Thursday, January 28

Kiley Reid: ‘The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag is so silly’ | books


Ther time last year, Kiley Reid was a tantalizing rumor, the truth of which was known only to her editors and the film company that had opted for her debut novel two years before it was ready to be released. When Such a funny age was published, on New Years Eve in the US and a week later in the UK, the rumor was checked: here was a clever mannered comedy, dealing with early 21st century interracial relationships with the guy of sharp wit Jane Austen had applied to the class 200 years earlier.

It was the beginning 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 wiped it all out, she had introduced the novel to 19 cities, including London. Reese Witherspoon had chosen him for her book club; in July, he was selected for the Booker award.

“Oh man. Yeah, in a way, it’s been really wild,” says Reid of Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband, and where the novel also takes place. But what she likes best, a year later, is the growing sensation. that the book is changing the rules of the game a bit. When we spoke, she just came out of a virtual session with another writer. “And she said that she had used my novel to point out to the editors that if this person is doing humor that is Literary fiction, why can’t I do it too? The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag is so silly. “

Such a funny age tells the story of Emira, a young black woman who works as a nanny for a white family. It opens with a fixed piece when Emira, who is partying with a group of girlfriends, is summoned by her employers late at night to get rid of her young daughter while they solve a domestic incident. Hanging out in her party clothes with little Briar in the freezer aisle of the local grocery store, she confronts a security guard in a racially charged confrontation, which is filmed by an outraged white shopper. The confrontation is quickly resolved, and Emira is too busy living her life to want to take the matter further, but is calculating without the contortions of white consciousness, which, for reasons particular to each of the characters, will not let him rest.

While the plot proceeds with inexorable momentum, the comedy keeps it light and multifaceted. For all that is supported by a difficult history of black service, the relationship between Emira and her young man in charge is respectful and pure. The problem is Alix, Briar’s mother, who, although she has built a brand as an influential feminist crusader, has an understanding of structural disadvantage that goes no further than being excluded from the New York real estate market.

Meanwhile, Emira is casually moving until she is 20, with no obvious ambition beyond being able to pay for her own health insurance when she turns 26 and is kicked out of her parents’ policy. Part of the point of the novel is that she doesn’t have to go places to qualify as 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, ‘Okay, let’s start at the bottom and work up.’ It’s, ‘I’m going to make sure all my friends and I are okay. And I’m going to move everyone, and call it feminism, ‘”Reid says.

This social myopia manifests itself in the novel as an increasingly uncomfortable series of comic errors. Desperate for Emira to become her friend, Alix torments her with gifts. “There is this anxiety that the liberal elite often have, which is: ‘I want to make sure I’m not exploiting my work. So I’ll make sure he likes it and is happy. I’m going to forget about the money aspect. It’s about us being friends, ‘”Reid says.

A newcomer to writing – she had turned 30 when she earned a spot in the Iowa Writers Workshop – Reid spent much of her 20s working at different jobs, including nearly six years babysitting. In addition to being a babysitter, she also babysat in the evenings and threw birthday parties for kids, “sometimes five or six a week. I loved. It was fun. “He sat down the other day to count how many families he had worked with during that period and stopped when he reached 50.

She got her first babysitting job by chance as a newcomer to New York, trying to pay for her acting studies with the salary she had earned from a fancy chocolatier she had worked for at her home in Tucson, Arizona. The firm had allowed him to transfer the job without raising his salary, “and New York is expensive, so I soon knew that was not going to work.” Childcare paid more and went so well that the baby’s mother suggested that she quit her day job to do it full time. He quit his job and never heard from the woman again.

The shock of that experience manifests itself quickly. “So I was out of both jobs,” he says. And then my computer crashed. And she had papers to write and she was panicking. “She went to a local Internet support station and called her mother to try to figure 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 babysitter: “She paid $ 14 an hour and I was her babysitter for four years.”

It seems extraordinary that your first two babysitting jobs could have come about through chance encounters, but that’s the unregulated economy that Such a funny age explore.

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 in part to allow her husband, the television host, to escape the repercussions of a very public misstep, “so she’s on the other extreme of sexism too, you know: they move to a new city and her husband says, ‘See you later, have fun.’

Which brings us to another troubling topic: the relationship between racism and sexism in a society that often manifests its guilt by fetishizing young black women. Reid plays by the conventions of romantic comedy, setting up a broken love triangle involving Emira, Alix, and Kelley, the good Samaritan from the store, before moving on to something much more nuanced and uncomfortable. “How … I get it,” Emira tells Kelley, “you have a strangely large number of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert and now you have a black girlfriend … great.”

“It’s interesting, because some people will say, ‘Oh, I love how 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 are very uncomfortable talking about race and then overcompensating with a joke or making an awkward move to level the playing field in a way that becomes fun. He was using the spirit of how the liberal elite talks about race, which is trying to downplay it so they can get on with their day. “

The novel has allowed him to regain power. One of his former employers showed up in Brooklyn for a novel reading with the girl he cared for for three years. “She is still very cute, like 12 years old, and on her cell phone all the time.” Did she have the feeling that they somehow felt they still possessed her? “A little,” says Reid. “But they were a very kind family. His mother texted me photos of them holding the book at the airport. And that felt really sweet. “

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

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