George Floyd’s death in May sparked global outrage and brought centre stage the prevailing systemic inequalities motivated by race and socio-economic factors in the United States. The resulting debate on race and privilege went beyond Twitter and Instagram trends and hashtags; it exposed the simmering racial tensions within the American social fabric. The stark inequity of the status quo resulted in a wave of protests in various cities and states. Statues of Confederate generals — symbols of racism and divisiveness — were brought down as protesters pushed for tangible reform. ‘Black Lives Matter’ became the rallying cry for all fighting against institutionalised hypocrisy and racism. It is in this context that one will read Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age, long-listed for The Booker Prize 2020.
The premise is as complex as the themes of white privilege and class dynamics that it explores. There is no single protagonist; the story weaves its way through the point of view of two central characters. Alix Chamberlain is a feminist blogger and influencer, recently having had to move to Philadelphia from New York after the birth of her second child. A book deal under her belt, she is trying to raise her two daughters and continue running her blog. Her husband, Peter, is a reporter working at a local television station. She hires 25-year-old African-American Emira to babysit three-year-old Briar. Emira is the perfect babysitter; she is fun, patient and, above all, in Alix’s opinion, one of the most interesting people she has met since moving from New York.
One fateful night, Alix calls Emira in an emergency, asking her to take Briar out for an hour while she settles things at home. Emira takes Briar to her second favourite place, the local supermarket. All seems to be going well until a security guard tries to detain Emira, insinuating that she has “kidnapped” the white child. Later, Emira finds out that the entire incident was recorded by a shopper, Kelley Copeland, a white man in his early 30s. He initially comes to her defence, but is brushed aside as she tries to reason with the guard. Despite offering explanations, Emira is eventually forced to call Peter to come to the supermarket to sort out the problem. This altercation is the catalyst that brings together all the characters in the book.
Reid’s writing is crisp and modern. She explores the relationship dynamics between the three central characters with ease and dexterity. Alix is well-intentioned yet woefully ignorant of the privilege that she, as a white woman, is awarded and, as soon as she finds out about what happened to Emira, she is determined to make things right. Her overbearing concern for what Emira thinks of her is disconcerting to the reader as well as Emira: “Alix often felt that Emira saw her as a textbook rich white person, much in the same way that Alix saw many of the annoying Upper East Side moms that she and her girlfriends had always tried to avoid.” She is desperate for Emira’s approval.
On the other hand, Emira wants nothing more than to forget what happened and move on. She is trapped within the confines of herself. At 25, her main source of income is babysitting for the Chamberlains. Despite being a college graduate, she is lost, still searching for her passion, her calling. Emira is painfully aware that she is being left behind as she sees her friends moving forward in their careers and lives. She is unanchored and afraid to step out of her comfort zone. She is befuddled by Mrs Chamberlain’s — as she refers to her employer throughout the book — interest in her and her not-so-subtle attempts to strike up a friendship. Her meeting and eventual involvement with Kelley brings her internal conflict to a head, as questions of race and intention surface.
Here, Reid masterfully deploys everyday interactions to expose the inherent ignorance as to their privilege and their words: “Kelley Copeland ... could apparently acknowledge that he was dating a black woman ... shouldn’t he have said the ‘N-word’ instead? ... she wrestled with feeling moderately appalled that he had said the whole thing, with that painfully distinctive hard ‘r’ sound at the end.” It is this kind of intangible, almost unconscious, racism coming from white people who consider themselves everything but racist, which Reid highlights. Things come to a head over Thanksgiving, when Emira finally accepts Alix’s invitation to dinner, and a surprising connection between all three central characters is discovered. Conflicts that arise as a result of this discovery are life altering for Alix, Emira and Kelley.
Identity and gender politics are at the heart of Reid’s narrative. Emira’s internal conflicts shape her world, as they do for all of us. Her readiness to let things slide is indicative of the unsaid acquiescence that she, and many like her, have been conditioned to accept. At one point in the book, she ponders over all the things her parents told her to accept quietly and react in a docile manner to, such as putting the car keys on the roof if she gets pulled over. Whilst grossly unfair, Emira has spent her life complying with these unsaid rules about social interaction. It is brilliant how Reid subtly and powerfully exposes the deeply entrenched divisions of race and class.
As the story progresses, it becomes painfully clear to Emira — and the reader — that the experience of going about living life is highly dependent upon whether you are white or black. As she explains to Kelley, “I need you to get that ... being angry and yelling in a store means something different for me than it would for you, even though I was in the right ... You think it’s comfortable because it’s always been that way for you.” Reid lays out the crux of the matter in the simplest way possible: biases that are perpetrated as an everyday occurrence, and the fact that they are accepted silently by those upon whom they are meted out, enables further systemic racism and strengthens white privilege.
Similarly, this acquiescence also affects gender roles. Kelley’s controlling nature is seen as concern by Emira, who wants to avoid confrontation even if it is at the expense of having to deal with sexism or racism. Alix, who considers herself a strong, independent woman, is still insecure as to her role in the family. She has an incessant need for approval, whether from her girlfriends, her babysitter or, more importantly, the men who influence her life. Her juggling act at home and work shows how childcare has been made into a solely woman-led expectation. The man is absolved of this responsibility and people such as Alix, who can afford it, go on further to outsource it. This illustrates the inherent classism prevalent in today’s society, where money is often interchangeable with love and attention. The internal struggles of both Emira and Alix are fascinating as they sift through the facts of their lives and the implications of their actions and reactions.
Such a Fun Age is a fantastic read that pushes the characters and the reader to step out of their comfort zones: “One day, when Emira would say good-bye to Briar, she’d also leave the joy of having somewhere to be, the satisfaction of understanding the rules, the comfort of knowing what’s coming next, and the privilege of finding a home within yourself.”
Despite its complex themes, Such a Fun Age is a gripping page-turner and whilst it is led by its women, it is the author’s voice that rings through. Reid is very clear in her indictment: these people are not bad people per se; it is their acceptance and upholding of the status quo that creates the problem. Reid herself is the complete antithesis of Emira. Her writing is bold, the bridge between thoughts and words clearly defined, as she grabs the bull by the horns and makes the reader look in the mirror. If you happen to be a person who subconsciously perpetrates the biases rooted within, you will be appalled by the ugliness you see.
Reid succeeds in showing the reader that we have not really progressed as much as we think we have and that the civil rights movement is far from over, as is evident from the protest and calls for change in the US. Racism and white privilege are being called out for what they are. There is a dire need for introspection, even for us sitting all the way here in Pakistan and India, our obsession with ‘fair’ complexions, our double standards when it comes to gender roles and our deeply entrenched classism and notions of privilege. It is time for us to have our own conversations regarding racism.
The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 27th, 2020