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Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
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Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
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Plotting Power: Race, Class and Gender in Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age

  1. INTERVIEW PLOTTING POWER Race,Class and Gender in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age Interview by Henry Jacob Transcribed by Grace BlaxillAugust 10, 2020 I reread Such a Fun Age last week to prepare for this conversation. Even though I remembered the contours of the story, I soon realized how much I missed upon my first encounter with the novel in January. Your bril- liant use of coincidence and repetition particularly struck me. You connect characters in subtle and surpri- sing ways without following a strict chronological se- quence. I even had to create a diagram to keep track of these relationships! How do you present these cases of serendipity without tipping your authorial hand, your masterful sense of control and intent? I am very into plot-driven stories. At the beginning, I only knew of the one huge coincidence. I decided on everything else later. I would hate to sound trite, but I got to know my characters and see what they wanted as I worked with them more. I figured out what the story asked of me as I wrote it. Re- cently, someone asked me if I'm a plotter or a plunger, and I am definitely a plotter. I like a page-turner. I plot every- thing out, and I write lists of what's going to happen and when. At the same time, I know something is wrong if eve- rything is going according to plan. I discover by listening to my characters. I have never heard the plotter-plunger dichotomy be- fore. I’m definitely not a plunger. I wouldn’t like to be a plunger, either. I don’t know what being a plunger entails but it does not sound appealing. My second question relates to the title, which I have thought about for a while. Words such as "fun" and "age" occur not only in the title, but throughout your novel. I must admit, I still do not know exactly which age is fun. How did you come to this title and what does itmean?I did not have the title for probably two and a half years of writing. I was a nanny for six years. This novel is definitely not autobiographical, but I took the experience of working in somebody else's home as I wrote. I heard the same exchange often at the playground: “How old is she?” “15 months.” “Oh, that's such a fun age.” It's almost like asking about the weather; strangers just say this to each other. I liked this phrase in particular because people use it iley Reid's debut novel Such a Fun Age was released in 2019 to much acclaim,being long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize. Our Editor-in-Chief Henry Jacob talked with the recent graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship about her novel and the complex characters within it. K 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW 1701 Project
  2. Kiley Reid's debut was an instant New York Times best-seller. Photo by David Goddard in these transactional relationships. There is a three-year-old, a 25-year-old, and a 33-year-old. Emira feels that she should be having a lot more fun when she looks at her friends: one’s dad got her an internship, another one’s parents are paying for her grad school, and third has known what she wants to do for a while. Also, I purposely set the novel in 2015, the moment when Black Lives Matter made itself known and at the end of the Obama Presidency. Now, many liberal elites say, “Oh my gosh, things are bad now,” But things were bad long before 2016. That leads into my next question. When I closed the co- ver of Such a Fun Age for a second time, one question poppedintomymind:wheredoesthenoveltrulybegin? I don’t think the plot of Such a Fun Age starts with the epigraph from Rachel Sherman or with Mrs. Chamber- lain’s call to Emira. Though an aesthetic achievement in its own right, this novel seems rooted in long-standing andtroublingsocialconditions.Asyouhavementioned elsewhere, Emira’s difficulties finding insurance stems fromaninstitutionalwrongthatspansdecades.Forthis reason, I think this novel begins far before 2015. What is the historical genesis of Such a Fun Age? Stereotypes lend themselves really well to satire, and I love working with them. I'm not sure if stereotypes take longer to form or longer to go away. In the 1960s, 90% of Black women worked in domestic labor. But of course, slavery posi- tioned women in those jobs. When does that begin for this novel? Oh man, I wish I knew. I wish it never began, but I will say, which is not a cop out, it made sense to begin this story on that night in the grocery store. I received an MFA, which was wonderful because it al- lowed me time to finish my novel. That being said, I only had two professors who put a lot of emphasis on storytel- ling,whichismyjob.Whensomeonerecommendsabook but warns me, “Okay, it’s really good, but you have to get through the first hundred pages because they are boring,” I'm out. I'm not doing it. I’m here for the story, and I liked to connect all of my characters in that first scene. I wanted to start with something that's going to grip readers and make them really invested. Yes, you do grip us with the beginning. On the topic of openings, I know that you originally planned to start Such a Fun Age in a different way until you received advice from a fellow writer. Did you consider changing other sequences during the editing process or would you now in retrospect? I did. I am a huge believer in the editing process. The first thought is not the best thought. I shifted so many scenes from one person's perspective to another. The scene where Alex goes to Emira’s apartment and offers her a job is one of my favorites. For two years, I thought that scene would happen