Season 5, Episode 14
Raven Leilani + Elysian Fields
Raven Leilani couldn’t breathe. This was back in 2016, before her bestselling novel Luster was published, when she was living in DC. Raven couldn’t figure out what was wrong; her lungs felt like they were stuffed with cotton. Frightened and desperate, she consulted an escalating series of doctors and specialists.
“Cameras down your throat, a barium swallow where they give you a solution that lights up your insides like an X-ray,” Raven recalls. “I have a photo of myself in the hospital with an 'I voted' sticker. And that entire night I couldn’t speak, because I’d had a camera down my throat.”
The longer the uncertainty lasted, the more she felt she had to perform her illness to be believed by doctors. Looking back, Raven connects her experience with the systemic racism Black women endure in hospitals and clinics across America.
“Racism, one of its functions is it conditions you to disbelieve your own eyes,” Raven says. “Many of us, we go to these institutions and we say, ‘something is wrong,’ ‘I need help,’ and they send us out in the world with Advil to die.”
In this episode Raven reads a story inspired in part by her experiences, “Breathing Exercise." And she invited one of her favorite bands, Elysian Fields, to write a song in response.
Elysian Fields, photo by Michael Lavine
“I’m especially thrilled to have been asked by Raven Leilani,” says Jennifer Charles, who founded the band with Oren Bloedow in 1995. “Ever since I read Luster I’ve been a really big fan.”
Raven was first introduced to Elysian Fields by her older brother, who died of ALS. He was hugely influential, Raven says, and not just in her musical taste. Raven credits him with connecting her to the way she writes, the way she paints, and the way she fundamentally understands art and creativity.
Though Jennifer and Raven had spoken before this project, Jennifer didn’t know about Raven’s brother.
“That really hurts. I’m really moved and touched to learn the journey, how she came to us,” Jennifer says. “I really believe that that’s how things happen in life – we find the things that speak our language.”
When Raven first heard the song Elysian Fields recorded, she was entranced.
“I completely flipped,” Raven says. “I do have to say one of the first things I felt was I really wish my brother could hear it.”
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