Drawing on her own cathartic relationship with role-playing games, Leilani uses gaming as a narrative device and an inspiration in her acclaimed debut
There is an extraordinary and telling moment in Raven Leilani’s acclaimed novel Luster, about a young black woman who has an affair with a middle-aged white man and ends up living with his family. The woman, Edie, is heading back to her lover’s house with his adopted black daughter, Akila, when the pair are stopped and questioned by two police officers. Although Edie is compliant, Akila – younger and much less worldly – challenges the cops and gets thrust to the ground and restrained. The confrontation is rife with fear and tension, and when it’s over (diffused when Akila’s white mother intervenes), the first thing Edie and Akila do is go inside, sit down and play a video game.
Much of the fervid discussion around Luster has focused on Leilani’s astute and witty analysis of sexual politics and racial power structures in the 21st-century US. But a key part of her acutely realised portrayal of a millennial protagonist coping with crappy jobs and crappier love affairs is Edie’s natural relationship with digital culture and technology. At a time in which video game references are still mostly consigned to YA and sci-fi books, Leilani has made them a central component of a literary novel.