Luster and my achy breaky heart

I recently found a note on my phone that I wrote while reading Luster by Raven Leilani. It’s dated 30 December 2020 and contains more than fifteen quotes that made my heart absolutely ache at the time. Reading them back, the ache is still very much there, so of course my instinct is to write about it and get disgustingly personal on the internet.

The novel follows Edie, a Black woman in her early twenties who gets involved with a married white man and, later, his wife. Leilani is unflinching in her examination of race and class and the realities of this intersection for an American woman today. The general chaos of Edie’s life, however, is universally relatable; her future is unknown, her choices are messy and, ultimately, she is flawed. 

I don’t remember seeing out the hellfire that was 2020 by reading this book but, given the date, I must have. Looking back at that period of my life, which was only three and a bit months ago but could be a year in itself, I was dealing with shit similar to Edie’s and find it comforting that I was reading something to which I so deeply connected during that time. My gratitude towards young women who write contemporary fiction and are able to clearly articulate what it feels like to be us—gritty, misguided, lonely, ambitious, hopeful—is endless.

In December I was all of these things (still am, for the most part). I was desperately homesick for New South Wales, I was eager to start school so I would feel like I was doing something with my life and I was pretending (badly) not to have feelings for a boy I definitely liked. I can already hear my friends reading that last sentence and yelling: ‘This is all of the time!! Not just December, you fucking broken record!!!’ and they would be correct. But that particular mix—and that particular boy—made me feel like the smallest, most inconsequential version of myself.

It should be illegal to let people have that much power over how you see yourself, although I’m glad it’s not or I’d be writing this garbage on a cellblock wall right now. That boy doesn’t read this blog (I don’t think? Do you? Hello) nor does he know the extent to which he made me feel like I was too much of some things and not enough of others. Leilani puts her finger on this perfectly when Edie starts noticing the inequality in her relationship with Eric: ‘Suddenly it feels painful to be this ordinary, to be this open to him, as he looks at me and pretends I am not just a cheaper version of a fast Italian car.’

And when describing Edie’s insecurities on their first date: ‘“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll revise.’

What I wouldn’t give to be the beach read version of a human being. I have never chased after a man with eraser in hand, screaming that I’ll scrub myself out and start again, but I have felt the desire to do so plenty of times, despite showing these men very little of myself. I’m aware that the only thing inherently wrong with me is that I believe absolutely everything is wrong with me but there is a lot to blame for this (because obviously it can’t be my fault). Society, for one, which I also blame for my constant need to be reassured that ‘You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing’ – another unbelievable line from Leilani.

And, for another, I find myself still working through the consequences of a destructive breakup, years later. He is not a bad person, in fact he is still my friend, but the bad things he did have made dating quite the complex task. Again, Leilani puts it better than I ever could: ‘I believed, like a catholic or a tortured artist, that the merit of a commitment correlates directly to the pain you endure in its pursuit.’ Now, like Edie (and millions of other people who are not fictional characters), I am risk-averse when it comes to dating. I tend to manufacture situations in which I am incredibly unlikely to get hurt, although clearly that doesn’t always work out or this blog post would be half its length, and when I come across someone who is kind to me and seems to care and who I could definitely care about too, I bolt.

Instead, I have become very good at seeking out people who are not only unperturbed by the gigantic walls I have built around myself but are grateful that they are there, because it is obvious I do not expect anyone to try to scale them. I date men in their thirties because, if they’re actively seeing twenty-four-year-olds, their fear of commitment usually matches my own. This was a subconscious pattern of mine until recently but it has always been blatantly obvious—and very funny—to my friends. I describe to them a new boy I’m seeing and these assumptions are always made: barely any common interests, barely any interest in me, emotionally unavailable and a bit fucked up from their past trauma. Choosing people this way leaves absolutely no room for rejection or heartbreak; if I date people in whom I cannot invest then I will not be hurt by their lack of investment in me. 

