Kiley Reid: “The premise that literary fiction should be a drag is so stupid” | Books

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TIn her time last year, Kiley Reid was a tantalizing rumor, the truth of which was known only to her publishers and the film company that had chosen her first novel two years before it was set to be released. . When Such a fun age was released – on New Years Eve in the US and a week later in the UK – the rumor was true: it was a clever morals comedy, which dealt with race relations from the start of the 21st century with the kind of sharp mind that Jane Austen had applied to the classroom 200 years earlier.

It was the start of a year in which Reid seems to have traveled in the opposite direction to the rest of the world. By the time the Covid pandemic stopped everything, she had presented the novel in 19 cities, including London. Reese Witherspoon had chosen him for her book club; in July, he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

“Oh, man. Yeah, in some ways it’s been really wild, ”says Reid of Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband, and where the novel is also set. But what pleases him most, a year later, is the growing sense that the book is a game-changer. When we speak, she has just come out of a virtual session with another writer. “And she said she used my novel to point out to editors that if this person is making humor that is literary fiction, why can’t I too?” The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag – it’s 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 to a setting when Emira, who is partying with a group of girlfriends, is summoned by her employers late at night to take their baby girl away from them 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 racist confrontation, which is filmed by an outraged white shopper. The impasse is quickly resolved, and Emira is too busy living her life to want to go any further – but she counts without the contortions of white consciousness, which, for reasons peculiar to each of the characters, will not let her down.

As the plot continues with relentless momentum, the comedy keeps it light and multifaceted. As much as 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’s built a brand as a crusading feminist influencer – has an understanding of structural disadvantage that goes no further than being left out of the crowd. New York real estate market.

Emira, meanwhile, drifts apathetically into her twenties, with no obvious ambition beyond being able to afford her own health insurance by the age of 26 and is excluded from her parents’ policy. Part of the novel’s argument is that she doesn’t have to go places to be considered a successful woman. What does this say about the goals of feminism? “Of course, I am a feminist. But I think the way 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 that me and all my friends here are okay. And I’m going to uplift us all, and I’m going to call it feminism, ”says Reid.

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

Coming late to writing – she was 30 when she won a place at the Iowa Writers Workshop – Reid spent much of her 20s in various jobs, including nearly six years in children. In addition to the nanny, she also babysat in the evenings and organized birthday parties for the children, “sometimes five or six a week. I liked it. It was fun. ”She sat down the other day to count how many families she had worked for during that time and stopped at 50.

She landed her first babysitting job by chance as a newcomer to New York trying to pay for her acting education with the salary she earned from a luxury chocolatier she had worked for at home. in Tucson, Arizona. The company had allowed him to change jobs without increasing his salary, “and New York is expensive, so I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work.” Childcare paid more and went so well that the baby’s mother suggested she quit her day job and do it full time. She quit her job and never heard from the woman again.

The shock of this experience comes out suddenly. “So I was without both jobs,” she says. “And then my computer broke. And I had papers to write on and I was panicking. She went to a local internet helpline and phoned her mother to try to find out what to do, when a woman sitting next to her was 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 her first two babysitting jobs were the result of chance encounters, but it’s the unregulated economy that Such a fun age explore.

Like many mothers, Reid points out, Alix herself is a victim of a society that still delegates child custody to women. The family fled to Philadelphia in part to allow her TV presenter husband to escape the aftermath of a very public misstep, saying, ‘See you later, have fun.’ “

Which brings us to another troubling question: the relationship between racism and sexism in a society that often acts out its guilt by fetishizing young black women. Reid plays with romantic comedy conventions – setting up a broken love triangle involving Emira, Alix, and Kelley, the shop’s Good Samaritan – before moving on to something much more nuanced and uncomfortable. “Like… I understand,” Emira tells Kelley, “you have a weirdly high number of black friends, you’ve seen Kendrick Lamar live and now you have a… awesome black girlfriend.”

“It’s interesting, because some people will say, ‘Oh, I like the way you covered the race in a light way. “But that was never the intention,” says Reid. “I think my goal is to show how people get very uncomfortable talking about race and then overcompensating with a joke or making a goofy move to superficially level the playing field in a way that becomes fun. . I was using the spirit of how the liberal elite talk about race, which tries to shed some light so they can get on with their day. “

The novel allowed him to regain power. One of her former employers came to Brooklyn to read the novel with the little girl she babysat for three years. “She’s still very cute, like 12, and on her cell phone the whole time.” Was there a feeling that somehow they felt like they still had her? “A little,” said Reid. “But they were a really nice family. His mother sent me pictures of them holding the book at the airport. And it was really lovely.

Such a fun age is published in paperback on January 7 (Bloomsbury, £ 12.99). To order a copy, go to guardbookshop.com. Free shipping for orders over £ 15

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