Zadie Smith at Manchester Literature Festival

If I were to create a list of literary fiction writers I admire Zadie Smith would be up there in the ‘gods’ section. It’s not just her writing – which is wonderful – but her intellect and her dress sense (see Smith’s comments later in this piece) which combine to make her a fascinating figure. I went to see her at Manchester Library as a ‘Bookend’ event hosted by Manchester Literature Festival. The interview was conducted by Katie Popperwell.

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Popperwell begins by asking Smith about living between NYC and London. She says that writers think of themselves as having no roots. There’s a delusion amongst writers that they’d be fine in prison as you think you’d only need books and your work. Having children reminds you you’re not independent, she says.

Smith thinks NYC creates nostalgia for her. She says she’s become one of those sentimental English people like Sting and mentions D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce – the further they travelled the more they wrote about home. Going backwards and forwards is a shock. She remembers the first time being back in London after an extended period in NYC and seeing an Evening Standard headline mentioning The Duke of York. That was a culture shock: is he going up the hill?

The discussion moves to Swing Time. Smith says she regrets writing about dancing because it’s taking something joyful and intellectualising it. It was a part of her life that she’d compartmentalised. Dancing is central to her family. She describes her immediate family and Jamaican relatives getting very low on the dance floor at parties. She talks about going on dates when she was younger and how it can be a terrible shock when a date leads to a dancefloor. ‘Something’s being revealed when people dance and that’s what I like about them.’ She thinks you see something of a person’s spirit in dancing and it’s the same in writing. She separates writing from the writer’s personality though. She says it’s true and not true that they’re the same thing. She uses Colm Toíbín as an example: there’s a stately elegance in his writing but he’s like a stand-up on stage!

‘Loving something that’s awful is complicated,’ she says on her deep passion for musicals. She reveals that she watched them as a child because it gave her a connection to her father’s childhood. She also comments on what it was like to watch television as a black kid in the ’70s and ’80s, trying to be part of the country. She says her family would be watching a comedy and half way through there would be a joke about blackness. They’d separate it from their viewing because ‘you were always looking for a black or brown face’ on television. This is another of the reasons why Smith used to watch old films, ‘There were many more people like me in them. Even if it was problematic.’

Popperwell asks about recent world events, focusing on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. ‘It’s an amazing time to be publicising a book about tap dancing,’ Smith deadpans. Her U.S. book tour began the day after the election and she describes herself as being more like a therapist during it. She says, however, that Swing Time is a book about tribes and it was clear ‘the world was getting more tribalistic’ as she was writing it. She says there’s a sense of inevitability in Britain and France in terms of the rise of the far right. Possibly also soon to happen in France, Austria and Germany ‘if we’re really unlucky’.

With regards to the role of the writer during times like these, Smith says ‘pompous, pious things’ have been said about that role. However, she sees it as a ‘comic opportunity to wind a single man up so easily. Bait him all the way to impeachment’. She finds this ‘quite an optimistic thing’, commenting on his lack of control and the way he’s already in a fury.

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Smith’s interested in the idea that people have capacities within them which create abilities that they can’t fully express. She says she’s only interested in economics in terms of the great swathes of people who find their abilities ‘cast aside and forgotten’. She works backwards to find the political and social structures preventing her characters from fully expressing themselves. In this she includes domestic talents such as cooking, baking and making things. People are separated from these capacities of making dinner and making clothes, she says. They’ve been removed in the name of capitalism. Many people don’t want to know who made their clothes. We now have ‘nations employed under other nations’. She says doing these things ourselves might bring us pleasure and self-esteem but they’ve been replaced by free-moving global capital which doesn’t seem to make people happy.

The discussion moves on to people who have mastery over many areas of their lives. ‘What do they deserve because of that? Do they get to have everything?’ Smith talks about the character Aimee in Swing Time saying she doesn’t think she’s ‘a bad character. She makes errors’ but she puts money and time into her project. Her problem is that she has to have some idea of what a better life would be. She’s trying to export her idea without changing it to suit the culture she’s taking it to. ‘The good life’ looks different in different places. Smith says ‘Is your life meaningful?’ might be a more important question than are you happy. She says gratitude, a certain amount of pain and melancholy are all valuable feelings. She says melancholy’s become depression which has to be treated immediately. She describes ‘endless happiness’ as ‘a lot of effort’.

