Kiley Reid On Class, Race And Intentions In “Such A Fun Age”
Author Kiley Reid's first novel, “Such a Fun Age,” is filled with incredibly nuanced characters. They're people you will recognize, and perhaps identify with a little too much.
The central character Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman, who has graduated from Temple University and isn't sure what she wants to do with her life. She's making ends meet by babysitting for an adorable and precocious almost-preschooler named Briar.
The book is about race and class, but also human nature, good intentions, bad behavior and our glaring blind spots. "Such a Fun Age," was published in December 2019 and debuted at number three on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Sellers list. It also made the 2020 Booker Prize longlist.
Reid is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She spoke with IPR's Charity Nebbe in January 2020.
On character relatability
I love hearing you say that these characters are familiar because that was definitely the goal, presenting someone who you see often at the gym or in the next cubicle. Their intentions are really great, but when you take a step back and you look at what their impact is, it can get a bit messy.
On characters with nuance
I think Alix is responding to things sometimes in bad ways and sometimes in good ways, but that makes her a full person. I hate when a novel tells me what to think about a person. I love making those decisions on my own. I think when you show the fullness of someone, it goes past good or bad. Empathy and sympathy, getting those things from a reader is not my priority. My biggest priority is just a really gripping story with real people in it.
On class and labor
Alix ends up looking for connection with the person she pays to love her children. I was super inspired by reading books about class inequality and wealth and the way that we talk about wealth and, more importantly, the way that we hide that we are talking about wealth. All of those interests led me to Alix. I think understanding her as a symptom of greater problems really let me show her strengths as well as her weaknesses.
On writing a modern story
If you are writing a modern story, you have to write about race and class. I don’t think you can talk about one without talking about the other. There are many different white and Black people of all different incomes and I think it was a place for me to explore how white supremacy can seep into everything and it doesn’t stop at skin color. There are women who are really not okay with Emira’s rejection of careerism. I think that is another example of racism as well. Alix doesn’t have a problem talking to Black people as long as she has class solidarity with them and I think that is what she doesn’t have with Emira. I know those things are really terrible in the real world but as a writer, I find them fascinating. I was really excited to dive into these class dynamics because of the nuance of them.
On other’s expectations
I remember when I was a nanny, I worked at Godiva chocolate for three years. I remember so many people saying, ‘okay, you work here but what do you really want to do?’ I thought that was so fascinating because at the time I did want to write, but I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if this is okay? I do really love being a nanny or I am fine being a receptionist right now at this point in my life.’ I think those questions were some of the things that drew me toward a character like Emira. She’s not hurting anyone. She is trying to live her life and her rejection of this huge goal is almost an affront to some women, both white and Black.
On workshop colleagues questioning her discussion of money
I actually had a wonderful workshop here at Iowa with the novel workshop. That was my favorite one for sure. It was one of those questions that I’m glad I received. On one end, I thought I really want to lean into this uncomfortableness. People are uncomfortable with me talking about money and I want to do it even more. It did make me shape the language on how people were talking about money. Instead of using dollars and cents, I would use words that symbolized money like ‘classy’ or ‘high end’ or ‘respectful,’ things like that. They reflect income but they aren’t quite being said.
On domestic work in the future
I live in Philadelphia and in October of 2019, the city passed a domestic worker’s bill of rights, which is basically creating a contract between domestic workers and the families they work for whether they signed one or not. There is a scene where Emira wonders if she should quit and she thinks ‘I can’t because I can’t put in a two weeks' notice. This isn’t a real job.’ But now in Philadelphia that is what would be required, things like sick days and vacation days and overtime. All of those things have been fought for so her life would look different if it happened now. I’m so glad changes like that are starting to happen.
Katelyn Harrop produced this interview for broadcast. Monica Starr edited this interview for podcast format and adapted this interview for the Web. It has been edited for clarity.