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.
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.
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.