When Black art is invited into the mainstream, it is often judged on its trauma value: how visceral its depictions of oppression are, how far it gropes into the well of racialised pain, how effectively it stirs rallying feelings of white saviour-dom in an audience.
“I see a lot of pressure placed on Black artists in the context of their art,” says author Kiley Reid, most well-known for her sharp, funny portrayal of domesticity, race and class in an American household in the Man Booker longlisted novel, Such a Fun Age. “I saw it a lot in the aftermath of the police brutality and murders that had happened in the States this year... The response from readers is often to say, 'oh my gosh, all of these things are happening. This is so awful. So, let me learn.' And they seek out Black art as a pedagogical tool. But that's not what Black art is. In writing Such a Fun Age, I never set out to educate people.”
But I'm obsessed with storytelling, and storytelling is always at the forefront of what I'm trying to do.
Reid is a storyteller and word-weaver, but she’s often called on to opine on contemporary, political issues. On Sunday, under the hallowed sails of the newly reopened Sydney Opera House, Reid will be giving a talk on “race, class and privilege” at Antidote Festival. Could you think of three bigger words? Especially in a world which seems to finally (albeit grudgingly) be reckoning with itself on questions of inequality?
Probably not, but Reid takes it all in her stride. “At the Sydney Opera House.... that’s me coming and ready to offer my thoughts as a human being, on race and privilege and class. But as a writer, I don't like when my writing is polemic. I think the expectation to pick up a Black piece of art and say, oh, this is going to teach me – that's lessening the value of the art,” she says. “I hope that my work can stand for itself.”
Maybe it's a good time to note, here, that Reid won’t physically be at the Opera House. She’ll be appearing via video-link from her home in the US, while presenter and comedian Jan Fran sits on stage and asks her questions while a socially distanced (but real-life!) audience watches on in the Concert Hall.
Fittingly, in a way, because technology plays a huge role in the stories that Reid tells, almost evolving into a character itself. The event which sets a host of others in motion at the start of Such a Fun Age is when Black babysitter Emira is accused of kidnapping her babysitting charge while they’re in a supermarket together. “There's Emira experiencing [the accusation]. There's someone else looking. And then there's like this third character, the cell phone, which seems like it should be telling the truth,” says Reid. “But it’s not, always.”
Throughout the novel, Reid explores the relationship between Emira and Alix, a white CEO and Emira’s employer, who becomes fixated on befriending Emira and pushing their relationship across ordinarily drawn employer-employee boundaries. Alix was born 'Alex', but now asks everyone to pronounce her name ‘A-leeks’, which is most of what you need to know about her character.
Throughout the book, truth shows a malleability to distortion by technology: be that through social media, misunderstood texts, or the deceptive joy of a highly curated Instagram feed.
When Reid and I speak, it’s been about a week since the election results came out in the US. Right after the Biden victory was announced, Reid saw her social media feeds flooded with stories of people cheering and parting in the streets. “You look at the internet, and you see a lot of neighbourhoods celebrating and throwing things and cheering. And then you look and you see it's very, very wealthy neighbourhoods.”
“I went on a long walk on Saturday when the results came up, and I went to neighbourhoods around where I live, where low-income people live. And there was no celebrating. It was no one feeling like, oh, these things are going to be better now. It was, oh, things are going to be the same.”
Money and the nuances of it are what has always interested Reid. Writing Such a Fun Age, she says, “allowed me to dive into the difference between income and wealth, and how cultural capital can sometimes be way more valuable than someone's income… and it doesn't always look like it's in the form of a paycheck.”
“If you’re seeing celebrities who own million-dollar-houses be excited... that's not good. That’s not a good sign. I will be very, very excited when other neighbourhoods, hopefully, one day, are cheering. That is the goal.”
Antidote Festival takes place at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, November 29. You can buy a ticket to the in-person event or digital tickets here.