Alix is doing something very familiar, which is making an event timely when, really, it’s just the first time that she has had to consider how such an event would affect the people around her. Maybe you’re depicting a Black person struggling with money. It’s someone screaming the N-word or not letting someone into a building — extreme examples that are real and exist and hurt people but also serve as a place for non-Black people to say, “I would never do that, so I’m okay. I asked if she was okay, and she said, “Well, of course I’m not. Does my hair have something to do with who will date me and who won’t?” All of these questions stem from larger issues of systemic racism, slavery, and low-status jobs. The director of my office said to me, “Oh, well, you would straighten your hair first, though, wouldn’t you?” That comment happened seven years ago and it’s still with me. These past few months, I think people have had a very human reaction to events where they are saying, “What can I do on an individual level to help?” And then they decide they are going to buy Black art, which is wonderful. I work next to her. I can’t stand it when a novel tries to teach me anything or when I feel a novelist preaching. I love when novels show me something new that I didn’t know before. People don’t want the responsibility of having a Black woman depend on them to pay her rent. Peter says a very racist thing on television, but you see him being very kind to Black people, having Black people over for Thanksgiving, and supporting his wife. And I don’t know if Peter would be better at handling that situation than Alix. ¤
JABEEN AKHTAR: Such a Fun Age opens with an explosive scene: at an upscale convenience store, the protagonist, Emira Tucker, is accused of kidnapping the white child she babysits. Is it okay to harbor both opinions of her?
In terms of approaching fiction, I think it’s wonderful to harbor complicated feelings toward the character. She’s psychotic. I am just writing a story. After so many years of racism and segregation, it’s a very instinctual reaction that a lot of Black people have. Connecting with readers in person was one of the most special experiences of my life, and I was touched in a way that I did not anticipate. Why does this dynamic between spouses escape our scrutiny? Such a Fun Age is the literary blockbuster of 2020, and it’s easy to see why this timely, searingly entertaining story about a 25-year-old Black babysitter entangled in a battle of saviorhood between her wealthy white boss and white boyfriend has resonated with so many readers. Near fistfights have broken out in the “Is Alix a good or bad person” debate. When I go to bed at night, it’s not those big moments I think about. And the problem with that, too, is that Emira just wants to clock in and clock out. Those characters are Black the whole time they are struggling but that does not mean it’s the author’s responsibility to say something new about race. When Peter makes this racist gaffe on television, Alix starts thinking about her need for her babysitter and wants to make sure her babysitter isn’t mad about what Peter said. And it’s not to say that I can’t learn something from a novel. As someone who has babysat in the past, that means a lot to people with a low income. I felt bad for her.” I thought it was really interesting that Black women had this empathy for Alix and could see her as more of a symptom of bigger issues. We are nosy, curious people. And the choice to have Peter be very much in the periphery was very intentional to show that Alix is making bad decisions, but she also doesn’t have any help. I’m on the side of “I loved it.” Okay, my next question is a little personal. The fact that people could connect with the novel in this way was really important. With the magnitude of videos of racist incidents over the past year, do the smaller moments serve as a counterbalance, or even a corrective, to the idea that racism manifests in only big and viral ways? It’s another situation where Black writers are loaded with extra labor. As writers in residency programs know, isolation like this is entirely the point. But the smaller-scale incidents have a strange way of reflecting these broken systems and they make you do a weird mental gymnastics that, as a writer, I find really interesting. She takes care of Emira financially. What does this say about invisible work and our perception of caregivers?
Some of my favorite characters are ones that are suddenly in a position of power and don’t know how to handle that power. Is it you?” It’s those moments that I end up obsessing over. And she thinks, well, this is my responsibility. But I love this book. But Alix’s fans will say she means well. And someone who isn’t trying to learn anything. Most Black people have a moment where they were afraid for their life, where they thought someone was going to arrest them, where they felt unsafe. But for Kiley, anxious for news from her literary agent, this was the worst possible day to be cut off from the world.