Popperwell asks about writing in first person and the unnamed narrator of Swing Time. Smith says she doesn’t feel ‘the force of I’. She wanted to think about how people affect us. ‘You’re not anybody apart from the actions you have done’, that’s what defines you in people’s minds. ‘Anything else is a decorative attempt by you.’ She says she ‘resists the ides that [the political identity] is the whole truth of human identity’. She’s interested in what used to be called the soul ‘but not has no language which cannot be ridiculed’ now.

Race is the next topic, which is described as a biological idea which doesn’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean ‘it can’t be a joy and a place of interest’ says Smith. She cites the playfulness of her mother going to Ascot in a hat and long dress with her hair styled in dreds. She says there’s ambiguity in the way people look within her own family and she’s ‘aware of us not being in control’ of other people’s interpretations of their identity. She describes it as both an annoyance but also a joy and a source of humour. She’s been mistaken many times for different roles.

The difference between race in England and race in America is that in England you’re told ‘don’t go on about it’ while in America there’s a freedom to go on about it. ‘Blackness in America is culturally constructed.’ The ‘one drop rule’ which underpinned slavery ‘has become naturalised as a state’ so there’s a huge group who identify as ‘non-white’, including women who were part of the Black Panther movement who Smith describes as paler than her but who are very certain of their identity. She says there’s a certain relief in being able to openly discuss race.

Popperwell mentions the amount of discussion around clothes in the novel. ‘I like clothes,’ says Smith. No matter how poor an area you’re in, the ability of women to construct themselves from clothes is never taken from them. Women perform in the way they dress even in the most straitened circumstances. She talks about the idea that ‘silly women get dressed’, describing her own outfit as her ‘serious’ reading outfit, then goes on to talk about the female academics she sees at work [Smith teaches at New York University] who dress seriously for important lectures. The men know they’ll be taken seriously regardless, she says. She likes the idea that women can tell a story about themselves when they leave the house and we need to make a point not to denigrate it to our daughters.

Smith reveals she doesn’t have a smartphone. ‘I guess I’m living in that sublime [kidlike world] all the time. The difference is now I’m alone.’ She sometimes finds a connection with very old people who are also walking around looking at their surroundings. She jokes that she could rob everyone in an airport departure lounge as none of them are paying attention to what’s going on around them. She imagines that at some point young people will say ‘fuck this’, although she describes how soothing television is for children. ‘Something about a screen is different. Something narcotic. It’s about people deciding which pill they wanted to take.’

They discuss the recently televised version of Smith’s fourth novel NW. Smith says she cried watching Felix. The actor was different to her vision of him, so he felt like a real person. She was shocked by the brutality of it. ‘I ended up writing all kinds of things I never would have imagined’ she says.

She thinks musicals are creeping back in because the economy’s in the dumps. She talks about the Dennis Potter series being significant when she was a child and that she’s considering Swing Time as a musical having seen people tolerating the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Questions are opened to the audience. Two strike me as particularly interesting. The first questioner cites the article Smith recently wrote about dancing for The Guardian and asks if she could learn a single dance by either Beyoncé, Janet Jackson or Madonna, which would it be. Smith plumps for Single Ladies in which ‘everything seems to be moving backwards. Beyoncé ‘has an odd way about her’, she says. As a child she loved Vogue but thinks that would be a much easier routine to master.

The other is about state of the nation novels. Smith says ‘even our big novels like Middlemarch are obsessively local and weird’ and that she thinks the interesting things being written in America aren’t the big American novels but work by Ottessa Moshfegh, Alexandra Kleeman and Rivka Galchen.

Susan Barker at Manchester Literature Festival

In 2014, Doubleday published Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations. Set in contemporary Beijing but spanning 1000 years of Chinese history, it’s an inventive, intelligent, engrossing novel. It went on to win a Jerwood Fiction Prize in 2015 and to garner rave reviews in the broadsheets both in the UK and the USA.

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On the second day of Manchester Literature Festival 2016, I’m in the International Anthony Burgess Centre to see a sold out talk by Barker about her writing of the novel. She begins by telling us that it’s about the six lives of the taxi driver Wang Jun, one in Beijing in 2008, where he’s a taxi driver and five across the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War and the Cultural Revolution.

Barker says she had two strategies when researching the novel. The first was for the historical sections which were largely text based, although she did visit sites of historical interest too. The second, for the contemporary sections, in which she wanted to show the rapid societal and economic changes that had taken place in Beijing, she took an artists’ residency in the city in 2007 and ended up staying for five years.

