Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Raven Leilani

by Bix Gabriel Read the Story March 25, 2019

Let’s begin with the title. Did you start with it or did it come later? How do you usually go about deciding titles?

I started with it, which is rare. Writing for me is mostly feeling around in the dark, and I can’t be confident I have found the thing I’m looking for until I’m at the end. So to title anything before it’s done usually feels too optimistic, but this one kept. I thought a story about traveling on the Sabbath would be a story about the friction between two states that are at odds, but when you travel, there are these pockets of inertia, moments where you feel time very concretely, which is always what Sabbath-keeping felt like to me. So the title is meant to speak to that, the elasticity of that remote, liminal space. And of course the literal function of your phone, which for better or worse (probably worse) becomes a kind deprivation, a way to make space to be offline and at rest.

Even though it’s flash, reading “Airplane Mode,” I felt like I was carried away into a full-formed world. Rereading, I think it’s because we have a realized setting, with precise details, like “In the bathroom, there was tinsel on the floor and the changing table was torn out of the wall.”  But, airports are such familiar, almost universal spaces. What made you spend time/space on the setting? And when/how did you decide that the story would be flash?

What’s weird is I am generally anti-setting. I don’t know if I should admit that. When I read, I’m happy to just listen to characters talk and make the drapes myself. But then I started writing this piece, and there was so much fluctuation that I needed to find a way to stabilize it. It was lucky I could do that with an airport, which is familiar and endures such high traffic that you can approach the setting through that traffic. So when I wrote about the tinsel, I was thinking of the shoe that tracked it in, and when I wrote about the changing table, I was thinking of a harried parent enduring some airport-specific hell. Thinking of those small interactions with the environment helped me build the world. On the length, I think flash works well for a story about travel. It gives you the feeling of passing through.

I saw that you are also a painter (your color portraits are wonderful!). What kinds of connections do you experience or make between your writing and your painting?

Thank you so much! I think I have to go back to what I said about setting. There’s no setting in my paintings. I paint portraits almost exclusively. It’s the only thing I’m interested in, though if I’m being honest, maybe I would paint landscapes if I had the skill to pull that off. There’s a lot of math you can get wrong, and it’s extremely conspicuous when you do. Faces obviously have metrics, too, but they feel more mutable to me. There’s also color. I had a professor who taught me how to mix paint and it changed my life. She showed me these photo-realistic paintings and had me look closely at where the coloring was surprising, like where greens and purples exist in skin. And when I paint, I like to exaggerate those kinds of inorganic colors, which is similar to the attitude I have about language. I love when language is surprising because it is amplifying something small.

What do you listen to when you travel? When you write? Paint?

When I travel, I like long songs, songs that hit the six or seven-minute mark and make the flight feel shorter. As in, in seven minutes I’ll be over Iceland. Trance is good for that. For writing, I like my ears to be bloody. Anything that is big and abrasive. It clears my head. For painting, I like something popular. The most honest answer is that I listen to everything and in no real specific circumstance, but one constant is that I am a chronic replayer. I get really obsessed with one song and that energy pushes me through whatever I’m making. The trouble is when you take the earbuds out and the thing you made is not as good as the song.

What’s your best or worst airport story?

This is one of the best, and it is very sentimental. I spent my freshman year abroad and it was the first time I’d ever been away from home for any sustained amount of time. I’m close with my parents, and I was nervous to leave them. They were nervous, too, and we were engaged in this perpetual wave goodbye while I was in the departure line. I remember turning away from them, making the decision that this wave needed to stop. I remember how relieved I was in that moment, because looking at them made me so sad. But as I was heading into the cabin, an attendant jogged after me and said, “Your parents are trying to say goodbye to you,” and I turned back around and they were still waving, and it is ludicrous that a stranger would be invested in this moment between me and my parents, but it was lucky because actually I did want to wave a little more.

About the Author:

Raven's work has appeared in Granta, Florida Review, New England Review, and McSweeney's. She is currently an MFA candidate at NYU.

About the Interviewer:

Bix Gabriel is a writer, teacher at Butler University, fiction editor at The Offing magazine, co-founder of TakeTwo Services, occasional Tweeter, and seeker of the perfect jalebi. She has a M.F.A in Fiction from Indiana University, and is completing a novel involving the war on terror and Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence, set in New York City, Dhaka, and Guantánamo Bay. Among other places, her work has appeared in Catapult, Guernica, Electric Literature, Jellyfish Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

About the Artist:

Paul Bilger's photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly.