The best books should hold up a mirror to society, even when the reflection isn’t one you want to see — or at least that’s what I told myself when I put down Such a Fun Age, the debut novel from the up-and-coming American author Kiley Reid. One of the runaway literary successes of last year, the book tells the story of a young Black babysitter and the white woman who pays her to care for her toddler.
It’s a brilliantly observed skewering of liberal hypocrisy that has topped bestseller lists, become a book-club favorite (Reese Witherspoon chose it for hers), been longlisted for the Booker prize, and is now being adapted for the screen.
It should also come with a disclaimer: well-meaning middle-class mothers do not come out of it looking good.
The most troubling aspect for me, as I read about the white social influencer Alix Chamberlain and her clumsy and misguided efforts to befriend her Black babysitter, Emira Tucker, is that it is, to some extent, grounded in real life. For several years Reid, 33, worked as a babysitter in New York.
“I was gathering information without really knowing it at the time. I was inspired by being in someone else’s home, the brands people used, the toys, the things mothers would say,” she explains as downstairs one of my children bites the other one and both begin to howl. The idea of someone observing my own domestic chaos and taking notes is so terrifying that I’m temporarily lost for words.
Well-meaning middle-class mothers do not come out of it looking good.
Reid’s book is not the first to explore the uneasy relationship between modern professional women and the people — usually other women — whose labor allows them to work. Similarly well received was the 2016 novel The Perfect Nanny, by Leïla Slimani, which won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most revered literary prize.
Reid’s book is a very different beast; for a start, it is funny. The action begins when Emira is stopped by a security guard and accused of abducting the little white girl in her care. What follows is a modern-day comedy of manners where racial tension is constantly simmering just out of sight.
Despite Alix’s flaws — she is superficial and more interested in being seen to do the right thing than actually doing it — she isn’t all bad. This was deliberate, Reid says. “One of the many reasons I have empathy for Alix is that she lives in a country where it is not strange that her husband is just, like, ‘Here you go, here are the kids, you figure it out.’” There is no subsidized childcare available to her. “She is one of many women with a lot of power who is faced with this scenario. She is thinking, ‘I can have it all — all I have to do is exploit the labor of women of color.’ ”
Speaking on Zoom from her flat in Philadelphia, she is tougher in person than she is on the page about the racial divisions that continue to dominate American society. “I don’t believe these issues that have lasted for four or five hundred years of slavery can go away by reading a book or asking a question, unfortunately,” she says. She is wearing thick black-framed glasses and speaks with a confidence that makes her seem older than she is. She has spent lockdown working on her second book, typing so furiously that she’s been suffering from migraines, she explains as she blocks the glare from her screen with a piece of cardboard.
She may be a new star on the literary scene, but her boundaries are already set. I’m curious to know how much her own experiences of racism fed into the book, but she won’t discuss her upbringing at all. “My family is private and I want to keep them that way,” she says politely but firmly to the most innocuous of questions. “I try not to narrow my view of race to my own experience. When I look to explore race, I really seek out other people’s experiences. I think those are a lot more interesting than mine.”
“She is thinking, ‘I can have it all — all I have to do is exploit the labor of women of color.’”
What she has said is that her upbringing has more in common with Alix’s than working-class Emira’s. Reid grew up in a middle-class family in California and Arizona before moving to New York to go to Marymount, a private liberal arts college. It was the time she spent working in the service sector, in her early twenties, when most of her friends had taken on salaried office jobs, that made her think about the divisions at play. “I felt this was a different type of work that I hadn’t read about much in fiction,” she says. She was fascinated by the way people around her responded to the uncomfortable reality of being her boss. “Many upper-class or middle-class people would often work double time to receive approval from me and other Black people in the service roles around them,” she says.
When she was working as a receptionist in Arkansas, where her husband had a teaching job, “people would bring friends and colleagues into the office and they would say, ‘This is Kiley, she’s the boss, she’s the queen around here. She runs things.’ And it was so funny to me because I was not the boss of anything. I was making less money than everyone else.”
She began to research privilege long before it was a buzzword. One of the books that inspired her the most was Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, by Rachel Sherman, a collection of interviews with 50 wealthy New Yorkers. The book suggests that elites like to consider themselves to be “normal”, their consumption to be reasonable and that they tend to compare themselves with those who have more than them, not less. “I found that in a lot of jobs when people have affluence and power they want to use people in service roles to justify their position, to make sure they’re OK with it, because if they’re OK in the eyes of the people who serve them then it must mean it’s OK that they have that power.”
It is this, I think, that has made Reid’s debut such a hit worldwide. Many of the book’s themes — around healthcare and racial tension in particular — are grounded in America, but liberal guilt is a global phenomenon.
“I found that in a lot of jobs when people have affluence and power they want to use people in service roles to justify their position.”
Reid knows first hand how shallow it can be. Whenever she asked for a promotion at her job in Arkansas, the semblance of equality — of existing on a level playing field — evaporated. “They made it very clear that they wanted to act like we were the same until I asked for a raise, then they said, ‘Wait a second, no, you’re not the same.’ ”
Another big theme in the book is interracial relationships — something else Reid knows about, as her husband, Nathan, is white. How easy it is to be a mixed-race couple in America depends, like many other things, on where in the country you are and your class, she says. “There is the cartoonish racist response, which is that this shouldn’t be a thing, and the one that can be equally annoying is ‘You’re so beautiful, you’re so great, it’s so wonderful to see a couple like this’, which also completely flattens the receiving end.”
Then and Now
She loved books as a child, but didn’t consider it could be anything more than a hobby until her early twenties, when she realized “I would rather be writing than doing anything else”. So she enrolled in a fiction writing class at Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York and shared her work with strangers for the first time. It was a big moment.
“I picked up a book the other day and found a receipt for that class — it was $300.” Back then she had been looking after the children of wealthy New Yorkers for a living. “The fact that I was nannying — I was impressed with myself,” she says. She wrote seven manuscripts before she had the idea for this one.
She got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the second attempt, developed the book, wrote it and sold it just after she graduated. It was published at the tail end of 2019, when the subjects of institutional racism and white privilege were becoming hot topics. “I really don’t think the book is any more timely now than it was in the Fifties or Sixties, when most Black women worked as care workers,” she says. What has changed is that now “acts of violence have been captured on camera, that’s available to us now, but these things have been happening for a very long time”.
“I really don’t think the book is any more timely now than it was in the Fifties or Sixties, when most Black women worked as care workers.”
There is a tendency to want to see last year’s events — the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests — as a turning point, but Reid is wary. “People like to tell the story and give it a happy ending, but we don’t know if we are living in the beginning or the middle. We don’t know what the story will be.”
Nor does she see the election of Joe Biden as a panacea. Trump is vile, she says — “I am thrilled not to have to hear his voice anymore, but it’s important to look at patterns of racism in our country and the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement came about in the Obama presidency in response to police brutality as well.” She voted for Biden, but with a heavy heart. “Everything I really care about Biden has promised not to address,” she says. His decision not to end fracking is environmentally irresponsible and his response to a racist incident in Philadelphia, when a mentally ill man was shot in front of his mother, was woeful, but it is his stance on healthcare that she can’t forgive: “I believe that everyone should be able to go to the doctor and that your healthcare should not be tied to your employment. Biden would not agree with that.”
Reid is not here to make anyone feel comfortable: “Some of the systems we’re living with are deeply racist and flawed, and changing them would require a complete restructuring of how we run our country.” She thinks there is a real risk that the issue of race is treated as a gimmick. “People say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that so many Black artists are being put forward?’ But if you look at the number of Black authors being published, they haven’t changed — it’s the marketing that’s changed. It’s clear when a publication reaches out to you after realizing that only 4 per cent of their feature writers are Black.” The pieces they want are usually “geared around trauma and a happy ending, and it becomes very clear the story is repeating itself in a way I think Black artists are becoming privy to”.
Reid is executive-producing the TV adaptation of her novel, which is being produced by the actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe. “I wanted to be a part of the process, so I guess it was optioned along with me,” she says. It is the Black babysitter, Emira, she feels most protective toward. “There are so many times when you read a book, then see the movie and the Black actress is very light-skinned. I think that’s a detriment to the production, so Emira should be true to who she is as a dark-skinned Black woman. That’s important to me.”