While she lived in the city, the idea of the narrator’s occupation came from a conversation Barker had with some taxi drivers on a cigarette break in December 2007. She talked to them, practising her ‘bad Chinese’ and decided that a taxi driver would give the reader ‘a panoramic view of the city’ and allow Beijing to have a central presence in the novel.

She lived in a flat that had previously belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture and housed some of its workers. This is the flat in which Wang lives during the novel. As Barker moved to Beijing as the city was gearing up for the Olympics, the atmosphere at the time ‘swept its way into the book’. This atmosphere took several forms: renovation, celebration and surveillance. She tells us of building supervisors carrying out checks on people’s papers and of the government cleaning the streets of the homeless and the mentally ill whom they detained for the duration of the Olympics.

Barker began by reading books that gave broad overviews of Chinese history and then carried out further research into those most interesting to her. She wasn’t sure how she was going to structure the novel until she came up with the idea of reincarnation and the epistolian nature of the book. This meant that the structure would link past to present; Barker also liked the idea of human nature repeating/history reoccurring and this became one of the central themes.

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We’re then treated to a bit of a history lesson as Barker takes us through the settings of the five letters in the novel. The first is set in the Tang Dynasty which, she says, was comparatively open and cosmopolitan compared to some of periods of Chinese rule. This period produced some of Barker’s favourite cultural highlights. The story written with this period as the backdrop is during the rule of Tang Taizong, the 2nd Emperor of the dynasty. He was entertained by courtesans who would sing, dance, recite poetry and be witty conversationalists. Only eunuchs were permitted to serve the emperor to ensure purity of the imperial lineage. Barker was interested in the psychological effects of castration: some men found it purifying, others distressing, so she explored this in the story set in this period.

The second is the Jin Dynasty, 1215, during the invasion of Genghis Khan into north China. The Siege of Zhangdu was his most ambitious. 70,000 horseback warriors surrounded the city until one million inhabitants began to starve and turned to cannibalism. When the city fell, the Mongols went through systematically and raised it to the ground. The only people who survived were people with skills. The story told in The Incarnations is about two people who lie that they have skills but, Barker tells us that Genghis Khan is ‘very much the beating heart of the story’. She was interested in what it was like to be a powerless individual swept up by this historical force.

Emperor Jiajing, the most sadistic of the Ming Dynasty – ‘Which is quite impressive!’ –  is the ruler during the time in which the third story takes place. Jiajing was mostly interested in his own mortality. He had a harem of 200 concubines and it was rumoured he’d tortured and murdered some of them. In October 1542, sixteen concubines plotted to kill him. ‘In a sense they were the most powerful women in China’, Barker says, but they were also prisoners who took their fate into their own hands. The story follows the women as they carry out their plot.

The fourth story takes place in Canton, the city now known as Guangzhou, during the Opium Wars. Barker includes the Tankas, a group who live on junks and have their own subculture and the British. She explores the psychological climate: the Chinese and British attitudes to each other. There were deeply ingrained racial prejudices that were very difficult to overcome, she says.

The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls in the People’s Republic of China is the setting for the fifth story. Barker was interested in class at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the way in which it began with education with schools being given the freedom to persecute teachers. She read Colin Febron’s Behind the Wall which was written in the 1980s not long after the Cultural Revolution ended. In it he describes the revolution as ‘The collective madness as of an entire nation’. Barker thinks this assessment is harsh but she is interested in how loyalty to Mao Zedong overrode rationality. She’s interested in what it was like to live in a totalitarian society so the story takes place from the interior view of someone who’s being brainwashed.

The themes of the novel are power and power struggles. This is both between individuals in their relationships and between the state – the minority who rule – and the people – the majority who are subjugated. Barker’s interested in how these reoccurs generation after generation. States of peace and stability are always precarious, she says. The contemporary section of the book is set during the most stable time but Wang Jun is disengaged and passive. He’s not interested in wealth and gaining status through it. Instead he’s seduced by the letters left in his taxi and the idea of someone loving him so passionately. The relationship between the taxi driver and the anonymous letter writer is ‘the final power struggle of the book’.

