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THE CHURCH OF KILEY REID

Meet the debut author that everyone is talking about, and whose characters will stay with you long after the final page

Phoebe McDowell | 10.03.2020

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Overnight, everyone I knew was talking about Such a Fun Age, the biting debut novel from 32-year-old Kiley Reid. A near-instant New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller, it's been in the hands of what seems like every other millennial woman. Despite the poles-apart prose, it's no doubt why Ried has been compared to Sally Rooney. “I love her writing so it's a huge compliment, but it's not helpful to keep female authors below a certain age, in a certain category as if there’s only room for a few” she tells me when we meet in a Holborn hotel. 

 She's incredulous to the fanfare. She set out to "write something that would give [her] financial stability", not to attach her name to the literary firmament. Though having undertaken most of the novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop - a factory of literary talent that counts Ann Patchett, Curtis Sittenfeld and Leslie Jamison as alumni - it was perhaps a foregone conclusion. You may recognise Iowa as the programme attended by Lena Dunham’s character in the juggernaut series Girls. It's a curious coincidence, but one that obligates further comparisons. More fitting ones? When Girls aired in 2012, TV critic Willa Paskin wrote that it's “a sort of factual report about female sexuality dispatched from the front lines of gentrified Brooklyn." This could well have been written about Such a Fun Age, albeit in regard to white privilege and black womanhood and from the front lines of Philadelphia, with both Dunham and Reid drawing from personal experience to craft searingly relatable characters. 

The novel lays bare the issues of race and class in modern America. African-American Emira Tucker, the 25-year-old protagonist, is a babysitter for Alix Chamberlain, an affluent white woman. One night in an upmarket supermarket, Emira is accused of kidnapping 2-year-old Briar, an incident that irrevocably changes their relationship and respective outlooks. 

"I didn't need to have seen the Bernie Sanders badge sitting proudly on her rucksack to know that REID IS incensed by inequality".

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For six years in her twenties, Reid spent nearly every day with other people's children, something that affords Emira's experience with raw and tender detail. Though she's never encountered the same blatant discrimination as Emira, she's acutely aware that so many do. Low lying prejudice has always figured, however. Growing up in Arizona, Reid remembers how much her white friends’ parents loved her, welcoming her into their homes. If it came to their daughters dating a black boy, however - no way! It's this harmonious coalescence of hypocritical biases that underpins the narrative throughout.

Emira's love interest Kelley, a late twenty-something white man, seems to exclusively date “ethnically ambiguous” women, while Alix, her employer, has a black best friend and has read “everything that Toni Morrison had ever written”. Indeed both are ignorant to their fetishisisation of Emira's blackness, chastising the other for theirs. “It’s almost as scary as overt racism,” warns Reid, “because [black people] don’t know what they need to protect themselves from. I think every black person has had an experience where someone is getting something out of the relationship that isn’t authentic,” she affirms.

I didn't need to see the Bernie Sanders badge sitting proudly on Reid's rucksack to know that she's incensed by inequality. By modern day slavery, and inequitable working rights - namely the fact that most domestic workers are deprived of health insurance. When Emira is accosted in the grocery store in the novel’s opening scene, her thoughts hiss with the fact that “this would not have happened if she had a proper job”. A polo shirt is the only sign of professionalism, and even that is embroiled in a complex web of issues. "It represents so much," says Reid, emphasising "the ownership, white collar and the family crest”. And so, in the same breath as citing Philadelphia’s recent Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (which entitles minimum wage, overtime and holiday pay), she grapples with Alix’s inability to enact change through her job as a do-good blogger: “she’s merely selling the philosophy of female-empowerment”. 

In alternating the third-person perspectives of Alix and Emira, there are always two sides to the story. As such it's never a polemic railing against the other. “The last thing I wanted to do was woke-school people by pitting good against bad” We can presume she means white people - we who are steadfast yet floundering in our pursuit of woke. More important than their perceived morality, Reid says, “are the systems that [her characters] are placed under”. When the book’s epigraph comes from Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (a book about elite wealth and morality), the most glaring system is of course, post-capitalism. And set in 2016, it’s pre-, but very much on the precipice of Trump, with racial tensions running higher than high.

The themes bubble into the plot, which bubbles into the characters who walk out of the pages. So engrossing and bingeable, it's as if each incident/ episode is on autoplay. So yes the logical next step is a screen adaptation, of which Queen & Slim writer and Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe has bought the rights. On the subject of Reid’s dream cast, I angle the question every which way in the hope of yielding a single name. To no avail. She keeps schtum, saying: “I hope my dream people will become the real people, so I’m not tempting fate”.

We can all be glad that Reid is just getting started.

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