Art and the Process of Trauma

Thoughts on Luster by Raven Leilani


I loved Luster, and if that makes me a quintessential millennial reader then that’s fine. I loved a lot of things about it. It’s just a good book. It’s the first book in a while that made me laugh out loud. Speaking back to the Millennial thing: I saw myself in Edie, the narrator. In her desires, her humor, in her failure, in her need to be seen and inability to see herself.

This is interesting as one of the main themes of the novel is that Edie kind of can’t see herself. Or is lost. She is an artist who can’t do a self-portrait. Like a lot of artists, myself included, Edie processes her life through her art. To me, the inability to paint herself – until the end of the book – stems out of not being able to process, yet, who she is. Edie explains herself clearly, beautifully, in the last paragraph of the book:

A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t. So I’ve tried to reproduce an inscrutable thing. I’ve made my own hunger into a practice, made everyone who passes through my life subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint. And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here” (p 227).

To process life, trauma, through art is always to warp it somehow, but it’s also the only way we understand it. Maybe nothing is wrapped up so easily, so perfectly, and maybe our lives cannot be understood whole, not when there is so much of it to unpack.

The last painting, the one she does of Rebecca in the last chapter, is a concrete example of this. That last painting is like Edie processing Rebecca and their relationship. I think, after the initial attraction, Edie and Eric were more about Edie wanting a family, wanting intimacy, even wanting parents. She is so isolated, she doesn’t have friends, family, or anyone really. Everything she is, is inside herself. And when it’s inside, it’s invisible. But this portrait doesn’t make the past go away or make it any easier. It literally closes a chapter, but still things linger. Maybe it makes things brighter, easier to understand. It’s a start then.

Edie does a self portrait eventually. Her first finished self-portrait comes after her and Akila are accosted and attacked by police officers in front of Rebecca and Eric’s house. Edie tells us,

Later, I try to paint. When I can’t, I sit in front of the mirror and do a quick graphite study of my face, and for the first time in my life, there I am. Or at least, something is recognizable, but the timing is bad […] the truth is that when the officer had his arm pressed into my neck, there was a part of me that felt like, all right. Like, fine. Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die” (p 217).

She cannot fully process this experience until she paints it and when she does, she realizes this morbid truth about herself. Her portrait, then, is a portrait of violence and sadness, not fully of Edie herself. Even though she says at the end of the novel that she wants proof of being alive, it comes in living, not in her portraits.

Before the incident with police, her and Eric have a conversation at comic-con where I think she realizes this for herself, in a way. She realizes that she romanticized Eric’s perceived knowledge about the world, and has forgotten that she has survived 23 years of being a black woman in America. Edie thinks, “I too am alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat” (p 208). She has finally been able to process that she has gotten herself this far. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot – to be just be alive and stay alive – but when your life doesn’t even feel like yours, when it feels like you are just there, it takes everything to stay.

A different theme or aspect of the book I wanted to talk about was messiness and reality. Two things this book does so well. First, Edie, a narrator who is so open, so honest, and so real. Edie isn’t a hero or an anti-hero, she’s just a real young person figuring their life out. I am going to quote from an interview from The Believer with Raven Leilani, because she explains this better than I can:

I wanted to afford a Black woman the latitude to be fallible. I wanted to write against the idea that there is a particular way to comport yourself to earn the right to empathy. Black women are especially subject to this expectation, and I think to have to expertly navigate racist and sexist terrain to survive and be denied the right to a human response is to deny that person dignity. It’s a recipe for a repressed, combustible person. I’ve been there, and I’m still unlearning that reflexive curation as we speak, so it was a relief to write a Black woman who leads with her id. It was a relief to write toward her want and rage without apology, which is, unfortunately, what some people might find unlikeable.”

Just like with Edie’s character, in the events of the novel, there is no veil. It feels so close to reality as if to be describing real events. There was no dues ex machina, no certainty about Edie’s life, about Rebecca’s or Eric’s or even Akila’s. In a romcom or a traditionally happy ending, maybe Edie wouldn’t have moved out, maybe Eric would have. Maybe Eric and Rebecca would be happy in love again. Maybe Edie would come into a lot of money and adopt Akila and take her upstate like in her fantasies about motherhood. But none of this happens because Edie and all the other character are just people. Not saviors, villains, just people. And people can be beautiful and heartbreaking for the things they do and they things they can’t.

For Edie, the end is a new chapter. She hasn’t gone through a drastic change, or maybe she has. At the end of the novel, at least, she wants to live. To quote Maggie Rogers, she’s back in her body. It’s happy in its own way. Throughout the book, Edie is shown again and again that she is a being in the world, that she can grow and create, that she can hurt and he hurt, love and be loved, and keep going. And I hope she does.

By katelyn Rose Conroy

Katelyn Conroy is an emerging writer from Long Island, New York, who currently resides in New York City. She currently attends CUNY City College's MFA program and will graduate in the Spring of 2021. She has been published in The Bridge: Bluffton University Literary Magazine and Manhattan Magazine.

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