Kiley Reid On 'Such A Fun Age'
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In her debut novel, Kiley Reid explores the complicated relationship between a privileged white woman and the black babysitter she hires to care for her children. Alix is a blogger and public speaker who moves to Philadelphia for her husband's TV anchor job. She hires Emira as her sitter. She's a few years out of college and still figuring out her path in life. Alix becomes obsessed with the younger, cooler Emira. And the relationship between the two women lays bare the insidious nature of entitlement and racism.
Kiley Reid is the author of "Such A Fun Age." And she joins us now. Hello.
KILEY REID: Hi. Thanks for having me.
FADEL: Thank you for joining us. So there's an event at an upscale grocery store that kicks off the book. Would you tell us what happens? It feels really familiar.
REID: Absolutely. Emira is a young black babysitter who is out with her friend at her friend's birthday party. And it's a Saturday night. She's having a great time until she gets a call from her boss, Alix, who's had a family emergency. So Alix says, please take my child to the grocery store just for an hour. I just need her out of the house.
So Emira and her friend Zara go to a high-end grocery store with the little girl, Briar. And they're having a great time. They're dancing. And then a customer and a security guard approach Emira as they accuse her of kidnapping the child.
At first, the whole event seems a little bit silly to Emira because it seems a bit absurd that anyone would think that. But it quickly turns into something that another customer films. Tensions are raised, and Emira's rightly humiliated.
FADEL: So why'd you start the book this way?
REID: The funny thing is I'd started the book in another way with diving into both Alix and Emira. And I gave some pages to a writer that I trust. And he said, the idea is there, but start again. And as a reader, I love when something hooks me in. And I like an inciting event that joins characters that won't go away. And so the grocery store felt like a really important event but still very low to the ground and domestic. And I like exploring those tiny instances of racism that stem from much larger ones.
FADEL: So Alix is - she's moving to Philadelphia. She's in Philadelphia now. She's left behind her group of best friends. And in the book, she becomes kind of obsessed with her babysitter. She's reading her text messages. She's trying to become friends with her. How would you describe that relationship?
REID: I think that Alix is really lonely. But I also think there's complications in the fact that Alix hires Emira as a babysitter. And she asks her for a lot. She says, you know, can you change her? Can you pick her up? Can you take her to ballet? And suddenly it's, can you have a glass of wine with me, which is almost, you know, will you be my friend?
And unfortunately, Emira - the power struggle is different. And so she's not really in a position to say no. And so that's where things get complicated.
FADEL: So you were a nanny, right?
REID: I was for six years.
FADEL: Wow. So how much did you draw upon those experiences in crafting these characters?
REID: I was definitely inspired by the backdrop of working in someone else's house - the toys you play with, the food, the things that you end up bringing home, the way that your voice changes when you're with children versus when you're with your friends. I was definitely inspired by all of those things.
FADEL: Yeah. I mean, there is this beautiful scene where Emira has this real sense of pride in how good she is at taking care of Briar, this precocious child, and how undervalued everybody else seems to see it.
REID: It's a strange thing. With babysitting, it's difficult. You have to be on all day long. And at the same time, you are - if you're lucky - paid $15, $16 an hour. And I think that the way that it's viewed for many reasons is still very low status. And that goes back to days of slavery. That goes back to the 1930s, where domestic workers were black women, and Southern legislators didn't want to give them the same labor rights. And all of that is still affecting Emira today.
FADEL: You know, Alix, in the book - it seems like she thinks of herself as a liberal, empowered, tolerant woman. But it seems almost like she says and does things that are racist, almost unknowingly. Can you talk about how you crafted her?
REID: I think what's important to realize about Alix is that I wouldn't say that she has a problem relating to black people in general. I think that she has issues relating to people who are in different class groups than she is.
REID: She has a best friend named Tamara (ph), who's African American. And they're in the same income bracket. And so that class solidarity makes it very easy for her to relate to Tamara. But the fact that Emira is black, low income and her employee adds a different spin on the relationship. And on top of that, Alix is lonely. And so her desperation definitely makes itself known.
FADEL: You know, you tackle some pretty big topics through these characters and really subtly. It's not in your face at all. But you're able to capture these moments of racism, of classism, of the fear of being perceived as racist, of finding your voice, finding your path. What were you trying to accomplish with the book? What did you want people to walk away with?
REID: My first priority is that people enjoy the story. I don't enjoy myself as a writer when I am polemic. And so I have to be obsessed with the narrative. That is the dominant thing, always. And I love that feeling of, OK, I need to go to bed. But I'm just going to do one more chapter - one more chapter because I need to do it. So that's always the first priority, that it's an enjoyable read. But I'm also not very interested in reading anything that doesn't comment on the world that we live in.
REID: And I love when a book gives me a lot more questions than answers. And so I would love for readers to use this piece of writing to zoom out and look at the boundaries placed on Emira and ask questions that I don't have the answers to of, why does Emira have to choose what she wants to do when she's 25? And why aren't her skill sets not as valued? And why is Alix the one arranging her babysitting, and not Peter? And what would it look like if they didn't? I don't have the answers to those questions.
REID: But I would love to raise them in other people.
FADEL: Kiley Reid is the author of "Such A Fun Age." Thank you so much.
REID: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.