It turns out she had no reason to worry. In its first month of publication, Such a Fun Age would debut at number three on the New York Times best seller list, nab a coveted spot in Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club, and see its film and television rights acquired by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions. The novel has since been longlisted for the Booker Prize, named a finalist in numerous awards, and, when the world was still normal, got Kiley an appearance on The Daily Show.
Such a Fun Age is the literary blockbuster of 2020, and it’s easy to see why this timely, searingly entertaining story about a 25-year-old Black babysitter entangled in a battle of saviorhood between her wealthy white boss and white boyfriend has resonated with so many readers. The novel kicks off with a racist incident you’d swear someone just posted about on Facebook, then marinates in the all-too-common and less often explored moments of being BIPOC in a white space that is not hostile, threatening, or unfriendly — really, everybody around you is just so very nice — yet teems with the possibility of a racist undercurrent cresting to the surface any minute.
I chatted with Kiley over Zoom — from my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to hers in Philadelphia — about these less explored moments, as well as transactional relationships, income disparity, allyship, the purpose of fiction, and loving what makes us cringe.
Author photo by David Goddard.
JABEEN AKHTAR: Such a Fun Age opens with an explosive scene: at an upscale convenience store, the protagonist, Emira Tucker, is accused of kidnapping the white child she babysits. Down the aisle, a shopper films the entire incident. The scene is viscerally shocking and heart-pounding, but so many racially charged moments in the ensuing pages transpire within the tiny, awkward interactions between characters in seemingly safe environments (such as a townhouse full of Hillary Clinton supporters). With the magnitude of videos of racist incidents over the past year, do the smaller moments serve as a counterbalance, or even a corrective, to the idea that racism manifests in only big and viral ways?
KILEY REID: As a writer, I think you need to be obsessed with human behavior and dedicated to the truth of how people react to things. Most Black people have a moment where they were afraid for their life, where they thought someone was going to arrest them, where they felt unsafe. But we’re also human. When I go to bed at night, it’s not those big moments I think about.
One time at my old office where I was a receptionist, I was single and said I was going to audition for The Bachelorette. The director of my office said to me, “Oh, well, you would straighten your hair first, though, wouldn’t you?” That comment happened seven years ago and it’s still with me. It was a surface-level hair comment and I think my hair is great, but the problem is that you start thinking, “Does my hair have something to do with me not getting this apartment? Does my hair have something to do with me not getting promoted? Does my hair have something to do with who will date me and who won't?” All of these questions stem from larger issues of systemic racism, slavery, and low-status jobs.
Many videos that make it to the viral stage are what I like to call “cartoon racism” — over the top, violent, and traumatic incidents. It’s someone screaming the N-word or not letting someone into a building — extreme examples that are real and exist and hurt people but also serve as a place for non-Black people to say, “I would never do that, so I’m okay. We’re good.” The tiny, awkward moments stick with you so much because they are symbolic of bigger problems that are hard to fix and impossible to catch on camera.
And they’re not blatantly racist. Because of their murky quality, these tiny awkward moments have multiple interpretations. As a person of color, you wonder if you’re overreacting or being paranoid, or if there really is something there.
You start thinking, “Is it me? Is it you?” It’s those moments that I end up obsessing over. Obviously, I would much rather go to bed thinking of those moments than actually being involved in a violent event. But the smaller-scale incidents have a strange way of reflecting these broken systems and they make you do a weird mental gymnastics that, as a writer, I find really interesting.
You often put your characters through these mental gymnastics, which leads to them to behave in some cringeworthy ways.
Sometimes people pick up my novel and say, “It was so cringeworthy. I loved it.” And sometimes they say, “It was so cringeworthy. I hated it.” Those cringeworthy moments affect you a certain way and as long as I'm getting that effect, it’s a successful read.
I’m on the side of “I loved it.” Okay, my next question is a little personal. When Emira is confronted at Market Depot by the white security guard, the first thing on her mind isn’t to understand why he’s confronting her, but to say something to him just so he could “hear the way she could talk.” This scene really struck me as an immigrant of Pakistani origin. When met with a confused or hostile look from a white person, people like me instinctively start speaking English (hopefully with no accent) to quell the xenophobia, deescalate the tension. Is this sort of survival tactic part of the Black experience as well?
One hundred percent. In that moment, it’s a flight-or-fight reaction: Emira sees this white man with the security badge, he calls her “Ma’am,” and she changes her voice. I don’t think Emira realizes she’s even doing it. The “chameleon effect” is when you hear the way someone speaks and your body wants to mimic it. When you're in a situation like Emira was in the Market Depot, copying the way that somebody else speaks is a method of survival. After so many years of racism and segregation, it’s a very instinctual reaction that a lot of Black people have.
When the story begins, Emira has been babysitting for her wealthy white boss, Alix, for some time. But somehow the racist gaffe that Alix’s husband Peter makes on live television prompts Alix to almost recognize Emira as being Black for the first time. I think many BIPOC people can relate to this strange phenomenon where you are not seen as BIPOC by an acquaintance (friend, neighbor, co-worker) until a particular moment.
After the protests this year, I think so many Black women, including myself, got that text from a friend that you haven't spoken to in eight months saying, “Hey, lady, just checking in to make sure you’re okay.” You have to laugh. It’s kind of funny that this is the incident that would make you check in on me when this has been happening for decades.
Alix is doing something very familiar, which is making an event timely when, really, it’s just the first time that she has had to consider how such an event would affect the people around her. When Peter makes this racist gaffe on television, Alix starts thinking about her need for her babysitter and wants to make sure her babysitter isn’t mad about what Peter said. So she overwhelms Emira with caring and help and attention in a way that is not subtle. And the problem with that, too, is that Emira just wants to clock in and clock out. The combination of Alix trying to make sure things are okay with Emira and Emira wanting boundaries with her employer make for a very awkward dynamic.
