Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer
New York-based author Raven Leilani was awarded VCU’s Cabell First Novelist Award for her debut novel, “Luster.” The story centers on ideas about race, class, gender and sexuality located amid the backdrop of New York City.
“It was a really really beautiful surprise. Finding out I was up for it was really deeply cool,” Leilani said.
VCU’s Cabell First Novelist Award is granted each year to an author, whether that be from VCU or beyond, who presents excellence in their premiere novel. The award is now in its 20th year and has become a staple in the VCU Master of Fine Arts creative writing program.
The uniqueness of the award stems from the fact that it is almost entirely run by VCU students in the M.F.A. program, according to VCU English professor Thomas Didato.
“The award was built to honor new writers and to offer a chance for M.F.A. candidates to learn more about the publishing process,” stated Cabell First Novelist Award Fellow, Ty Phelps. “It is truly a joint effort between the M.F.A. program, the broader English Department, and the library.”
Leilani’s book centers around the story of a young Black woman, named Edie, as she becomes entangled with an older married man and his family, eventually moving in with them.
“For me the project was to write a story about a Black woman who doesn’t have it all together yet, who’s making mistakes and who, on the page, is allowed the room to make mistakes,” Leilani said.
This desire to tell a story about the need for human connection is what fueled Leilani to write the book in the first place.
“What was exciting to me was beginning to write a story about the complications, the joyful complications, the frustrating complications, of being a Black woman who is doing her best to survive but also seek out intimacy,” Leilani said.
The characters in Leilani’s novel are complex and often morally ambiguous, adding a personal, human touch to the story, according to the author.
“Ms. Leilani explores these topics in a way that feels natural and driven by the humanity of each character,” Phelps stated. “This novel is both timeless and quintessentially modern.”
NPR called the book an “exotic hybrid,” stating that “Leilani writes as if she’s stabbing the keyboard with scalpels made of class resentment and memories of racism and misogyny.”
In addition to these subjects, Leilani also details central human themes as well, such as romantic desire and being an outsider.
“One of the big themes in ‘Luster’ is desire,” Phelps stated. “And not a static, fixed sort of desire that is so often represented in media, but a messy, ever-shifting type of desire that feels much truer to life, and much harder to render in fiction. This is a desire that is fraught and complicated and illogical and deeply human.”
Leilani’s novel has garnered a great deal of attention in the literature world, with her novel winning awards such as the Kirkus Prize, which highlights exceptional fiction works; the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, which features debut fiction novels; and the John Leonard Prize, which awards a debut novel in any genre.
“The prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level, is gorgeous but real, and doesn’t distract from the story even as it frequently dazzles,” Phelps stated. “The characters are complex, compelling, and dynamic. But most of all, I found myself constantly surprised by this book. It winds up places that are just totally unpredictable, but the twists never feel forced or out of character. The book really fires on all cylinders.”
For Leilani, the acclaim for her first book is more than she could have imagined for herself as a Black novelist.
“More than anything you hope that people will pick it up and read it and approach it with an open mind, but the rest of the real concrete recognition I’ve gotten, including from VCU, has been a dream and has really affirmed me on this journey,” Leilani said.