It turns out she had no reason to worry. I have to make it work. One hundred percent. Many videos that make it to the viral stage are what I like to call “cartoon racism” — over the top, violent, and traumatic incidents. Her detractors say she is narcissistic, manipulative. When you’re in a situation like Emira was in the Market Depot, copying the way that somebody else speaks is a method of survival. Does my hair have something to do with me not getting promoted? We’re good.” The tiny, awkward moments stick with you so much because they are symbolic of bigger problems that are hard to fix and impossible to catch on camera. It’s not the purpose of fiction. I don’t think Emira realizes she’s even doing it. But here’s a hot take: for half the novel … she’s not that bad. When I lived in New York, if someone was sending a text message next to me on the train, I’m looking. We had just wheeled our suitcases into the living room of a charming historic inn on a remote island near Martha’s Vineyard, our home for a weeklong writing residency, and discovered there was little internet or phone service to be found anywhere on the island. Why do we let him off the hook? I think all of those things can exist harmoniously. KILEY REID: As a writer, I think you need to be obsessed with human behavior and dedicated to the truth of how people react to things. But we’re also human. It was a surface-level hair comment and I think my hair is great, but the problem is that you start thinking, “Does my hair have something to do with me not getting this apartment? That being said, it’s being picked up as a pedagogical tool at that point, and I am not a teacher when I’m writing. When met with a confused or hostile look from a white person, people like me instinctively start speaking English (hopefully with no accent) to quell the xenophobia, deescalate the tension. The “chameleon effect” is when you hear the way someone speaks and your body wants to mimic it. My daughter’s friend’s mom is just like that. It’s “teach me how to be,” and, you know, I’m not your dad.
Do you think there’s greater pressure on Black writers now to answer to readers who are turning to novels to learn about racism? Alix is a victim of a system that connects your health care to your employment, a system that doesn’t offer subsidized childcare. When I was in Savannah, a young Black woman came up to me and just started bawling. I like a novel to set me up to think what I want and let me do my job as a reader. Because of their murky quality, these tiny awkward moments have multiple interpretations. In a novel like mine, where you have a young Black woman who’s trying to figure out her life but you also have an elite Black woman who’s very much part of the bourgeoisie and has high respectability politics, you need to be careful who you’re trying to learn from. Someone obsessed with human behavior and tiny moments, and probably someone who feels the frustration of not being able to talk about money in a direct way. As a person of color, you wonder if you’re overreacting or being paranoid, or if there really is something there.
You start thinking, “Is it me? That a novel should teach a reader about race or culture is not a burden placed on white writers. I think many BIPOC people can relate to this strange phenomenon where you are not seen as BIPOC by an acquaintance (friend, neighbor, co-worker) until a particular moment. Obviously, I would much rather go to bed thinking of those moments than actually being involved in a violent event. But the story is the thing; if that’s not there, there’s no point. Just because there are Black people in this novel does not mean that you should be taking tips from them. Is this sort of survival tactic part of the Black experience as well? Everyone has stayed up late stalking someone until their computers burn their legs. There’s so much beautiful, smart Black art. He loves and supports his wife, but he’s barely involved with raising his children or managing their childcare. The novel has since been longlisted for the Booker Prize, named a finalist in numerous awards, and, when the world was still normal, got Kiley an appearance on The Daily Show. Can you talk about those experiences? If you could conjure an ideal reader of this novel, who would it be? Or maybe the characters are single and want to date. And she moves with her husband to Philadelphia and he’s like, “Have fun figuring out childcare.” And so Alix, left all alone, makes a lot of bad and hurtful decisions that have big ramifications. It isn’t just “tell me a story” anymore. So she overwhelms Emira with caring and help and attention in a way that is not subtle. I hated it.” Those cringeworthy moments affect you a certain way and as long as I’m getting that effect, it’s a successful read. When I was on tour, so many white women came up to me and said, “Alix is so awful. She’s terrible.” And for every one of those women, a Black woman would say to me, “I know this woman. She never messes with Emira’s coin. When the story begins, Emira has been babysitting for her wealthy white boss, Alix, for some time. If you’re in love with the character on one page and annoyed the next, let yourself do that. I chatted with Kiley over Zoom — from my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to hers in Philadelphia — about these less explored moments, as well as transactional relationships, income disparity, allyship, the purpose of fiction, and loving what makes us cringe.
