Smellscape of Emotions in Raven Leilani’s "Luster"

Activity: Talk or presentationConference presentation


Speaker in the panel "Sensing the City" led by Dr. Hsuan L. Hsu, organized by Dr. Davy Knittle

Title of the talk: Smellscape of Emotions in Raven Leilani's "Luster"

Raven Leilani’s novel "Luster" (2020) features a protagonist to whom the act of smelling is a pivotal part of experiencing the city. Edie, a young black woman working low-paying jobs and dreaming about becoming a professional painter, highlights the small but significant sensory moments that bear meaning to her in New York City, metropolis known to stink. When Edie goes out in the morning to meet an online crush, an older man waiting for her in a white Volvo, she tells us: “it is 8:15 a.m. and I feel happy. I am not on the L [train], smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead (6).”

This notion of discussing, avoiding, and thinking about unpleasant smells is a recurring theme in the novel, and it is not only the city’s transit system that gives off a distinct odor, but also its streets, services, apartments, fauna, institutions, and the bodies of the people who inhabit it. The urban smells are depicted mostly as repulsive but, I will argue, more than just shortcuts into the bustle of city life, the smells reflect the protagonist’s emotions, memories, and thoughts about her own place in the world. To illustrate, when Edie thinks back to the painful time she lost her virginity, became pregnant and had an abortion, she tells us that the sexual act “happened in the dark... and everything smelled like cordite and ash” (46). These masculine references to guns, shooting, exploding, and death act as symbols for something that cannot be otherwise described. Victoria Henshaw (2013: 12) has argued that “cities can be identified by their very nature as having always been sites of olfactory conflict, where negatively perceived odours combined with those that were more culturally acceptable.”

Indeed, although unpleasant memories and bad odors dominate the smellscape in Luster, there are also scents that bring our protagonist pleasure. When Edie finds a hairdresser capable of handling black hair, she states: “It smells right, like yaki and hibiscus and lavender oil” (164). Not only is Edie able to describe what death and happiness smell like, but she is also quick to comment on the kind of smells privilege and her own poverty emit. My paper explores these and other intriguing smells in Leilani’s daring debut novel.
Period5 Jan 2024
Event titleModern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention, 2024
Event typeConference
LocationPhiladelphia, United StatesShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational