Reid has plenty of experience in childcare, having worked for several years as a nanny and a camp counsellor. And that world provided the graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the perfect setting for another relationship she wanted to explore, that between mother, babysitter and child, what she calls a transactional relationship involving emotional labour.
‘‘Through that, themes of ownership come out – really complicated ones,’’ she says. ‘‘There’s surface level ownership of ‘this is my babysitter and this is my child’, but then there are deeper themes: yes, it’s your child but I spend all night with her. And then, of course, there is the history of owning black slaves and them taking care of white children in this country and that history comes tumbling back at awkward moments as well.’’
There are plenty of those awkward moments. Emira begins a relationship with Kelley, the white Penn State student who filmed the encounter with the security guard, and slowly a triangle emerges between Alix, her and Kelley. Alix is some sort of social media influencer and in response to the racist incident that opens the book, she decides she wants to be better friends with the younger black woman, that Emira should become ‘‘part of the family’’.
Reid reckons this would be an impossibility, particularly as their differences extend across the class divide.
‘‘As long as an exchange of goods is keeping someone in the family, then the true dynamics of family go away,’’ she says.
And she stresses that she hasn’t used her own experiences in the book. ‘‘Oh, gosh, no. I had been around the type of people I was babysitting for all of my life and I knew what I could talk about and what I couldn’t talk about. And Mira is not coming from the type of background I had so I did want to highlight it’s a struggle for her sometimes. Mira and I couldn’t be more different. There are so many authors that I admire who can write autofiction that I enjoy reading, but I am not one of them.’’
Reid deliberately shows her characters in different lights so the reader’s perceptions of them are not clear cut. Alix may be pretentious, casually racist and condescending, but she is also – at times – seen as a good mother. In the opening encounter in the grocery store Emira tells the guard she makes more money than he does.
‘‘When you think what that would mean for someone like Alix to say, someone with more money and power, you flinch a little bit, but because Emira is in a vulnerable position, it’s all she has,’’ Reid says. ‘‘It’s pretty classist, but I wanted to give her room not to say the perfect thing all the time.’’
Reid began writing Such a Fun Age in 2015 (and sets it in the same year) when the Black Lives Matter movement was at its peak. She was out on the streets several times at protests and says while it’s important to highlight a focus on hate in Trump’s America, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the movement became prominent during the time of the Obama administration.
Reid is cautious but firm in her views on the state of race relations in the US. It’s difficult with the history of slavery ‘‘but I don’t like to use that as any kind of bar as that never should have happened’’. Equality in the US, she says, won’t be reached until people of all incomes get the same kind of healthcare and childcare opportunities.
‘‘While slavery is no longer an explicit form, there are tons of other forms that people suffer from every day. Even just low-income children being exposed to toxins in their school, I think, is a form of slavery. So until those things have a huge systemic change, I think that inequality will continue.’’
We are speaking on the day of the vote in Washington to impeach President Trump. Despite that, she is ‘‘100 per cent nervous’’ about the election later this year.
‘‘His politics are horrid and I wish he were not our president. But I don’t like to romanticise how other presidents have tackled systemic racism either. I don’t think the aggressive change we need has ever really been attempted.’’
So does that mean the Obama presidency was, in the end, a disappointment for people of colour in her country? ‘‘I can only speak for me personally and with the amount of black lives taken and justice not received, I would say it was a disappointment.’’
Reid grew up in Tuscon, Arizona, before shifting to college in New York when she was 20 and where she stayed for nine years. She was ‘‘obsessed’’ with reading and writing from an early age.
When she talks about becoming aware of racism as a child she points out that it’s not always about skin colour. She has a longstanding fascination with how people respond to black hair in literature and includes a couple of scenes in Such a Fun Age that reflect this.
‘‘My understanding too was how the people around me respond to the fact that my hair doesn’t look the way that theirs does,’’ she says. ‘‘So I think that gathering things from a look or a comment can’t help but inform how you think of yourself and what’s normal or not normal as a child. I think that’s how a lot of black women grow up.’’
Another aspect of black-white relations that crops up in the book is the notion of fetishisation. Why does Kelley seem to have a thing about black friends and girlfriends? Are his feelings for Emira genuine? According to Reid, racial fetishism is simply another extension of white supremacy.
‘‘I wanted my characters to be toeing the line between genuine feelings of affection and fetishising black women and black male friends. But you don’t need to have black acquaintances to fetishise black people. It happens in ads, in art, and in every day conversation, and definitely not just in the US. Myself and most likely the majority of black people have experienced this through comments on hair, skin, accents, and ‘coolness’. It can appear friendly or loving, but it’s deeply rooted in dominance and othering.’’
Such a Fun Age has been optioned for the screen by writer and comedian Lena Waithe’s production company and at this stage Reid is not sure whether she will have a writing role in the adaptation, nor whether it will be for the big or small screen.
The book was published in the US on New Year’s Eve. Reid was planning lots of activities that would ‘‘keep me calm. I’m not a big partyer but I am very excited to be celebrating the book. I’ll be having some champagne around 8pm’’.
She has plenty to celebrate.
Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury at $29.99.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald