Kiley Reid: ‘Giving black artists responsibilities like teaching you something new about race is just additional labour’
Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sits down with bestselling author Kiley Reid for MC Book Club to talk about her debut novel, Such A Fun Age…
You would have to be living under a rock not to have heard of Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid’s debut novel.
The millennial coming-of-age story follows the transactional relationship between a babysitter (Emira) and her female employer (Alix), exploring race, privilege, gender and wealth.
Undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of 2020, it was long-listed for a Booker Prize, selected as part of the Reese Witherspoon Book Club, and had its film rights acquired by Lena Waithe before it even hit the shelves.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement saw a lot of people turn towards black art, with Such A Fun Age being one of the many books to go viral. This is unsurprising given that the black female protagonist Emira is falsely accused of kidnapping the white child she is babysitting in the first chapter.
But it’s not Kiley’s job to educate us on race, something she and MC Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot discussed this year. And by seeking out black art for pedagogical reasons, we risk losing the story, turning it into a mere learning tool.
‘I’m not an expert’, Kiley told us. ‘I’m a storyteller’.
For this month’s MC Book Club, Jenny and Kiley caught up on Such A Fun Age, the dangers of black artists being labelled as teachers and why as an author it’s OK to have boundaries.
What do you hope people will take from Such A Fun Age?
Oh man, I hope that they find themselves staying up a bit too late to read it because finding something that I can’t stop reading is one of the great joys of my life. I hope that the characters stick with them and I really hope that they lose themselves in it like I think all art should make you do. If they were going to zoom out at all, I hope that they would think, ‘OK, it is strange that this young woman doesn’t have healthcare and can’t go to the doctor and what would our world – and her world – look like if she could?’ I think those would be my dream things that people would take away from the novel.
Is it difficult releasing something so personal to the public?
I think that black authors may have doubly hard and interesting experiences with this. I remember when my book was first coming out and a big book store tweeted about it. It was one of the first times I had seen it tweeted about so I was very excited, and the first comment right away was someone saying, ‘I don’t read negro books’. It was shocking. And so I think that in a way set the tone for me to understand that some people will not engage with the book at all. And while that is hurtful and also troubling, it does help me categorise where I want to put my energy and it makes me doubly appreciate the people who are willing to engage with it on its terms. Their voices seem even louder.
Where does your interest in transactional relationships come from?
I have always been very interested in class and the culture of work and especially with this book, I was really interested in the difference between wealth and income, and how social capital works as well. I have had a number of service jobs. I was a hostess for a long time, I was a camp counsellor, I was a magician’s assistant for a weird time (I got sawed in half and everything), so I can’t tell what the chicken or the egg is with my interest in transactional relationships. I was definitely inspired by the environment of when I was a nanny, the feeling of working in somebody else’s home and of really loving somebody else’s child. The environment really served as an inspiration, but Emira and Alix were total figments of my imagination. I feel like that’s the start of something, when characters kind of present themselves to you and you have to say, ‘OK where do these people work? Where did they come from?’ That’s the start.
Alix is such a complex character – was she difficult to write?
I don’t think she was a difficult character to write, but she was a difficult character to name. Some characters present themselves very easily to you and Emira was Emira from the beginning, but I think I went through about 10 different names with Alix before I solidified who she was. It was a nice challenge to find where she really shines. I think she’s a really good friend, she’s savvy, and I have to say she’s a lot better of an employer than a lot of people I have heard of from my own experience and through friends who are nannies. She never messes with Emira’s money which is extremely important and she’s very responsible. I think in highlighting where she shines, it makes her mistakes even bigger so it was just a really careful balance between those two. Seeing Alix as a very lonely person really helps shape her and makes her poor decisions a lot more nuanced than ‘Oh this is just a mean awful person who has done something bad’. I wanted to make sure that she had the same depth and nuance that everybody else did.
Was it your intention to make her so relatable that us millennial readers would reflect on our own behaviour?
My intention is never about the reader assessing where they are because I feel that’s not my job. I feel that art meets people where they are at and what I choose to focus on is the storytelling. I wanted to make Alix really relatable and I love reading something and saying ‘Oh my god I know someone who does that’ or ‘Oh shit I do that’. It just really makes the art come alive to me, so making Alix real and someone that you’ve met before was really the goal. I never wanted it to be like, ‘this is how you shouldn’t be’. I’m not into books like that myself.
The BLM movement has turned a lot of people towards black art for pedagogical reasons. Is there a risk that we’re turning black art into solely a learning tool?
100%. On so many different levels. On a very basic level, you’re missing the story. You’re not getting the enjoyable read that an artist has left you with, even though it can still teach you things that you didn’t go in planning on learning. I definitely think that some of my favourite novels have taught me things, but to layer black artists with other responsibilities like teaching you something new about race is just additional labour that a black artist shouldn’t be faced with. So yes, I do think it’s unfortunate that many black artists get labelled with teacher and roles that have such roots in slavery. At the same time, whatever brings people to art is not really for me to judge.
And on that note, is there an element of Such A Fun Age that you feel has been overlooked in people’s need to find a lesson in it?
I got an email from this one woman – it was so funny. She said, ‘I picked up your book because I’m really ready to do the work and on the first page I saw that the white woman had divider plates for her child. So I thought “You know what? It’s time to learn, so I got rid of my divider plates.”‘ And I just thought, ‘You threw away your plates? Really?!’ I just think that’s such a funny thing to gleam from my book. That’s a very extreme example of someone learning the wrong thing, but at the same time art meets people where they’re at and I believe that you really can’t control how people engage with it. Just the fact that it’s in people’s hands is such a fortunate thing. I just try to focus on the work and let the story stand for itself. That’s all I can do from my computer – I can’t go into other people’s homes and make sure that they know. I’m not their mother.
Were you expecting the book to get such a good reaction?
Oh, God no, not at all. I feel that so many writers just say, ‘let this thing be successful enough for me to do it again’. That was the goal so I have been really bowled over by the response. It has been wonderful and I’m excited to do it again some day. It’s the little things like someone getting in touch and saying ‘Hi, I’m 79 years old and my name is Briar and I’ve never seen my name in a book before’ – that’s really sweet. Or black women writing and saying, ‘I’ve never seen women like this in literary fiction before – it made me validated and real’. Those moments are extremely special to me.
A friend of mine recommended it to me as the only fictional novel she has ever enjoyed…
Truthfully, that has actually happened a few times. People say, ‘My partner never reads fiction but this one they loved’, and that is such a win. I would love for this to be the fiction book that non fiction people read. That’s a win.
Has Such A Fun Age‘s success added an element of pressure to your future writing?
I love that pressure. I feel that I have connected with readers in a way that sets me up nicely – they know what to expect from me. But also that’s the really great thing about writing, that you can keep on getting better and better and I would love to look back in 20 years and say, ‘Oh with Such A Fun Age I had no idea what I was doing, I’m so much better now’. That’s the goal.
What can we expect from your second novel?
I don’t think I will write anything that doesn’t touch on class issues, that doesn’t have a lot of characters who identify as women, and doesn’t have a lot of really painful cringey moments. I’m really excited to challenge myself with different themes and techniques – I feel like I have a lot more tools in my toolbox now. I started Such A Fun Age before I went to grad school and so I feel that now I am a lot more grounded in what I like, what I can do and the story that I want to put out there. It will be a departure from Such A Fun Age in many ways but I think it will sound like me still.
What is your writing process?
I always start with the characters. I feel like the characters sit with me for a long time, maybe months or probably a year with this one. Then there’s the writing of the actual novel and just me sitting and writing out what I think is going to happen – the connections that are going to be made, what the structure will look like and when I will deploy information to the reader. It needs to make for the most enjoyable read and keep them turning pages, but the reader can’t feel that they’re being tricked.There were probably three times when I wrote out the plot of what I thought was going to happen and then said, ‘OK, no I don’t think this is going to work’. I remember those three different moments and I think that was just part of the process of me learning that writing out the plot and what I think is going to happen really helps me. At the same time, if I’m writing it and everything is going according to plan, I know something is wrong. It’s like I’m not listening to the story enough for the story to tell me what it actually needs. When I listen to what the story is actually wanting, it’s often different to what I thought. It seems scary because it sometimes means throwing away a lot of pages which is heartbreaking but as long as it services the story. Sometimes I have written scenes three different ways just to come to the conclusion that the first way I wrote it is actually the best. It’s all part of the process.
Is there anything you have learnt that you’d pass onto other aspiring writers?
Oh my gosh so much. It might sound trite but I think boundaries are so important. The internet has presented authors in a very accessible way which is sometimes wonderful because when I read a book I want to know all about the author, that being said it doesn’t mean that you have to give up your own boundaries and your own privacy in service of your book. Some authors are really good at writing big pieces or speaking about traumas or life experiences, but that doesn’t mean that you have to as well. Your book can stand for itself and if someone is asking you questions that you don’t want to answer, saying no sometimes is OK. Just shaping your own journey and what you feel comfortable with is really important. It might sound silly but while I love seeing other authors’ spaces, I like my writing space to be quite private. So whenever requests come in to do with my space, it’s something that I have to graciously turn aside because some things are OK to keep private and some things are OK to share. It’s whatever makes you comfortable.
Is there a particularly great book that you have read this year?
I think my favourite book that I’ve read this year is Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward – it truly knocked me out. A girlfriend and I have a very small two person book club and this was her pick. I had read some of Jesmyn Ward’s essays before but this novel was just so incredible – I was not ready. I love when books have the background of a huge catastrophic event or time – something like Hurricane Katrina – but approaches it from a very personal place. And that was exactly what this novel was – it was beautiful.
Let’s talk about the film adaptation…
It has been a whirlwind experience that I could never have dreamed of. At the beginning it made its way into the hands of a few production companies who were interested but they were mostly white teams. I got a film agent and we talked about how we wanted this in the hands of some people of colour. We made a list of who we like and Lena Waithe was a really easy yes, so I feel like it’s in really great hands. I’m leaving writing the screenplay up to the experts but I am executive producing which means I get to give my opinions but also learn from them as well, and so far, so great. We have a really wonderful team and I’m just grateful every day. I’ve learned so much and it feels like such an amazing opportunity for me to learn another medium of storytelling. My favourite game to play is ‘Cast This Novel’ so it’s very exciting to know that it might actually happen.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is out now in paperback, Bloomsbury: £8.99.