in the Chamberlain house. Then I realized that Emira would never leave her apartment. This moment provides an opportunity to see Emira’s belongings from Alex's perspective, to learn so- mething more about a character you already know pretty well. In addition—and with help from my agent—I wrote the end three different times. I was workshopping then, so I had 10 other eyes on it. I had Paul Harding in one workshop. he told me, “Kiley, if you were in an elevator and the doors were closing, I would scream out to you ‘in scene, in scene, do it in scene!’” I'm very glad I took his advice before the doors closed. A knot of desire links Alex, Emira, and Kelley. Alex and Kelley’s use of the word “crush” and “love” reveal this connection. I will draw four quotations to make this triangle more visible. A month after the grocery store incident, “Alix had developed feelings toward Emira thatweren’tcompletelyunlikeacrush.”Inasimilarvein, Kelley defends his conduct at the Thanksgiving table by notingthat,“Thisisn’tmehavingsomeunresolvedhigh school crush or grudge.” When Alex visits Emira in her apartment she thinks in her head, “​Jesus Christ, I love this girl.” Interestingly, Kelley tells Alex shortly before this scene that “I’m in love with Emira.” Emira feels far less comfortable with the L word. As you write, “Emira “In the 1960s,90% of Black women worked in domestic labor.” ON THE NEXT PAGE 2 KILEY REID
  3. didn’t love anything, but she didn’t terribly mind doing anything either.” Emira has complicated relationships —neither crush nor love captures it—with Mrs. Cham- berlain and Kelley. How did you tie this knot of desire between these three characters? I see it in a number of ways. Emira is a really thoughtful person. She needs a little bit of time to understand what she's thinking, but when she does need to communicate those things she can do it really well. Kelley’s and Alex’s and fascination and use of words like “crush” and “love” symbolize what they seek to receive from Emira. But Emira wants a paycheck and a boyfriend, maybe just for one night, maybe more, she's not sure. Both ask Emira for emotional labor that she shouldn't be required to give them. Alex is really lonely. Alex hopes Emirawillbecomeafriendandtakecareofherchild.Emi- ra also struggles with Kelley when they have sex for the first time. She asks herself, “Is this okay? Am I okay? Are we okay?” Emira knows that Black women are over-sexua- lized so she doesn't want to give herself fully into this mo- ment. go into her calculated moves with showing people she loves them or cares about them and when. After all, Emira only tells Briar she loves her when she knows she's going to leave. Like many Black women, Emira gives her heart out sparingly because she doesn't want to get hurt. She’s also Sagittarius. She’s a very forgiving person. I am Libra, so I am very indecisive. Let’s move forward to these moments of discomfort. Emira navigates through white spaces time and time again. How do you use Emira’s experiences in these situations to reveal the significance of less noticeable moments of racism? We see examples of cartoon racism through Twitter, Ins- tagram, wherever we get our news. racism often manifests itself in small ways, which results in Black people disso- ciating. When you're in a meeting, when you're on a date, you have moments of, “Okay, do I want to ruin this entire night? Do I not want to get this promotion? Do I want to say something?” I tried to incorporate those moments and make the story as realistic as possible. Black women, especially those in domestic care roles, un- derstand that a lot of racism emerges in this low-to-the- ground level. After reading the book plenty of people say, “Alex shouldn't have said this sentence and that is the pro- blem,” rather than noticing that systems lie at the base of this behavior. As a writer, I love to take huge socio-eco- nomic issues and whittle them down to almost petty mo- ments. I find those instances delicious. I want my readers to go to bed thinking, “What did she mean by that?” No, you do it wonderfully. Peter, he's a character that is present and not. Can you expound on his role at the pe- riphery of the plot? I’m thrilled that you’re asking about Peter, because no one asks about Peter and I love talking about Peter. It is so intentional that he is present and not. Alex falls into this role of being the manager of the child- care in her family and it's never discussed. She never asks Peter to take some of the burden. The first time we see Peter, he says something quite racist. Often, we silo these types of incidents. But someone like that carries this racism beyond that one case. Alex ac- cepts this part of Peter because she's too focused on her- self. A lot of married elite women operate this way in their households. Yes, the question of linguistic harm flows into the next question. In a sense, this novel is about misplaced in- tentions and the unintended harm they cause. Perhaps the most notable example emerges when Alex uploads the video without Emira’s consent. While preparing for her TV appearance, Alex seems more preoccupied with the consequences of her actions than the morality of the act itself. Alex asks Laney to “just tell me that I did the right thing.” Alex’s verbalization of her guilt leads to her fall. This moment feels Sophoclean in its tragic tone. Alex breaks Kelley from Emira and Emira from herself in one fell swoop. Why did Alex not keep this interro- gation inside her head as she did in the past? Why does she speak here? I have a different answer for that question now than I did at the beginning of the book tour. Many white women come to me and ask, “Can you just tell me what I need to do?” Those moments mirror Alex’s desire to absolve herself. A lot of women haven't confronted how 4 KILEY REID “Black women,especially those in domestic care roles,understand that a lot of racism emerges in this low-to-the-ground level.”
