Browse Winners

2021 Winner

Twentieth Annual Award
Luster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Raven Leilani

Luster tells the story of Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman and aspiring artist, who after losing her job finds herself living with her much older lover, his enigmatic wife and their adopted daughter.

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of Luster:

Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—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 autopsist 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, Raven 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 description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent, and the unexpected influences that bring us into ourselves along the way.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the Kirkus Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the Dylan Thomas Prize, Luster has received widespread critical acclaim. Luster was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree and a favorite book of the year by both The New Yorker and Barack Obama.

O: The Oprah Magazine called the novel, “an irreverent intergenerational tale of race and class that’s blisteringly smart and fan-yourself sexy.” The New York Times praised the novel as “so delicious [it] feels illicit." And NPR called it “a novel that shines with a distinctive darkness.”

Leilani’s work has been published in Granta, The Yale Review, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, The Cut and the New England Review, among other publications. Leilani received her MFA from New York University and was an Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence.

Judges: John Englehardt, winner of the 2020 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for Bloomland; students from the VCU MFA in Creative Writing Program; and the Cabell First Novelist Award Committee

Finalists: Bryan Washington for Memorial (Riverhead) and C. Pam Zhang for How Much of These Hills is Gold (Riverhead)

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