U-M Professor Kiley Reid’s Novel “Such a Fun Age” Is the 2023 Washtenaw Read Book
The 2023 Washtenaw Read is Such a Fun Age by University of Michigan professor Kiley Reid, whose plot-driven novel details what happens and how people feel amidst misunderstandings and omissions around a recent run-in and past hurts.
Reid is having a talk, reading, and Q&A session at the Downtown Library February 5 at 4 pm.
The lives of characters Emira Tucker and Alix Chamberlain very quickly intertwine in ways beyond their relationship as babysitter and mother of a toddler, respectively. From the description on the book jacket, readers know going into the book that Emira, who is a Black woman, is confronted for having Alix’s white child, Briar, at a food market late in the evening. This unexpected and unfair confrontation leads to connections, coincidences, and consequences that unfold throughout the rest of the book. The ensuing events are best experienced page by page as one reads.
Reid develops each of the main characters with their own flaws. The characters’ actions raise dilemmas based on how much they know and what their position is in each situation. Perhaps one lesson is that one’s intentions do not always make things right. Mrs. Chamberlain illustrates this in an overbearing statement to Emira:
“You might be too young to understand this right now, but we have always had your best interests at heart. Emira, we, we love you.” Mrs. Chamberlain threw her hands up in surrender as she said this, as if loving Emira was despite her family’s other best interests.
No one is convinced. Yet, Mrs. Chamberlain also shows very relatable emotions when she, too, encounters startling situations, as Emira observes at one point:
Emira watched Mrs. Chamberlain’s face go into the same warfare that her daughter’s did when schedule did not go according to plan, or when Emira tried to read to her at night. With her hand on the door, Mrs. Chamberlain seemed to brace herself as if she were preparing to be hit, or as if she already had been and barely made it out alive.
We have all been in that spot where we struggle to collect ourselves and move forward.
While dealing with the aftermath of the grocery store incident that just keeps growing bigger despite her attempts to contain it, Emira simultaneously seeks her own path to figure out what to do and how to live her life. This common conundrum of one’s twenties haunts Emira and her choices. The answers do not materialize easily, as “Emira didn’t mind reading or writing papers, but this was also mostly the problem. Emira didn’t love doing anything, but she didn’t terribly mind doing anything either.” Navigating ambivalence while also trying to make ends meet and watching friends find success adds more weight on Emira. Plus, her 3-year-old charge Briar raises similar questions:
Once, after Briar tried zucchini for the first time, Emira stood in front of her high chair and asked the toddler if she liked it. Briar chewed with her mouth open and looked all over the room as she articulated her response. “Mira? How, how … because—how do you know when you like it? Who says when you like it?” Emira was fairly certain that the caregiver-approved answer was something like, You’ll figure it out, or, It’ll make sense when you’re older. But Emira wiped the toddler’s chin and said, “That’s a really good question. We should ask your mom.” She honestly meant it. Emira wished that someone would tell her what she liked doing best.
While numerous challenges plague all the characters, Emira and others continue searching for their own identities.
Reid is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Prior to Reid’s event at the Ann Arbor District Library, I interviewed her about Such a Fun Age.
Q: How does it feel to have your book as part of a large, collective reading experience with The Washtenaw Read?
A: It’s an honor to have my work part of a large, reading experience. That was definitely a goal while writing it, as books are one of my favorite things to discuss with others. With a collective reading, it’s always interesting to see how people’s experiences differ based on how they saw the text and their own lived experience. I’m very happy to have this opportunity.
Q: You now teach at the University of Michigan, and you previously taught at the University of Iowa and Temple University. What is exciting about teaching here?
A: There’s so much to be excited about in terms of teaching at U-M. It’s one of the top programs in the country, and the talent and passion, from both the students and faculty, is inspiring and easy to see. It may be gauche to say but I love talking about money, and U-M’s Master of Fine Arts program provides their students with the financial stability to live and write. I wish all programs could do the same, and I’m so excited to work with students who have this freedom and support.
Q: What has your experience in Ann Arbor been like so far?
A: A bit cold but very lovely all around. My family was looking to be closer to nature, and Ann Arbor is a perfect place for that. It’s amazing to be able to walk 10 minutes and be next to the Huron [River]. We love going to Zingerman’s and Tmaz.
Q: Turning back to your book, I imagine that you get a lot of questions about your characters, given that they are so distinct and well-developed. The characters’ behavior also raises a lot of questions. While writing, how did you navigate both their loveable qualities and negative traits or behaviors?
A: My favorite books put human behavior on display in a way that’s delightful and uncomfortable and intriguing all around. When dealing with positive and negative traits, I aim for truth, and the truth is that most people exhibit good and bad behavior. What works for me is having an appreciation for all behavior, as long as it rings true, as well as remembering that for some of my characters, we’re seeing them during the most lonely and fraught seasons of their lives.
Q: Identity, race, class, and relationship issues are integral parts of the story, and Such a Fun Age makes its own statement and may speak for itself on these issues and in the ongoing discourse. I wonder if we could talk about how this book might forward those conversations, too, in light of the 2023 Washtenaw Read. What recommendations or ideas do you have for readers to engage with these issues through your book?
A: The first best way to engage with a novel is to simply enjoy it. To let yourself get lost in the story and be frustrated with the characters and let the minutiae of the everyday drama get under your skin, much like we do in real life. Of course, if a novel is based in the current day, then it should accurately depict how race and class affect our lives, and if those elements are done well, they will show some level of harm and destruction. A group collective is a great place to explore these themes and ideas a novel introduced that you hadn’t previously considered in specific ways before. But to go back to my first point, I feel that the deeper themes of a novel stay with us more when we pick up a book for enjoyment rather than as a pedagogical tool.
Q: Such a Fun Age contains many pivotal plot points, and I am trying to be careful to not reveal them because they are so integral to the experience of reading the book! Do you find yourself in a similar position when talking about the book with others? How do you avoid spoilers?
A: I love being surprised so I try to stay as vague as possible. There’s a special midpoint in talking about a plot where you can provide just enough. It’s akin to what a book cover should do: bring you in but make you ask, “Ooh, what’s that?” The best way to avoid spoilers is to simply say less. I’m a big fan of calling your beat early.
Q: To follow that last question, would you be willing to talk about your writing process? When did you first determine how this story unfolds?
A: Every writing project is a bit different. With this novel, I wrote every morning Monday [through] Thursday, in the beginning, and once I had a semi-finished manuscript, I worked eight hours a day. I knew some plot points towards the end, but not all of them. And there were other areas that I had to write in order to know that they wouldn’t work out.
Q: What is on your to-be-read pile?
A: My classmate from Iowa, James Frankie Thomas, just sent me their forthcoming novel Idlewild, and I’m excited to read the finished version. I’ve read Jesmyn Ward’s other books, but I haven’t read Sing, Unburied, Sing, and I’m listening to that via Audible right now.
Q: Such a Fun Age is your first book and an impressive debut as it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. What are you working on next?
A: I’ve recently completed my second novel, and I’ll also be writing for the film adaptation of Such a Fun Age. I’m very excited to see what the story looks like on screen.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Kiley Reid will discuss the 2023 Washtenaw Read title Such a Fun Age at 4 pm on February 5 at the Downtown Library.