Despite physically distancing us, the pandemic seems to have left us with even less privacy than before. Without a way to differentiate our private and public lives, we are in turn exposing our true selves more and more. In this episode of The Cut, host Avery Trufelman and author Raven Leilani unpack this “new mandatory earnestness” in the context of Leilani’s recently published novel, Luster, which the Cut excerpted back in August.
RAVEN: Earnestness is a vulnerable and overt way of interacting with the world. I feel like it is a way of being that is against self-protection.
AVERY: I feel like there’s this sort of cool, practiced earnestness — the kind that is like pretending you’re not wearing makeup when you’re actually wearing makeup that looks like you’re not wearing makeup. And then there’s real earnestness that is just your bare pockmarked skin open to the world. Exposing who you really are. Your dorky weirdo self.
RAVEN: The way I learned to interact with things I loved was first through fandom. That’s sort of what’s beautiful to me about loving a thing and engaging with other people who love it through that love as opposed to what you don’t like about it.
AVERY: May I ask what you were a fan of?
RAVEN: A lot of things. I grew up playing JRPGs, Japanese role playing games. I grew up watching a lot, a lot of anime. And my brother too, he passed down his comic books to me for safekeeping when he left the house. You know being able to escape into those imagined worlds and feel comfort there. And with fandom, you know, I think perhaps, any hesitation I have is rooted in like the old teenage adolescent fear of when that was a private, almost shameful thing.
AVERY: But it’s not private anymore. Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, is full of things that would have once, maybe ten years ago, been considered guilty pleasures. The main character, Edie is a bit of a sensualist and a hedonist. You peer into her brain and you have this totally open look into everything we normally keep private. Edie snarfs down sticky fried foods, has risky, ill advised sex with her co workers. She blasts disco music in her rat infested apartment. She’s also a nerd and a fan and she loves all that dorky JRPG type stuff.
Although Leilani seems like she has fully harnessed earnestness, it is something she claims to still be working on. Edie, the main character in Luster, is an outlet through which Leilani is able to further explore this concept of sincerity.
AVERY: How does one begin to work towards earnestness or how do you begin to work towards earnestness?
RAVEN: I mean, I’m still working on it, but I will say the way I was working toward it is on the page. And trying to figure out whether the difference between a necessary privacy or a cloak that I might have because of fear. And those are very hard things I think to tell apart.
The author then goes on to read an excerpt from her debut novel, which was published in August.
RAVEN: The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing. His messages come with impeccable punctuation. He is fond of words like taste and spread. The empty text field is full of possibilities. Of course I worry about IT remoting into my computer, or my internet history warranting yet another disciplinary meeting with HR. But the risk. The thrill of a third pair of unseen eyes. The idea that someone in the office, with that sweet, post-lunch-break optimism, might come across the thread and see how tenderly Eric and I have built this private world.
In his first message, he points out a few typos in my online profile and tells me he has an open marriage. His profile pictures are candid and loose—a grainy photo of him asleep in the sand, a photo of him shaving, taken from behind. It is this last photo that moves me. The dirty tile and the soft recession of steam. His face in the mirror, stern with quiet scrutiny. I save the photo to my phone so I can look at it on the train. Women look over my shoulder and smile, and I let them believe he is mine.
To hear more from Leilani’s new book, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.