‘I’ll do anything once.’ Margaret Atwood at Manchester Literature Festival

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Manchester as I weave my way through teems of shoppers. Thankfully my destination’s the more tranquil Royal Exchange Theatre where Erica Wagner is interviewing Margaret Atwood as a precursor to the two-week Manchester Literature Festival.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the festival and in the introductory remarks, Cathy Bolton, co-director of the festival, shows us the programme with a picture of a 10-year-old Margaret Atwood on the front. And this is where the discussion with Wagner begins…

Wagner asks where the curls are now that Atwood sports in the photograph. She replies, ‘In my sister’s cellar.’ She says that she wanted to get them cut but this met with parental resistance. Her mum used to create them by curling them around her finger but, when her mum went into hospital to have Atwood’s younger sister, her dad’s fingers proved too thick for the job. Atwood went to the hairdressers. The curls were saved though and ended up in her sister’s cellar when Atwood refused to have them in her own home. There’s been some discussion of making them into Victorian hair jewellery but traditionally this was done following someone’s death. ‘No yet! No yet!’ says Atwood.

She goes on to talk about how the latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, came about. Atwood says she was working with editor, Amy Grace Lloyd, who’s worked for the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Playboy. (She’s also a novelist. Atwood tells us that Lloyd’s book The Affairs of Others did well in France because it has ‘widows and sex in conjunction’.) Atwood used to write long form pieces for Playboy when Lloyd was there but when the magazine decided it wanted ‘no more hifalutin stuff’ and ‘confined itself to the basics’, Lloyd started a site called Byliner on which to publish long essays and fiction. She lured Atwood in by saying Amy Tan had done something for it. She says she wanted to do a continuous story, a serialisation, because she’s always admired Charles Dickens. She did four parts and then her book editor got wind of it and wanted it to become a book. Of course, this meant changes. She had to take the reminders as to what happened in the previous episode out; the embedded back-story was removed and put at the front in chronological order, and Stan was rescued. At the end of part four, he was a sex robot, dressed as Elvis Presley, being shipped to Las Vegas in a box. You can have Elvis in any form in Las Vegas, she tells us. ‘They’re thick on the ground.’ She then reads an extract from the novel where Stan is putting on his Elvis costume.

After the reading, Wagner asks about one of the conceits of the novel – the private prison. ‘It’s not a conceit,’ says Atwood. They discuss people making money from prisons. Atwood sites a number of examples including a prison in Alabama that’s discussed in an article on The Atlantic website which uses “pay-only” probation. The American constitution outlawed slavery but not for prisoners, she says. [‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’] She also tells us that when prisoners were being transported to Australia there were far more men than women so, to keep the men happy, they lowered the tariff for sending women to the colonies. Once you’ve a quota it has to be filled.

Wagner asks her if she has a sense of when she wants to focus on a subject. Atwood says it’s usually due to ignorance. She then goes on to talk about The Heart Goes Last. She says the scheme in the novel seems utopian on the surface: the volunteers spend a month in prison, followed by a month out, swapping places with other civilians. When in prison, they alternate between being prisoners and guards. People are keen to do this because there’s a lack of jobs and they’re living in their cars. There are two problems, the first is that the real criminals were released because they were too disruptive, they now roam the streets in lawless gangs, and the second is that we don’t know what will happen when people get old.

Atwood refers to the recent film 99 Homes in which people are evicted for not paying their mortgage. Atwood has a television programme in the novel called The Home Front in which evicted people are interviewed. The audience vote on people’s stories and whoever’s told the ‘woeist’ tale wins money. Atwood’s protagonists don’t think of trying this, ‘The odds are low anyway that you’ll ever win anything.’

Wagner asks about Consilience, the name of the town in the novel. Atwood defines the word as the way biological forms in nature interact, using eating and being eaten as an example. Wagner also points out that at the front of the novel, it’s divided into cons + resilience. They also discuss Positron, the name of the prison project. Atwood says it’s a subatomic particle but Isaac Asimov also used it in I, Robot. It means that robots can’t cause harm to humans.

This is followed by a discussion about sex robots. Atwood says that Taiwanese banks have just introduced a robot greeter that can read human emotions. A limited number of these were put on sale for private use and sold out in one minute. The brochure that comes with them says they can’t be used for sex or improper behaviour. Atwood adopts a generic robot-sounding voice, ‘Do not come close to me. I can see what you’re thinking. Get your hands off me.’ Apparently the Japanese have invented a robot that gets goosebumps.

Wagner follows this up by mentioning a young woman at Cheltenham Literature Festival who asked about how far we’d come since The Handmaid’s Tale was written. She asks if Atwood’s surprised at the developments. No, she says. She doesn’t use anything in her novels that hasn’t been done, used or we have the technology for. She says humans are driven by desires and fears and those are limited in number. If you want to find out more about them, go back to mythology and fairy tales. She talks about the cloak of invisibility, about being able to produce endless amounts of food and not having to clear up afterwards, about desiring interesting and endless sexual partners whilst expecting our spouses to remain loyal to us at all times.