  4. they're complicit in white supremacy. Unfortunately for them, I'm not an educator; I am a storyteller, I don’t make to-do lists. Books have changed my life, but at the same time, reading a novel cannot excuse you. That being said, I understand Alex’s impulse; I have a group of girlfriends who I love to bounce things off of as well. Alex resorts to what she knows best and asks for a second opinion to assuage her guilt. She wants to share her secrets. But she only feels comfortable with those in her class. She asks, “Did I do the proper thing for the bour- geoisie, as I relate to this low-income girl?” I want to dwell on the theme of loneliness. At the end of the novel, one of Alex’s “elaborate illusions” of running into Kelley turns into Emira’s reality: Emira sees Kelley at a farmer’s market. In Alex’s version, she is the prota- gonist who attracts Kelley’s imagined girlfriend to “fall in love with” her instead. But Emira’s encounter with Kelley differs and is from a distance. Emira simply sees Kelley with his new girlfriend as she carries vegetables and oils. As a narrator, you suggest that “in another li- fetime” Emira would text Alex about seeing her ex. I would like to know a bit more about the intertwining of Alex and Emira’s lives in this lifetime. How does Emi- ra fulfill Alex’s aspirations in ways Alex could never conceive? I have a hot take. For the majority of the book, Alex is not a bad employer. She never messes with Emira’s money, is consistent, and gives bonuses. She gives Emira what she needs. Granted, she reads Emira’s text messages, which is weird and creepy. Moreimportantly,Alexdeniesthatshewieldsallthepower in this situation. I was very confident in who I was and in being a nanny. I was a nanny for a long time, and there were many times that I felt like I was part of the family, and there were many families who at the end of the day, the mom would say, “Do you want to have a drink,” and I would say, “Sure,” and we would have a really good time. Emira is not there yet, and Alex completely denies that she has such power over this girl, so their relationship cannot be genuine. Emira cannot benefit from this social hierar- chy. Emira gives wonderful care but never could afford this service for her own children. Alex’s jealousy and lo- neliness didn't allow her to be the best version of herself. I also don't think Alex should be in charge of anyone's health insurance. She's a mercurial person, and if one day when she saw a text message where Emira was talking shit about her, that could have been the difference between Emira going to the hospital or not. But there is another world where Emira and Alex could benefit from something outside of the financial. In this pa- rallel universe, Emira babysits Briar for a really long time and maybe even starts calling Alex by her first name. I agree. This is a novel about power. Interestingly, Alex negates her status even when giving Emira expensive wine or a bag of Whole Foods groceries. Have you read this book? [Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence] Youquotefromthatintheepigraph.Yeah!Alotofpeople inthatbookusedphrasessuchas,“Igotthisatasteal”or“I felt good about this.” These very, very wealthy people who want to appear normal inspired me—that's Alex for sure. I also am curious about the other lifetime to which I al- luded in my former question. You end Such a Fun Age with Emira “deep in her thirties.” What lies ahead for Emira? How will her past inform her future? On one le- vel, I give narrative closure. I also honor that Black women do not make as much money as other demographics and that the salary they have in their 20s dictates how much they will earn for the rest of their lives. Emira is never going to live in a house that looks like Alex's. She's never going to have the same access to health care. It was very important for me to reflect that truth. But I give Emira sta- bility at the end. Yet finding stability comes at the cost of Briar. Even more, she's not going to have the comfort that someone like Shaunie has. I have to recognize too that as an author I am doing my number one favorite job. That does not happen often, and I would have been the luckiest person to get my number five. Let me ask you a question because I'm very curious: where did you come upon the book? I read. A lot. Syllabi can only include a certain num- ber of materials so I try to fill in the gaps on my own. That's great. There were a lot of guys in graduate school, but usually just my husband reads my writing. It has been really lovely to speak with another of my readers. Yes, to rephrase Kelley’s line, “I think it would be best if we went our separate ways, but that those paths connect again.” 5YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
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