Does it matter if the assumptions made about you are true or not? Does it put your behavior in a different light when someone has your backstory? Or should your actions be judged by its own merits? Does ignorance and lack of awareness ever justify giving someone the benefit of the doubt or cutting them some slack?
These are the questions I mull over when I lurk on the Instagram accounts of black activists, and these questions came to mind reading Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I say lurking, because more often than not, I choose to remain an observer, a learner– sometimes, because it is clear that the post is directed at a black audience, and therefore, not my place to chime in, and sometimes because I have nothing productive to add to the conversation, if you can call the one-upping and virtue signaling happening in the comment threads a conversation.
Such a Fun Age
would almost be a comedy of errors if the whole situation wasn’t so pathetic.
Right off the bat, I appreciated that this was written by a black author and not a white one. Some time ago, I was sent The House Girl by Tara Conklin, not knowing much about the book. When I realized it was yet another book by a white person about a black person, I lost interest. It’s not that I don’t think an author can write about a different lived experience— I know they can and there are authors that do it well, but I just didn’t feel like it. At that particular moment in time, I was tired of the white narrative voice being licensed to share the black narrative.
It only seems right that a novel whose central plot revolves around a racially charged incident should be written by a black author. I want to read that story through a black lens, not a white one. Emira, the central character and one of two narrators, is a fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional figure. She is not stereotypically anything and the language used in the dialogue doesn’t make me cringe in the same way it does when a white author uses the same language. No matter how many times a white person watches in horror as yet another racist incident unfolds on social media, no matter how many black friends a white person has, no matter if a white person is married to a black person, no white person has internalized the stress that comes with the relentless and steady drumbeat of American systemic racism (looking at you, DeBlasio).
On the other hand, I have trouble agreeing with reviewers who say that the characters in this book are complex because Alix? She is not complex. She is a standard-issue rich white lady who drips with insecurity about everything and everyone, centering herself in moments where it ought not to be about her. She’s earnest, she’s twee, she begs to be seen as different, as “not like everyone else.” Her high school self lacked the self-awareness that would’ve given her pause about calling the cops on a black classmate trespassing in her swimming pool.
And that, I think, might be the point of Such a Fun Age. Emira is desperately trying to be Emira, the babysitter in the midst of a quarterlife crisis, who lives in a shitty apartment, watching the clock count down to her 26th birthday, when she’ll booted off her parents’ health insurance. She and her white boyfriend dance around the issue of race, but Alix’s narration manages to throw a light onto Emira’s blackness while also centering her herself. She desperately wants to shake off the high school incident that came to define her, because no one but the reader knows Alix’s backstory, how she arrived at the moment that she decided to call the police. Does it matter, though? Does it change anything? At the end of the day, a black kid still suffered the consequences of the cops being called on him by a white classmate. And Alix is still a standard-issue white lady, with all the privilege that affords.
I love Emira. Alix, not so much, though I understand her. Overall, I enjoyed this book–it gives the genre a little meatiness and moves away somewhat from the coziness that the chick lit genre seems to embody–almost like when everyone’s favorite sitcom decides to “take a risk” and tackle a pressing social issue of the day.
Available from Penguin Random House in December 2019
More About the Author
Kiley Reid is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was the recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Such A Fun Age is her first novel.
More About The Book, from Penguin Random House