She mentions the epigraphs in The Heart Goes Last. There are three. The first from Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’, the third from A Midsummer Night’s Dream which she says relates to her protagonists Stan and Charmaine meeting their alternates, lost in the dark, falling in love with the wrong people, and the second is from a blog called ‘I had sex with furniture’. Someone has manufactured a sofa with an aperture in it so a man could have sex with it and the blogger did so, so ‘you didn’t have to’. ‘Who thought it would be a good idea?’ she says. ‘Who thought I can sell that? Would you have that in your living room?’

Before they take questions from the audience, Wagner tells us that Atwood has an essay in the New Statesman next Friday about a book they both admire called A Story as Sharp as a Knife. She asks Atwood to tell us about it. ‘Once upon a time, a long, long time ago,’ she begins. There was a group of islands called Haida Gwaii off the coast of Canada. There the Haida people lived in solitude until someone discovered them and brought diseases amongst them. All but 100 of the Haida people were wiped out. Amongst those left were two epic poets in the tradition of Virgil and Homer. An anthropologist, with the help of a translator, wrote all the poetry down, after which it ‘slept in the library for 100 years’. There it was discovered by polymath, Robert Bringhurst, who realised it was poetry not primitive folklore. He taught himself Haida and this, along with the poetry, is the story told in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Atwood describes it as ‘an extraordinary accomplishment’.

The first audience question concerns Atwood’s unreliable narrators and why she’s drawn to them. The Blind Assassin is mentioned as an example. Atwood says, ‘She doesn’t actually lie. She just doesn’t tell the whole truth.’ It’s the same in Alias Grace. She says there are two different versions of Alias Grace’s story written down, she must have been lying in one of them, but she couldn’t find enough information to confirm whether she had murdered or not. She mentions an Agatha Christie novel in which it is revealed that the narrator is the murderer. She says people didn’t like this but there’s no rule that people can’t lie. ‘I don’t think any of my narrators have been unreliable to the point of Agatha Christie’s murdering narrator. They haven’t been Iago.’

Another audience member mentions the narrator in Surfacing. Atwood says that holding things back is not the same as a barefaced lie. ‘It’s something that people do. You know what you know but not everyone you know knows what you know.’

The next question is about Edward Said’s Orientalism and the quotation ‘There is never only one, of anyone’ from Cat’s Eye and whether there’s a link between the two. Atwood says that’s ‘A little out of my ball park’. She stopped being an academic with any degree of depth in 1970/71. When she was writing her PhD thesis, she got a call from England from Oscar Lewenstein saying he wanted to make a film of The Edible Woman. Atwood replied, ‘Who is this really?’ She says she became an academic because she thought she’d need a day job, she didn’t expect to become a best seller straight away, but was decoyed by the world of film. She wanted to go to France, live in a garret, drink absinthe, become an existentialist and get tuberculosis.

The final question is with regards to Atwood’s relationship with feminism. It’s too old for her to have invented it, she says! She tells us that when she’s writing she puts the birthday of the character in the margin so she can create a timeline showing how old they are when world events took place. She proceeds to do the same for herself and key points in the feminist movement. She says the second wave was good for any women writing anything because they had an audience. The Edible Woman garnered two types of reviews, either ‘This is a young writer she’ll grow up later’ or ones that recognised she was in tune with the second wave of feminism. She’s followed feminist conversations with great interest. She describes a period in the 1980s and ‘90s as ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ but says the current focus is on violence against women and gender identity. At this point she stops and says, ‘What was the question?’ Wagner reminds her and she says, ‘Women are human beings.’ They’re just over half of the population. ‘It’s pretty much impossible to write a novel without a woman in it unless it’s Moby Dick.’ She thinks that some of the strongest support for women has come from men because ‘they can get away with it without being yelled at, screamed at, getting death threats’. She cites The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an example. If a woman had written that she’d have been called the most ferocious man-hater. ‘Still,’ says Wagner. ‘Still?’ replies Atwood. ‘It’s getting worse.’

If you’re an Atwood fan and you’ve yet to get your hands on a copy of the recently published in paperback short story collection Stone Mattress, check in tomorrow when I’ll have a competition just for you, courtesy of Virago Books.