. Although the act of coming-of-age is a universal reality undeterred by class, sexuality, and gender expression, the canonical space is one that has been diluted with stories belonging to the white suburban teen. When racialized and non-cishet people are written into these narratives, more often than not, they find themselves wearing a mask belonging to an archetype. That is, they play the supportive best friend, wise therapist, or sassy peer. Essentially, the inclusion of marginalized and othered peoples within the fictional landscape of the coming-of-age genre mirrors the ways in which these peoples are expected to stay in the shadows of society. Raven Leilani challenges this idea in her recent debut novel Luster. A narrative that at times feels voyeuristic, Luster explores what happens when due to unemployment twenty-something flaneur Edie is forced to cohabitate with her lover Eric, and his wife, Rebecca. Throughout the novel there is relational tension between the characters, that only grows as they try to learn how to fit into the fabrics of each other’s lives. Edie lives at the center of this tension, on her periphery is Eric, Rebecca, and their adopted 12-year-old, Akila. While Edie wonders how she functions as an accessory to Eric and Rebecca’s open marriage, Rebecca simultaneously attempts to push Edie and Akila closer together. Akila is black, struggling socially and until Edie’s arrival in their home- the only black person in their suburban community. Edie can’t help but question if the need to solve the “Akila problem” is the only reason Rebecca asked her to stay.
The world of Luster is one that is innately dichotomous in nature. There is man and there is woman, black and white, rich and poor, the vibrant possibilities that come with life in New York City and the direness of domesticity in New Jersey. There is no bridge to bring together these opposing duals, they simply exist on opposite ends. The lack of fluidity makes Edie’s embodiment of mediocrity more apparent. There is an unwritten, unspoken rule that for black people to survive in the world they must be exceptional. It is not enough to just be present; you must have a seat at the table. I call this the “tokenism curse”. It is knowing that when you are given the opportunity to come out of the shadows, your actions will reflect on everyone else that looks like you. By writing a black woman that is not exceptional or virtuous, Leilani creates a character that is free to do more and feel more than what traditionally has been expected from black women in literature.
Edie’s refusal to adhere to the tokenism curse allows her to feel human. She is not perfect and like many of us, she is simply doing what she needs to get by. This notion inversely becomes problematic as it is revealed that Edie is okay with settling, something that makes her almost dislikable at times. It’s hard to understand why she is okay with accepting less than the bare minimum as her reality. As the reader you want her to want more for herself and to see herself as capable of attaining more. In the rare moments when she craves more space and with that more power be it power over others or power over herself, she is unable to attain it. Despite Edie’s failure to see her race as a large component of who she is, that does not mean that the people that surround her do the same. Her naivety to how her race, class, and gender shape her reality makes it so that the space and the power that she dreams of is unattainable. The second part of the tokenism curse is that regardless of whether or not you opt in, you take part; it’s the “Du Bois clause”. The insistence of seeing yourself as a person whilst the rest of society sees and understands you as a social construct. Edie’s failure to fully confront how ideas of race, gender, and class function as revolving forces in her life, constrains her to a state of arrested development for much of the novel. Her failure in this aspect is the most apparent when she is painting.
Edie is passionate about the arts and dreams of a career as an artist, the fear of herself and what she might uncover about her identity prevents her from being able to fulfill this dream. Though there are moments where we see her acknowledge the role these identities have had and continue to have in her life, she is never able to fully confront this notion. Rather she has a disassociation from herself, where it seems that she is constantly looking on the outside in. Whether this is in regard to how she sees herself as a woman, a poor person, or a racialized person. Equally her failure to confront these identities and how they have shaped her life results in a failure to conceptualize completely why things happen or rather don’t happen to her. This occurs in her analysis of everything occurring in her life. Whether it is the racist neighbors she encounters in New Jersey or Eric and Rebecca and the way they treat her. While social identities do not dictate entirely who we are, it is important to consider the ways in which these constructs affect our coming-of-age.
In Luster, power plays a pivotal role. It is what the reader craves for Edie to gain. Power is equivalent to control; be it control over one’s internal environment or over the outside world. Arguably, Edie’s failure to self-actualize and understand herself as a black woman is what causes her lack of power and control over herself. Throughout the novel, there is a constant give and take exchange of power. There are these silent wars of who can have the most power in the household. For Rebecca there is a need to regain power in her marriage and over her household; expressed through belittling gestures and microaggressions towards Edie. For Edie, the need for power is expressed through a desire to take up space. As someone who has never been afforded any space, she understands occupying space as an act that is intrinsically radical. She feels that she constantly has to justify not just to herself but to others that she deserves to be seen and to be present. This desire is undercut by her inconsistent understanding of how the structures of society have handicapped her ability to be seen simply for who she is.
Leilani’s insistence on primarily discussing blackness in connection to pain and violence rather than as something that is equally intimate and tender is the greatest pitfall of the novel. Instead of showcasing the joys that come with coming-of-age black, Luster acts as a reminder of how quick trauma can attach itself to black individuals and black community.
Moreover, personified through Edie’s relationships with Eric and Rebecca and the space they are in, Leilani illustrates violence and the ways in which it can be used to both negate access to these commodities while providing space for yourself. We see this traditional fight for power and space and how violence whether symbolic or physical helps organize who has access to these social commodities. Notably, this is violence that occurs in the symbol of hushed tones and harsh words and the clutching of bags but also violence in the physical manner represented as the traumatization of one’s body. While these ideas are not directly connected to race, the thing Leilani misses is that the novel is at the most powerful when race is not put in the shadows. Despite the multiple sex scenes sprawled throughout the novel, the most intimate most interesting moments are the ones between Akila and Edie when they try to replicate the tenderness of community. The moments when Edie is teaching Akila how to do her hair or the singular moments when they share looks of compassion. It is these moments where we see vulnerability and Edie’s capacity to do more than live in the middle.
Leilani’s insistence on primarily discussing blackness in connection to pain and violence rather than as something that is equally intimate and tender is the greatest pitfall of the novel. Instead of showcasing the joys that come with coming-of-age black, Luster acts as a reminder of how quick trauma can attach itself to black individuals and black community. It is important to tell stories of black pain but, in a world where space for black joy has been rationed, these narrations quickly become retraumatizing and leave the black reader wondering, okay, but who was this written for? Luster scorches through ideas of sex, loss, trauma, and pain with humour so dark you almost feel ashamed for laughing at times. Leilani’s insistence on only discussing blackness to remind audiences of the violence of being black creates a lingering bitterness. The inclusion of black voices and stories in the coming-of-age canonical space that has been for lack of a better term, white as hell, is refreshing. I can’t help but wonder, why does coming-of-age black have to be and feel so painful?