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.
Leilani has, it turns out, been a keen video game player since she was five years old. It was her much older brother who introduced her to the Nintendo Entertainment System, the two playing titles such as Duck Hunt and Super Mario together. “He’d absolutely obliterate me,” she relates, over a Zoom call. “He was living away from home by then, so, in between his visits, I’d train so that I could beat him.” From there, she moved on to the original PlayStation. “Just booting it up, the sound it played – I still feel like I have that sound in my head,” she says. “I started playing Tekken and Street Fighter. Me and my cousins would gather round the console and get really involved in the stories. It was how I learned to relate to other people, emotionally.”
The games she really loved were Japanese role-playing adventures – especially the Final Fantasy series. In Luster, Edie is evicted from her New York apartment at the beginning of her affair with middle-aged archivist Eric – it’s his wife, Rebecca, who insists on taking Edie into the home. It is through video games that Edie copes with this weird domestic dynamic, playing a fantasy adventure of Leilani’s own invention, about an amnesiac army mail clerk trying to find his family. “It’s totally a Final Fantasy rip-off!” she admits. “I was hoping for it to feel familiar to readers. I definitely lean heavily on Final Fantasy VII as the main reference point, especially as that game has so much to do with memory – it gave me a portal to talk about Edie and Akila’s formative contexts.”
Leilani drew on her own experience as a preteen geek, into games and comics, to depict Akila’s fandom. Living with white parents in a white suburb, the character feels alienated and marginalised, but role-playing games provide her with worlds in which she gets to be the central component. “When I wrote Akila, I was writing toward that younger version of myself – when you’re a part of a fandom and you love something so much, there is love but also a sense of ownership and discernment about the games you like and the games you feel other people shouldn’t like. Akila and Edie have their own tastes, but they are able to bond and find communion through gaming.”
Many readers will recognise that communal experience. RPGs are almost always single-player games, but a lot of us play with friends, shouting instructions to the person holding the controller. “I grew up playing them in a room full of my cousins and friends,” says Leilani, “and we identified with different characters in the party. So when I was writing those scenes that’s what I was trying to replicate – that feeling of being on a fantasy journey with another person and the way that can parallel the development of an interpersonal relationship.”
Luster – which has been longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction – is incredibly interesting in the way it explores the serrated boundaries between reality and fantasy. Edie’s relationship with Eric is an unrealistic construct that began as an online dalliance, and the strange domestic arrangement they find themselves in – an awkward open marriage that becomes an interracial nuclear family – is a fantasy, too, as ad-hoc, experimental and fabricated as a household in The Sims. The climax of the book takes place at a Comic-Con event – another highly fabricated fantasy space. Amid all this unreality, Akila’s gaming sessions with Edie are about the only emotionally real thing going on. There’s a lovely scene where Akila wakes Edie in the middle of the night and tells her she thinks she’s solved one of the game’s big puzzles. She then carefully observers Edie playing the game, watching how she interacts with non-player characters, as a kind of test of her empathy. When she sees Edie being kind in the game, she removes the wig she’s been wearing and shows that she has burned her scalp applying sodium hydroxide. It is a starkly personal revelation: she has no one to help her with her hair.
“Video games allow a different kind of vulnerability,” says Leilani. “When you’re playing with another person, the engagement you have with the character, the story, the journey – it makes for a collaborative, communal experience that Edie and Akila are desperately searching for. It’s also worth noting that these are two black women who move through the world with that layer of self-protection who are gravitating toward this safe space. The fantasy game provides a place for them to relate to each other where they don’t have to be concerned with the curated self.”
So, that’s why it is so important, in that terrifying scene with the police officers, that it is video games the two characters turn to. “Games are not simply an escape from the real world, they’re a place to process what has happened in the real world,” says Leilani. “That’s how it has worked for me. I’m extremely introverted and I’m naturally inclined to more solitary activities. I want to be sucked into an experience.”
When I ask Leilani if playing Final Fantasy has influenced her approach to storytelling, she nods enthusiastically. Luster is filled with beautiful, intricate observations – she places brand names, specific disco songs and other cultural artefacts with the exactness of an artist setting up a still life painting. This, she says, is something she learned from RPGs. “You follow a character on this journey of self-discovery, and I like the work that it entails. I like going into villagers’ houses and finding what’s there, I like talking to NPCs and exhausting my options. I love being rewarded for that attention and rigour … It’s hard to articulate the magic of a world that responds to you in that way.
“RPGs represent something that is central to making art, which is data collection and attention. You have to be rigorous and curious – because curiosity, too, is central to art,” she says. “You have to seek out the gifts that are built into the world. Playing those games and seeing how they work and knowing how to advance not just the game but the character in their journey, helped give me patience for the accumulation of small epiphanies and small interactions.
“All of it means something – that’s the most succinct way I can put it. Small things matter.”