The event with Zadie Smith was the first John Adams event after the election, so Joost de Vries started out the interview asking Smith where she was the night of the election. She’d been at home and went to bed before the results were even made official. ‘We should have known’, she said. ‘People in the know, like me, should have known.’ Smith links it to the pill, which was a revolutionary change for the position of women in history. Men might not have gotten over that shock just yet. Her husband has been saying that they should run away and Smith jokes about this, but says that she admires people who feel the need to fight.
Joost asked Smith what the importance of literature is in turbulent times. She laughed and said that she always doubts the importance of it, not just in times of an incipient apocalypse. Smith thinks that there’s a limit to writing pretty sentences, but that journalists definitely do have a responsibility. After the second World War, British writing turned more political and even though she doesn’t think of herself as a political writer by nature, certain times can push you to write things you never thought you would.
Smith lives in the US, but was born in the UK. She feels very at home in America, especially with the more engaged literary tradition that. Smith doesn’t have a lot of affinity with British writing and the authors she does like are often seen as anomalies, like Mohsin Hamid, who’s new novel she read recently and absolutely loved. That’s the kind of writing she gets excited about, which is never seen as typically British. ‘We do make good cakes though’, she said as an afterthought.
Joost moved on to Swing Time and asked where the novel started. Smith tried to look at what was right in front of her and saw an undeniable connection between black people, the diaspora and dance. She wanted to write about something she loves, because she can’t write in long stretches at a time because she has small children. So she needed to feel very passionate about the subject she was going to write about.
Her previous novel NW was much more experimental than Swing Time. Smith said that her writing is about a specific type of sentence she’s attracted to. For Swing Time she wanted to write about existential dread with a main character that’s almost not there. She doesn’t want to write comforting stories where the reader can relate to the characters, that’s never been the purpose of her writing. Instead she wants to be someone else, so you’re no longer thinking about yourself.
Eight years ago Smith wrote an essay in which she stated that she was bored with literature. She now apologizes if she was mean in it, but does say that there’s so much variety in literature right now that it all feels much more exciting. When she was growing up, there was maybe one novel on the diaspora, but if she would growing up in this time she’d be very happy with everything that’s happening in fiction.
Smith tries not to read any criticism of her own work, but laughs and says that she usually ends up reading all of it. She does have thick skin and actually thinks a lot of it is funny now. She’s noticed that a lot of white (young) men talk to her in criticism and that in their pieces she never has a last name. She wonders if maybe she invites this herself, comes across as vulnerable, but she really isn’t in need of advice. I loved that she stated this during the evening, maybe a little to the embarrassment of the interviewer, who often tried to interrupt her while talking. But Smith never let herself be interrupted, always finished her train of thought, because what she has to say is definitely worth listening to.
The audience was very engaged the entire evening and the room was full of people who wanted to ask Smith questions. Yara from The Narratologist asked Smith about the idea of clothing as drag, as she describes it in NW. Smith answers that she does think of clothes as protection or drag. As a teenager she wasn’t very feminine, but has really come to like clothes now. It has a performance aspect to it and changes the way you act and move. She likes to scare people when she gets dressed and prefers to dress in such a way so that no one even dares talk to her. The idea of drag is less oppressive to her now and more enjoyable, but she does admit that when she was younger she loved to corner girls to force them to admit that they were oppressed by the patriarchy for shaving their legs. But she now sees that women actually do take pleasure and get power from dressing.
The final question came from a woman who asked her if it was possible to keep the political out of writing. She herself is a writer and comes from Pakistan and found it difficult not to write about political things even though she prefers to write about characters instead. Smith’s response to this was great and maybe even telling for the kind of person she is. She first said that Mohsin has the answer. He’s a very romantic writer who loves to write about social life, but manages to be political and intimate at the same time. To do both is going to take a lot of work, but if you manage, it’s going to be wonderful. She said that some people are born in the wrong historical moment, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from the challenge. Maybe you should deform yourself, to see if you can manage writing about both. At least it will be interesting and creative.
I’m reading Swing Time right now and I’m absolutely enjoying the novel. During the signing I asked Smith what book she’d recommend for our book club to read and after checking if our book club was mostly women, she recommended You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. I told her we’d already read it, but that I thought it was an amazing novel, so I do think it’s safe to say that Zadie Smith approves of our book club. This was again a great evening at John Adams with thoughtful conversation, a good interview and a great author. Special thanks to John Adams for organizing this event and giving us a chance to write about it.
Pictures by Gerrit Serné