by Kim Bansi
Within the first few pages of Kiley Reid’s debut novel, which has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize, we’re thrust into the uncomfortable incident that shapes the entire narrative of the book. Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old recent graduate and part-time babysitter, is asked to leave the house party she is attending to collect Briar, the 5-year old girl she looks after. Emira takes Briar to the store while her wealthy white parents sort out their domestic emergency. Yet once at the store, Emira is accused of kidnapping the child and the scene that plays out is equally comic as it is disturbing.
What follows this captivating opening is a series of awkward exchanges which mostly revolve around Emira and her employer Alix Chamberlain. Alix is a thirty-something “mummy influencer” who is feeling disconnected from her Instagramable life in New York surrounded by her go-getting, feminist group of friends. Through these uncomfortable interactions, it becomes clear that this book seeks to unpack the intricacies of race and privilege, as well as addressing the white saviourism complex taken on by white liberals with, what they believe are, good intentions. Reid takes on the voices of both of these women to show just how different their thoughts, worries and lives are.
The incident in the store prompts Alix to “wake the fuck up” leading her to obsess over the life of her Black babysitter. Alix prides herself on being progressive, boasting about “read[ing] everything that Toni Morrison had ever written” and having a Black woman as one of her best friends, yet it becomes clear that actions like this are simply a tick box activity to her. Her efforts to make Emira feel at ease are performative and self-serving. For example, Alix rallies to make the babysitting role more acceptable as a full-time job for Emira, ensuring higher pay and holidays, despite the fact that Emira is still figuring out what kind of career she wants to have. Reading through this scenario, it’s clear Alix sees herself as Emira’s saviour – someone who can use their privilege to take control and make Emira’s life more stable and acceptable in her circles. While it’s clear Alix sees herself as above Emira in society, the power dynamic between the two is complicated. Alix sees Emira as a mysterious, cool, black woman and she regularly changes her behaviour to seek validation from her. She even describes that her feelings toward Emira “weren’t completely unlike a crush”. In her search to ‘save’ Emira, Alix ends up fetishising her to the extent that she is no more than a two-dimensional character to her.
Another character that exemplifies this misplaced ‘wokeness’ comes in the form of Kelley, the guy Emira starts dating. Kelley is the kind of white man whose whole friendship circle is Black, he exclusively dates Black women and used to watch shows like Moesha and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He is a walking manifestation of the fetishization of Black people and culture without acknowledging his own privilege as a white man. He takes Emira by surprise when he casually uses the n-word, believing himself to be so immersed into Black culture that he is exempt from being reprimanded for this. Emira doesn’t know whether to be “moderately appalled” or to let him get away with it.
Much like Alix, Kelley tries to sway Emira to make decisions that he claims are in her interest, like quitting her job or writing an op-ed about the incident in the store. Soon, a tug of war for Emira’s attention and affection between these two characters show that in the pursuit of their ‘wokeness’ they fail to grasp what Emira’s real priorities are. Instead, they see Emira as someone to wield their power and influence over, while simultaneously aligning themselves with her Blackness to enhance their own image.
There has been some criticism that the book focuses too much on this white pursuit of liberalism and that the story centres around whiteness, however when I read this book it became all too clear this story is one that could only be told by a Black or brown author. Its central analysis may be on the white characters, but it is very much told through the lens of a young black woman. As a non-white reader you often feel like you are in on a private joke. The book is littered with ‘Aha’ moments and it’s only in Reid’s exploration of white guilt that we are able to see our own experiences mirrored back to us.
Reid also explores Emira’s rich life outside of her relationships with her employer and boyfriend. It’s through her friendships with other women of colour that we get to see what really keeps Emira up at night. It’s not the incident in the store, that Kelley and Alix seem to fixate on, it’s the fact she’s getting kicked off her parents’ health plan and, like most 25 year olds, she doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. In these ways, it is so spot on about the experiences of young Black and brown women which is probably why the TV rights for the book were hastily picked up by Lena Waithe.
The wit and charm that comes in the telling of this story is completely compelling and that’s why it was no surprise to me that it has caught the attention of prestigious literary award panels – I’m sure this is just the start of Kiley Reid’s accolades.