Zadie Smith on Sacredness, Vodka Martinis, Finding Joy, & Stealing Titles
March 7, 2019
“Across her career of five award-winning novels and two essay collections,” Executive Director Ruth Dickey began while introducing Zadie Smith, “The joy for us as readers is Smith’s enormous, beautiful, incisive intellect that roams widely around – from art to music, to considering the idea of joy, to reviewing books, to exploring families, to unpacking the nuances of race and class, to investigating fame.”
And, in fact, Smith’s Literary Arts Series appearance on February 27 was marked by that same deep thinking and roving art-making found in works like White Teeth, On Beauty, and Feel Free. Smith was joined by Valerie Curtis-Newton, head of the University of Washington’s Drama department, for a conversation about everything from human sacredness, to vodka martinis, to finding joy and stealing titles.
Here are some of our favorite questions and answers from the evening (and here is a gallery of photos on Facebook):
Valerie Curtis-Newton: You’ve talked about the truth of revealing yourself through your writing, but also about the barrier between confidence and doubt.
Zadie Smith: I’m not very American because I think a lot about rhetoric, about making language function the way I want it to. I guess the American idea is that you’re really putting yourself on the page, that there’s this almost magic communication of yourself. The writers I admired as a child were people like Shakespeare, writers of many voices, and that’s a kind of rhetorical genius. Othello feels like a person, Hamlet feels like a person, and maybe there are shreds of Shakespeare in all those people, and it’s a kind of technique, a wonderful technique, which inspires me to want to do it. But it is, for me, formal. I write it, and then it’s in the reader’s hands.
Curtis-Newton: You’re teaching now, so do you encounter the idea that people write for approval, particularly in younger students?
Smith: I was teaching Graham Greene’s The Quiet American this week, which is about many things, but mainly about American colonialism, American exceptionalism, and the Indo-China War… What’s interesting when you teach it is the first-person voice is a character called Fowler, and at no point does he apply for the love of the reader, he’s not trying to get you to like him, and also he’s not quite Graham Greene. One of my younger students said, “I don’t understand, why would you ever write something down that doesn’t represent what you feel.” And I thought that was such a fascinating interpretation. It just wasn’t clear to her why anybody would express anything that wasn’t their intimate considered view. In that vision of fiction, it’s hard to write fiction. The whole purpose of fiction is a kind of multivalency; for me, the whole point of writing is to get outside myself. I’m inside my head all day long, so I’m looking for escape.
Curtis-Newton: This might be a controversial question, but people like to describe you as intelligent. How do you feel about that?
Smith: I was talking to my friend, the great Siddhartha Mukherjee, he really is intelligent—he’s a cancer doctor and a Pulitzer Prize winner and a genius all around. We were talking about… how mistakenly intelligence is measured. For example, I can’t add even the smallest of numbers, I can’t remember if the sun goes around the moon or how a plane flies, I don’t know anything! The forms of intelligence are so various that the kinds of measurements we use are so useless, for the most part. What’s far more interesting to me are people’s individual felicities: you can do something with your hands, you can sing, you have some musical ability, you’re an incredible organizer… I have a very narrow field: I read and I write. Luckily, in this culture, reading and writing amounts to a life.
Curtis-Newton: What are your spiritual philosophies?
Smith: That’s a big one. I suppose I do think that humans are sacred. And that their sacredness is very particular, that each person is sacred in their own way, and that that sacredness can never be revoked, no matter what they do.
Curtis-Newton: You write in a lot of ways that are open and intersectional; there are a lot of hyphenated identities in your writing.
Smith: I’m sure at a Freudian level, it goes back to the fact that my family is mixed at every level… But I’m just always curious about the adoption of and interest in other cultures. There was this amazing little video in the New York Times yesterday I watched about this small community in Tokyo obsessed with Chicano culture… They listen to Chicano music, they dress like Chicanos, they listen to Chicano rap. They’re Japanese, and most of them have never been to America—then they also record records which sound like West Coast rap. So, if there’s appropriation, it’s like fifteen different layers. I adore things like that. I adore people who have a fixation or a fascination with something that has literally nothing to do with them. I find it moving.
Curtis-Newton: You didn’t have a typical immigrant experience to America, but you had an immigrant experience. What was the biggest surprise to you about America, and what was the biggest disappointment?
Smith: The funny things for me when I first came, honestly, were things like when I was trying to get myself sorted and asked people, “Where’s the doctor’s?” Which, in an English context, just means, “Where is the doctor near to my house?” And people would be like, “Well, there’s this doctor, he’s amazing, and then there’s this doctor—” I’d be like, I don’t need to know the quality of the doctor, just tell me where the goddamn doctor is! And then you realize, oh, in America, that’s a real thing, that people feel like they understand medicine and have expertise. [Audience laughs]. Of course, it’s the same for schools… So, it was those kinds of things which took me a while to understand—that in America, the idea of choice is god. And I don’t come from that place. I come from the idea, or the hope anyway, in an equality of opportunity. Here, it was getting used to the idea that everything is for sale. Education, healthcare, everything.
Curtis-Newton: When you’re editing your own work, is there a space in your brain that goes from the generative head to the editor head?
Smith: Yes, and that’s where distance, if you have it, is helpful. If you read your work as if it’s very close to you, it’s very hard to edit it. I feel that all the time with students in workshop situations; they’ll be so violent with everyone else’s work, but delicate with their own, and that’s the wrong way around. It’s your work you need to be violent with, other people’s work is not the problem. Your work is the problem.
Curtis-Newton: What brings you joy? And how do we help others, through their talent, find their joy?
Smith: The thing which causes pain is when people’s natural abilities, be they ever so small, are not allowed full fruition. That’s really what people want. They want, as people say now, to be ‘seen,’ but to me, that means more importantly being recognized for what they have to offer. So, obviously, writing gives me joy; my children give me joy (they give me a sense of feeling useful—I don’t get to feel useful very often, I feel decorative a lot of the time); I love to sing, I love to dance, I love to drink… I know you’re not allowed to say that in America, but I do love to drink—I love martinis, that’s all I drink. [Audience laughs].
Curtis-Newton: I sort of know the answer to this question because I saw an interview with you and Nick Laird, your husband, but how did you end up with books with the same title, out at the same time?
Smith: Oh god, such a disaster. [Feel Free] was his title, and I just saw his manuscript around the house, and it was such a good title… [Audience laughs]. I said, ‘Oh, I like that title.’ And he said, ‘Okay, but it’s my title.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but…’ It kind of went back and forth like that for a while, and I have no excuse, I just… kind of… took it, and that’s what happened. [Audience laughs]. I think he’s okay with it now, and we’re all in a peaceful place.
Curtis-Newton: One writing tip that you wish someone would have given you when you started out?
Smith: The only advice that ever meant anything to me was to read, and read, and read more… But I guess the thing I now feel differently about is that living is important. I didn’t realize that when I was younger. I thought I was just going to sit at a desk, smoke cigarettes for 70 years, write books, and that was enough. I never traveled anywhere, I never did anything, I got less out of life than a slug in college. And I thought that was a reasonable way to live.