Raven Leilani is the author of Luster, a 2020 best-seller that won the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize. The novel, about a young Black woman who begins an affair with a married white man, is now available in paperback.
My Education by Susan Choi (2013).
An unsparing account of the carnal conspiracy between two gloriously human, difficult women: the 21-year-old narrator and the wife of her poetry professor. This novel was instrumental to my approach to my own book, in the way it presents the desire of women (unvarnished, without apology) but also in its engagement with language and the way this lends itself to texture and sensuality. Buy it here.
Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014).
Cusk's first entry in the Outline trilogy is a book that sends you hurtling through the psychic landscape of its speaker as she navigates fraught emotional transactions. This is one of the rare books that reanimated me during a period when I couldn't read or write. Buy it here.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984).
Reading this collection of essays and scholarship, I had the distinct sensation of feeling a miraculous brain, with unabashed id and empathy, processing both lived experience and how, as a Black woman, to give yourself over to love of the work. Buy it here.
Homie by Danez Smith (2020).
This lush, intimate poetry collection takes big formal and emotional risks in its rendering of private Black life. I return to this book to remind myself of what is possible on the page — the joy, the rigor, the necessity of a strut. Smith writes toward the abundant and the difficult and makes something that is rare: a piece of art that refuses self-consciousness and is exactly what it wants to be. Buy it here.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010).
Egan's brilliant, interconnected narrative engages tenderly with so many fervid human impulses: fandom, punk, habit, and how we upend what we are dealt to survive and reinvent. This Pulitzer Prize — winning novel is a marvel to me in its structure, execution, and heart. Buy it here.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (1967–71).
Ditlevsen, in a trio of memoirs beginning with Childhood and Youth, renders the tumult of adolescence with tenderness and wit. In the celebrated Danish writer's prose, the formative years are brutal and sweet, a site of ruin and furtive reinvention. Buy it here.
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