The big, bad secret here is this: I do not like being this way. I want nothing more than to let myself date people who would have a go at scaling the walls, who would think the effort is worth the payoff. So, when I read Edie’s story while coping with this silly thing with this silly boy, I felt immense relief that someone had put it all in a book-shaped Petri dish and handed me a microscope so I could inspect my hangups for what they are. Leilani so deftly describes what an uncomfortable mindfuck it is to not only date but to do so with baggage the size of a small aircraft tied around your neck, to open yourself up to other people when old wounds are still healing and to do so with the knowledge that you are so accustomed to being alone not because you have chosen it but because you are both terrified of the alternative and believe it is simply not for you. Only masters of their craft can achieve this cultivated accuracy and Leilani, I have no doubt, is one of them.

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Not a book post

It’s been a long minute between updates on here and that is largely due to the fact that I am just a walking husk of a person and three tiny brain cells at the moment. It is also for other reasons—exciting and exhausting and happy and heavy ones—but mostly the husk thing. 

I also haven’t been reading much and have felt enormous pressure to pump out reviews just to keep Manic Ciggie moving (which I also haven’t done). But! Then I remembered I made this dumb blog and can just waffle on about shit if I want to, so here we are.  Continue reading

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Sad Books for Bad Days

When I’m really sad – the kind of sad that makes it hard to get out of bed or speak in full sentences – I will exclusively listen to sad music. I know how counterintuitive this is, but do I stop? No. Because I love being miserable and making things worse. The ultimate crybaby.

I do the same thing with books. I don’t want to read something soft and uplifting if I’m having a shit time and the absolute last thing I need is to be bombarded with the happiness of other people (even if those people are literally not real). So, in no particular order, here’s a weeny list of some of the saddest books I’ve read. They will definitely make bad days worse but, from personal experience, there’s some healing power in being captivated by wounds that are not your own.* Continue reading

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Still ruminating: Unquiet by Linn Ullmann

I expected to find mandatory isolation difficult for many reasons. The one thing I did not anticipate was frogs. My hometown has experienced so much torrential rain in the last few months that my mum’s backyard has become a haven for those little green bastards. I’m sure they’re lurking during the day but their ribbits and croaking at 120 decibels starts right on sunset. You could say it has been very… Unquiet. That was an awful joke but the rest of this is pretty gloomy, so sit tight.  Continue reading

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David Sedaris is very funny and I’m incredibly late to this party

Would you like to know something seriously ironic about suddenly being stuck indoors for 14 days, unable to leave the four walls of your mum’s house in case you accidentally super-spread coronavirus all over the NSW coast? I have not been able to do anything with this abundance of time. Read one book, just one single book? Physically incapable. Write a blog post that isn’t just manic drivel? Absolutely not. I had no idea how much my concentration span was tied to stimuli from the outside world. I also had no idea how much I’d miss things like buying dumb stuff from the supermarket and putting pants on in the morning. Continue reading

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Lost for words, but here’s some about Memorial

I was sitting on a plane when I began writing this post. The pilot had just made an announcement to welcome ‘all passengers on flight JQ474 through to Newy’. Moments later I returned to Memorial and read the line “It’s hard to head home without succumbing to nostalgia, standing where so many versions of yourself once stood.” I hadn’t been back to NSW in twelve months because of coronavirus and Australia’s inability to keep our state borders open. I was finally heading home and this was exactly how I felt, so naturally I pulled out my laptop and started frantically writing about how incredible this book is. Continue reading

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Insufferable Bookworm Starts a Blog

When I first started working in books, I felt like a fraud. Mostly because I was one.

I have a lot of dear mates who share my deep, unconditional, total infatuation with reading. And these mates love to talk about how much they read when they were children. It’s very sweet. They always had their silly little noses in silly little books and it’s simply no wonder their bookshelves are collapsing under the weight of their literary prowess now that they’re grown. Yes, I am a surly bitch about this. I was not one of those kids and wish desperately that I was. I wasn’t even one of those adults until relatively recently, but I’ll explain that in a sec. Continue reading

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