Raven Leilani’s novel, luster, has won the 2021 LD and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. The prize of $25,000 is one of the largest literary awards in the United States.
Established at Texas State University in 2016 and administered by the Department of English, the prize is designed to recognize an exceptional, recently-published book-length work of fiction in celebration of the Clarks’ lifelong contributions to, and love for, literature and the art.
Téa Obreht, Clark Prize final judge, author of The Tiger’s Wife and the Texas State MFA Program’s University Endowed Chair, praised Raven Leilani’s “unique ability to turn a moment, a scene, a sentence on its head, plunging her readers from humor to existential gloaming with incredible skill and speed, so that you don’t always realize you’ve gone from laughing to holding your breath. The effect is disquieting and delightful, the product of her sharp eye and singular voice.”
In luster, Edie is stumbling her way through her 20s—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She is also haltingly, fitfully giving heat and air to the art that simmers inside her. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and invited into Eric’s home—though not by Eric. She becomes a hesitant ally to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.
Irresistibly unruly and strikingly beautiful, razor-sharp and slyly comic, sexually charged and utterly absorbing, Leilani’s luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of her life—her hunger, her anger—in a tumultuous era. It is also a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in one’s own talent, and the unexpected influences encountered along the way.
Leilani’s work has been published in Granta, The Yale Review and The Cut among other publications. Leilani is a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree, the recipient of the 2020 Kirkus Prize, VCU Cabell Prize, NBCC John Leonard Prize and Center for Fiction first novel prize. Leilani received her MFA from NYU and was an Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence. luster is her first novel.
Leilani and her work will be celebrated at an event at Texas State on April 8. The 2021 Clark Prize short list included the novels Temporary by Hilary Leichter, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Nominations of works published in 2021 were solicited from 12 prominent writers on the condition of anonymity, and the permanent fiction faculty of the Texas State MFA Program narrowed those nominations down to the short list.