Near fistfights have broken out in the “Is Alix a good or bad person” debate. Her detractors say she is narcissistic, manipulative. They point to a white savior complex which, aside from the racist underpinnings of it, centers her needs over Emira’s. But Alix’s fans will say she means well. In Emira, she sees someone younger and less steady on her feet and is only trying to help. Is it okay to harbor both opinions of her?
In terms of approaching fiction, I think it’s wonderful to harbor complicated feelings toward the character. If you’re in love with the character on one page and annoyed the next, let yourself do that. People always ask me, “Was I supposed to like this character?” Whatever you are feeling on that page is what you are supposed to feel.
When I was on tour, so many white women came up to me and said, “Alix is so awful. She’s psychotic. She’s terrible.” And for every one of those women, a Black woman would say to me, “I know this woman. I work next to her. My daughter’s friend’s mom is just like that. I felt bad for her.” I thought it was really interesting that Black women had this empathy for Alix and could see her as more of a symptom of bigger issues. Alix is a victim of a system that connects your health care to your employment, a system that doesn’t offer subsidized childcare. And she moves with her husband to Philadelphia and he's like, “Have fun figuring out childcare.” And so Alix, left all alone, makes a lot of bad and hurtful decisions that have big ramifications.
But here’s a hot take: for half the novel … she’s not that bad. She never messes with Emira’s coin. As someone who has babysat in the past, that means a lot to people with a low income. Alix never gives Emira less than what she has agreed to and always makes sure she pays her. She takes care of Emira financially.
Also, Alix does a lot of things in private that we all wish we didn’t do. Everyone has stayed up late stalking someone until their computers burn their legs. When I lived in New York, if someone was sending a text message next to me on the train, I’m looking. We are nosy, curious people. Alix takes it too far, but all of these things make her human.
Let’s go back to her husband, Peter. He loves and supports his wife, but he’s barely involved with raising his children or managing their childcare. Those responsibilities fall solely to Alix. Yet, I don’t see much criticism lobbed his way. Why do we let him off the hook? Why does this dynamic between spouses escape our scrutiny? What does this say about invisible work and our perception of caregivers?
Some of my favorite characters are ones that are suddenly in a position of power and don’t know how to handle that power. Alix has hired young white women as interns before, but Emira puts Alix in a weird space. People don’t want the responsibility of having a Black woman depend on them to pay her rent. And I don’t know if Peter would be better at handling that situation than Alix. Peter says a very racist thing on television, but you see him being very kind to Black people, having Black people over for Thanksgiving, and supporting his wife. I think all of those things can exist harmoniously. And the choice to have Peter be very much in the periphery was very intentional to show that Alix is making bad decisions, but she also doesn't have any help. There’s a lot of sexism going on. And she thinks, well, this is my responsibility. I have to make it work. And unfortunately for her, she doesn’t make it work.
After your novel was released in the pre-pandemic world of December 2019, you mentioned to me that you had experienced some interesting moments at (in person!) book events. Can you talk about those experiences? And did the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement just a few months later impact the reception of your novel in any way?
I was so lucky to get three weeks of book tour. Connecting with readers in person was one of the most special experiences of my life, and I was touched in a way that I did not anticipate. When I was in Savannah, a young Black woman came up to me and just started bawling. I asked if she was okay, and she said, “Well, of course I’m not. I’m 25. I’m miserable. But I love this book. Thank you.” She is in that place where you don’t know what your health insurance is going to look like, and maybe you don’t have a clear path in life. The fact that people could connect with the novel in this way was really important.
These past few months, I think people have had a very human reaction to events where they are saying, “What can I do on an individual level to help?” And then they decide they are going to buy Black art, which is wonderful. Everyone should buy Black art. There’s so much beautiful, smart Black art. That being said, it’s being picked up as a pedagogical tool at that point, and I am not a teacher when I’m writing. I am just writing a story. I can’t stand it when a novel tries to teach me anything or when I feel a novelist preaching. I like a novel to set me up to think what I want and let me do my job as a reader.
In a novel like mine, where you have a young Black woman who’s trying to figure out her life but you also have an elite Black woman who’s very much part of the bourgeoisie and has high respectability politics, you need to be careful who you’re trying to learn from. Just because there are Black people in this novel does not mean that you should be taking tips from them.
That a novel should teach a reader about race or culture is not a burden placed on white writers.
It’s not the purpose of fiction. And it’s not to say that I can’t learn something from a novel. I love when novels show me something new that I didn’t know before. But the story is the thing; if that’s not there, there’s no point. It’s another situation where Black writers are loaded with extra labor. It isn’t just “tell me a story” anymore. It’s “teach me how to be,” and, you know, I’m not your dad.
Do you think there’s greater pressure on Black writers now to answer to readers who are turning to novels to learn about racism? I mean, what a responsibility to put on a fiction writer!
What a responsibility, especially when there are so many things a Black novel can be about. Maybe you’re depicting a Black person struggling with money. Or maybe the characters are single and want to date. Or maybe a character has a mental illness. Those characters are Black the whole time they are struggling but that does not mean it’s the author's responsibility to say something new about race.
If you could conjure an ideal reader of this novel, who would it be?
My ideal reader is someone who delights in the embarrassing and uncomfortable. Someone obsessed with human behavior and tiny moments, and probably someone who feels the frustration of not being able to talk about money in a direct way. And someone who isn’t trying to learn anything.
Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan and a frequent contributor to LARB.