BY SHELL LIN '17
World prominent novelist Zadie Smith spoke at Amherst College on March 3 as part of its LitFest 2017, attracting audiences of all ages from the Pioneer Valley and filling the two-story Johnson Chapel. Smith, a biracial British writer, author of “White Teeth” and contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, joined The Common literary magazine’s editor-in-chief Jen Acker for a conversation followed by a book signing.
After a lengthy opening address saluting the literary, cultural and political significance of Smith’s work, Smith walked onto the stage in black business shirt, jeans and her iconic red headscarf. Standing firmly before the lectern, she addressed the audience in her contralto British-accented voice and began to read a chapter from her new book “Swing Time.”
“Swing Time,” released in November 2016, is an account of the relationship be- tween two biracial girls, in whom lurk the racial identity of Smith herself. The story, set in London and West Africa, spans from 1982 to the 2010s. As introduced by the host Jen Acker, the book “meditates on [the] vicissitude of friendship and family relations, the mesmerizing beauty of dance and film and music and the messy ways humans negotiate thresholds of similarity and difference across time and space.”
After the reading, Smith and Acker settled down on two teal-blue sofas at the center of the stage. Her ankle on her knee, microphone pointing at her cheek, Smith acquired an air of rock-star casualness.
For the first question, Acker asked Smith what interested her in writing about friendship. “It’s more about things that don’t interest me,” Smith answered, “I’ve never been interested in romance. The relations that interest me are the ones that you don’t choose.” Smith noted the inevitability and inextricability of friendship and family relations, which inflict an forceful influence on people but which is often underestimated.
Another reason for Smith is pure writer’s curiosity. “I don’t have close friends, colleagues or people I see everyday. I have my husband and that’s it. I’m curious what it’s like to have a different kind of life.”
For Smith, curiosity is still too mild a word to describe the writer’s craving for the unknown. To represent truthfully the life of the 1980s in her book, Smith incessantly asked her older friends of the time when they were young, digging up every detail until she found herself struck and amused by the clear contrasts between then and now. “It’s the energy of voyeurism,” she concluded. “You really want to know.”
However, to Smith, fiction writing not only means accumulating ostensible facts, but presenting one’s deeper reality in one’s own terms. Through an anecdote, Smith illustrated the shocking gap that can exist between people’s perceptions of the same thing. Once when waiting in a line in a café near New York University, she overheard a conversation between an African American woman and a Latina woman. One said: “Did you see that baby in the street with an iPad in the buggy?” Smith thought to herself: “Screen time. It’s terrible.” Then the other answered: “I know, it’s $800!”
Smith always consciously battles cultural presumptions and clichés in presenting her minority characters. One of her solutions is seeing them as human beings whose racial identity only comprises part of their complex lives, rather than as tools whose experience can be exaggerated and utilized for utilitarian political means.
“I used to love [Charles Dickens] as a child, but as I grew older, [I found] his characters become specimens of concern — tragic prostitutes, sad orphans — they didn’t really get a chance to get out of the narrative they are trapped within,” Smith said, “This is something I’m always anxious about. I try to find a place that is flexible enough to contain all kinds of people without offering them up as demonstration. It’s possible. It’s just really difficult.”
Smith’s reflections about minority presentations originate from her own experience growing up as a mixed-race child in England, her father a white Briton and her mother a black Jamaican. Caught in the junction of two cultures and belonging to neither, she grew up finding it hard to be understood. “I feel like I have to explain myself or read all the works of Shakespeare — I did all that, didn’t make any difference,” she said, “You get tired of trying to get their approval. I really feel I don’t want it anymore.”
Smith’s psychological journey is reflected in her constantly inserting flash- backs in the chronological narrative — offering the characters’ childhood experience to justify their current behaviors. When writing, Smith always challenges readers’ assumptions about her characters only to topple these empty stereotypes with solid background supplements, a decision which she later found to be overambitious. “I had this dream it’s going to be 110 pages, straight, short, so beautiful. And it became this massive, incredibly depressed, trying-to-get-rid-of book,” she said self-deprecatingly.
Besides her play with time order, Smith also experiments with the first person narrative by defining her narrator not as an independent individual but as an attachment to her best friend. The reason for doing so, Smith said, is rooted in the idea “I am no one.” In contrast to the emphasis on individualism in Western culture, which believes who we are determines what we do, Smith discards the self-imposed importance of a person, believing what we do shapes who we are.
“I’m interested in having an existential narrator who’s just a guy, who falls into there,” Smith said, “She finds out who she is by the things she does. It’s a completely different way of being in this world. I think it’s more honest. Your life teaches you who you are.”
While she doggedly pursues an inner reality in her minority characters, Smith refuses to define her representation of the minority as authentic. “Authenticity seems only to be attached to people like me: Is it the right kind of food they’re eating, is it the kind of clothes they are wear- ing?” she said. “I find it slightly distractive to generalize authenticity and experience. I just thought, why these questions are never presented to white people in the same way?”
Smith’s comment was met enthusiastically by Rebecca Pittel ’17, who, having already attended two of Smith’s talks this year, considers herself a Zadie Smith groupie. “She seems not to take anything for granted, and some social necessities that I thought were normal, she destabilizes them,” Pittel said, referring to Smith’s questioning whites’ double standard of authenticity, “Once she says it, you realize she’s so profoundly right about the way in which our society, our expectations of art operate.”
Aside from adoring Smith’s novels, Pittel also admitted to be influenced by her short opinion-based articles. For example, “Dead Man Laughing” in the New Yorker gave her a new way of watching comic shows: “I recognized the ways in which they were fitting into larger complex social patterns whereas I had just laughed before,” she said. “She also brought me great clarity about Brexit this summer in the same way she made me understand the Trump election. She’s just so clear about complexity.”
Smith never shuns away from the chaos in America’s political scene; instead, she greets it with wit and humor. In the Q&A section, she unfolded a note from the basket of readers’ questions, and read: “We just had a US president who is a writer and reader, we now have one who’s neither. What would you advise him to read?”
“Just think of him as a human,” she said, “I think it must be disastrous to that person, inside.” Smith mentioned a photo in which childhood Donald Trump stood with his father looking at some buildings, pointing out the brutality of the father and the hobbling effort of the child to please. “I feel for him — I know it’s not right to do that in this situation — but just as a human I feel for him. He’s lost, so far away from being a human.”