Raven Leilani: It’s More Humane to Allow the Narrator to Be Unreliable
From the Thresholds Podcast, Hosted by Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Raven Leilani, author of the novel Luster, discusses the risks she took to become a writer, grappling with artistic failure, repurposing her life in her stories, and why it’s more humane to allow the narrator to be unreliable.
From the interview:
Jordan Kisner: Did that feeling of not being able to breathe start to resolve once you had the resulting existential realization?
Raven Leilani: I absolutely don’t think it’s a coincidence that happens sort of around the same time I was trying to uproot my whole life and make a go of writing. I should also say that it happened around the time when my brother, who is terminally ill, moved back in with my family because he could no longer take care of himself. So there’s a lot happening and a lot that I think my body was responding to, but I actually had major thoracic surgery. I saw a handful of specialists. It was getting worse. I still remember the way that came up against that summer in D.C. Summer is my season. I’m alive and really, truly most myself, and it felt so strange that the season that I love the most was exacerbating this thing that was going on in my body. The air is thick. I just remember that feeling gasping for air.
It was winter or maybe late fall by the time I went for an MRI for imaging to try and figure out what was happening, and they found the shadow. I want to take an aside and say that I found out much later after the fact that Nabokov had a similar shadow in a similar place that haunted him for his entire life, but I had a shadow between my lungs and behind my heart. It’s a very hard place to access. It couldn’t be looked at casually and they didn’t know what it was or whether it was anything to worry about, but with everything that was happening we decided to look into it. The only way to do that was major surgery. So I went in and they went in through my back with a camera, and they couldn’t find anything. They didn’t find anything. Then shortly after I went for that surgery, as my body was healing, it started to resolve. So I mean, I hate to not be able to to offer clear cut answers to what was happening, but that is definitely a moment in my life where those kind of conditions kind of all came together to give me the sense of the time that I had. I had to seize it.
I will say this is actually in the book, and I kind of repurposed it for the story. I changed a few things, but when they were wheeling me into the operating theater, you know, they make small talk with you. They ask you, what do you do? What do you like? I told them, I’m a writer. I think it was one of those moments where do I say what I am or do I say what I want to be? At that moment, I was trying to and wanting to be a writer, and I just remember that moment felt so fraught because I was about to go in for this major surgery and I had to say that thing aloud. I think that was just ta moment where I just felt both aware of the preciousness of time, the vulnerability of my body, but also that there is this thing that I really wanted to give myself over to entirely.
Jordan Kisner: What had been keeping you from that? Why hadn’t you done that already?
Raven Leilani: There are a few answers to that. One is that I was scared of losing my stability. I was even in a different state to begin with because I followed a job there. I truly could not afford to not have a job. I had insane student debt. I had to make rent. My family was unable to help in any way. So that was the case when I was finally back in the city where I held that job. I eventually left it and began a string of
jobs where I was searching for something that would be meaningful. Each job came with its own challenges and disappointments, but it was still, in a practical sense, how I was eating and how I was paying my student debt. I knew that to uproot my life and go back to New York, an extremely expensive city, I would have to have more means when I did. That’s why I started working for Postmates, which is also something I repurposed for the book. After I got into my MFA program, I felt this incredible euphoria, but then immediately just panic. Like, how am I going to afford that? So I started working for Postmates to try and build up a cushion, and, in a way, that’s how I kind of think about leaving D.C. is kind of going door-to-door with fries and cigarettes. The biggest consideration was, I don’t know if I can afford this. The second, and most spiritual, reason why I held off for so long was it felt impractical. It felt impractical to uproot my life, to attend a program where there is no promise of what you might end up with. It felt like hubris because I had really great teachers who told me, you want to do this thing, make sure that you have a job that you can count on to pay the bills. If you’re going to be a writer, it’s going to be both. It’s never just one or the other. So it felt deeply impractical to uproot my life for a thing that I knew the probability of breaking through was low, but I had to try. I had to try. I also had a partner, so it wasn’t just me that I was uprooting. I was also uprooting another life. So it meant considering that part of it too. Was I good enough? Could I afford it? Those are the two things.
The first thing I ever did that I loved was painting. I came up in a great public school and had a great art program, and a lot of people in my family were artists. I mean, they had day jobs that didn’t have anything to do with their art, but because they were artists and because I came up in an environment where critique was central, I was extremely aware of the way that the arts are competitive. But to say I’m going to do this thing, I’m going to uproot my life, you are doing that. You are saying, I am good enough, right? Perhaps I can make it. It’s a necessary faith to have, but it’s a scary thing to commit to because it’s not self protective. It opens you up to failure in an entirely different light.
Thank you to the House of Chanel for sponsoring this episode. See more at Inside.Chanel.com.
Raven Leilani‘s work has been published in Granta, The Yale Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, The Cut, and New England Review, among other publications. Leilani received her MFA from NYU and was an Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence. Luster is her first novel.