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Kiley Reid: 'The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag is so silly'

Posted at Dec 27, 2020

T his time last year, Kiley Reid was a tantalising rumour, the truth of which was known only to her publishers and to the film company that had optioned her debut novel two years before it was ready to see the light of day. When Such a Fun Age was published – on New Year’s Eve in the US and a week later in the UK – the rumour checked out: here was a smart comedy of manners, which treated interracial relationships of the early 21st century with the sort of needling wit that Jane Austen had applied to class 200 years earlier.

It was the start of a year in which Reid seems to have been travelling in the opposite direction to the rest of the world. By the time the Covid pandemic shut everything down, she had introduced the novel to 19 cities, including London. Reese Witherspoon had picked it for her book club; in July, it was longlisted for the Booker prize.

“Oh, man. Yes, in some ways, it’s been really wild,” says Reid from Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband, and where the novel is also set. But the thing that pleases her most, a year on, is the growing sense that the book is becoming a bit of gamechanger. When we talk, she’s just out of a virtual session with another writer. “And she was saying that she’s used my novel to point out to editors that if this person is doing humour that is literary fiction, why can’t I do it too? The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag – it’s just so silly.”

Such a Fun Age tells the story of Emira, a young black woman who works as a nanny for a white family. It opens with a set piece when Emira, who is partying with a group of girlfriends, is summoned by her employers late one night to take their small daughter off their hands while they sort out a domestic incident. Hanging out in her party clothes with little Briar in the freezer aisle of the local supermarket, she is confronted by a security guard in a racially charged showdown, which is filmed by an indignant, white male shopper. The standoff is quickly resolved, and Emira is too busy living her life to want to take the matter further – but she is reckoning without the contortions of white conscience, which, for reasons particular to each of the characters, will not let it rest.

While the plot drives on with inexorable momentum, the comedy keeps it light and multifaceted. For all that it leans on a difficult history of black service, the relationship between Emira and her young charge is respectful and pure. The problem is Alix, Briar’s mother, who – although she has built a brand as a crusading feminist influencer – has an understanding of structural disadvantage that goes no further than being priced out of the New York property market.

Emira, meanwhile, is drifting listlessly through her 20s, with no obvious ambition beyond being able to pay her own health insurance when she turns 26 and is booted off her parents’ policy. Part of the novel’s point is that she doesn’t have to be going places to qualify as a successful woman. What does this say about the objectives of feminism? “Of course, I’m a feminist. But I think that the way that feminism often works is not: ‘OK, let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.’ It’s: ‘I’m going to make sure me and all of my friends up here are good. And I’m going to move all of us up, and I’m going to call it feminism,’” says Reid.

This social myopia plays out in the novel as an increasingly uncomfortable series of comic missteps. Desperate for Emira to become her friend, Alix plies her with gifts. “There is this anxiety that the liberal elite often have, which is: ‘I want to make sure that I’m not exploiting my labour. And so I’m going to make sure that she likes me and she’s happy. I’m going to forget about the money aspect. This is all about us being friends,’” says Reid.

A latecomer to writing – she had turned 30 by the time she won a place at Iowa Writers Workshop –Reid spent much of her own 20s working in different jobs, including nearly six years looking after children. As well as nannying, she also babysat in the evenings and ran birthday parties for kids, “sometimes five or six a week. I loved it. It was fun.” She sat down the other day to count up how many families she had worked for during that period and stopped when she got to 50.

She landed her first babysitting job by chance as a new arrival in New York trying to pay her way through acting school on the wages she had earned from a luxury chocolatier she had worked for back home in Tucson, Arizona. The firm had allowed her to transfer the job without upping her pay, “and New York is expensive, so I soon learned that wasn’t going to work”. The babysitting paid more, and went so well that the baby’s mother suggested she leave her day job to do it full-time. She quit her job and never heard from the woman again.

The shock of that experience comes out in a rush. “So I was out of both jobs,” she says. “And then my computer broke. And I had papers to write and I was panicking.” She went to a local internet support station, and phoned her mother to try to work out what to do, when a woman sitting next to her became intrigued by her Arizona accent. The woman lived three blocks away and had just fired her nanny. “She paid $14 an hour, and I was her nanny for four years.”

It seems extraordinary that both her first childminding jobs could have come about through chance encounters, but that’s the unregulated economy that Such a Fun Age explores.

Like many mothers, Reid points out, Alix herself is the victim of a society that still delegates childcare to women. The family has fled to Philadelphia partly to enable her TV anchorman husband to escape the repercussions of a very public faux pas, “so she is also very much at the other end of sexism, you know: they move to a new city and her husband says: ‘See you later, have fun.’”

Which brings us to another troubling issue: the relationship between racism and sexism in a society which often acts out its guilt by fetishising young black women. Reid toys with the conventions of the romcom – setting up a broken love triangle involving Emira, Alix and Kelley, the good Samaritan from the shop – before pushing past to something far more nuanced and uncomfortable. “Like … I get it,” Emira tells Kelley, “you have a weirdly large amount of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert and now you have a black girlfriend … great.”

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“It’s interesting, because some people will say: ‘Oh, I love how you covered race in a light way.’ But that was never the intention,” says Reid. “I think that my goal is to show how people become very uncomfortable talking about race, and then overcompensate with a joke, or making an awkward move to superficially level the playing field in a way that becomes funny. I was using the spirit of how the liberal elite talk about race, which is trying to make light of it so that they can continue their day.”

The novel has enabled her to take the power back. One of her former employers turned up for a Brooklyn reading of the novel with the little girl she babysat for three years. “She’s still very cute, like 12 years old, and on her cellphone all through.” Was there a sense that in some way they felt they still owned her? “A bit,” says Reid. “But they were a really kind family. Her mom texted me photos of them holding the book at the airport. And that felt really sweet.”

Such a Fun Age is published in paperback on 7 January (Bloomsbury, £12.99). To order a copy go to Free p&p on orders over £15