Author photo by David Goddard. Those responsibilities fall solely to Alix. People always ask me, “Was I supposed to like this character?” Whatever you are feeling on that page is what you are supposed to feel. When Emira is confronted at Market Depot by the white security guard, the first thing on her mind isn’t to understand why he’s confronting her, but to say something to him just so he could “hear the way she could talk.” This scene really struck me as an immigrant of Pakistani origin. Alix has hired young white women as interns before, but Emira puts Alix in a weird space. What a responsibility, especially when there are so many things a Black novel can be about. Down the aisle, a shopper films the entire incident. Or maybe a character has a mental illness. I’m 25. In Emira, she sees someone younger and less steady on her feet and is only trying to help. They point to a white savior complex which, aside from the racist underpinnings of it, centers her needs over Emira’s. And did the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement just a few months later impact the reception of your novel in any way?
I was so lucky to get three weeks of book tour. My ideal reader is someone who delights in the embarrassing and uncomfortable. But somehow the racist gaffe that Alix’s husband Peter makes on live television prompts Alix to almost recognize Emira as being Black for the first time. The combination of Alix trying to make sure things are okay with Emira and Emira wanting boundaries with her employer make for a very awkward dynamic. After your novel was released in the pre-pandemic world of December 2019, you mentioned to me that you had experienced some interesting moments at (in person!) book events. I’m miserable. And unfortunately for her, she doesn’t make it work. One time at my old office where I was a receptionist, I was single and said I was going to audition for The Bachelorette. Everyone should buy Black art. In its first month of publication, Such a Fun Age would debut at number three on the New York Times best seller list, nab a coveted spot in Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club, and see its film and television rights acquired by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions. In that moment, it’s a flight-or-fight reaction: Emira sees this white man with the security badge, he calls her “Ma’am,” and she changes her voice. After the protests this year, I think so many Black women, including myself, got that text from a friend that you haven’t spoken to in eight months saying, “Hey, lady, just checking in to make sure you’re okay.” You have to laugh. It’s kind of funny that this is the incident that would make you check in on me when this has been happening for decades. Thank you.” She is in that place where you don’t know what your health insurance is going to look like, and maybe you don’t have a clear path in life. Also, Alix does a lot of things in private that we all wish we didn’t do. And they’re not blatantly racist. ¤
Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan and a frequent contributor to LARB. Yet, I don’t see much criticism lobbed his way. Alix takes it too far, but all of these things make her human. JANUARY 2, 2021
I MET KILEY REID the day the manuscript for her debut novel, Such a Fun Age, was sent out to publishing houses. There’s a lot of sexism going on. I mean, what a responsibility to put on a fiction writer! Let’s go back to her husband, Peter. I loved it.” And sometimes they say, “It was so cringeworthy. The scene is viscerally shocking and heart-pounding, but so many racially charged moments in the ensuing pages transpire within the tiny, awkward interactions between characters in seemingly safe environments (such as a townhouse full of Hillary Clinton supporters). Travel would be by foot or golf cart, we were told, and the only way back to the mainland was a ferry with an intermittent schedule that only made sense to the locals. You often put your characters through these mental gymnastics, which leads to them to behave in some cringeworthy ways.
Sometimes people pick up my novel and say, “It was so cringeworthy. The novel kicks off with a racist incident you’d swear someone just posted about on Facebook, then marinates in the all-too-common and less often explored moments of being BIPOC in a white space that is not hostile, threatening, or unfriendly — really, everybody around you is just so very nice — yet teems with the possibility of a racist undercurrent cresting to the surface any minute. Alix never gives Emira less than what she has agreed to and always makes sure she pays her.