Introductions: Zadie Smith
March 1, 2019
By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director
About Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, the Washington Post wrote, “The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises.” And, indeed, across her career of five award-winning novels and two essay collections, the joy for us all 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. Smith is the author of the celebrated novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, and two essay collections including the extraordinary 2018 Feel Free, which our own Mary Ann Gwinn called “acute, funny and blindingly intelligent.”
Smith’s books have been awarded the Orange Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize among numerous others, and she been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her essays appear regularly in The New Yorker and New York Review of Books. Spending time with Smith’s work gives the impression there is nothing she is not thinking about, and more, nothing she is not thinking deeply about, and making surprising connections around, which make me see the world differently.
In her essay “The I Who Is Not Me” in Feel Free, Smith writes, “I am aware, at least as a reader, that remarkable acts of art-making – bold, perverse, unbeholden, free – have had the side effect of changing the weather in a country, in a people, at a certain historical moment, and finally in me conferring freedoms for which I am now very grateful.”
I love this beautiful explanation of what art and writing can do, and it’s a perfect window into what Zadie Smith has done with her own writing – from her literary criticism to her tender exploration of love and aging to her portrait of Billie Holiday to her novels to essays exploring everything from Brexit to Justin Beiber.
Through incisive fiction and nonfiction, from third person narrators to first, from London to New York to Togo to the invented Wellington outside Boston, Smith gives us characters and worlds that are bold, fascinating and free, and she writes about them with clear-eyed and full-hearted exuberance and complexity. It’s this complexity and willingness to deeply consider, that is the greatest gift of Smith’s work. Please join me in welcoming the brilliant writer, wildly hungry thinker, and changer of weathers – in our world, and for so many of us in our hearts – Zadie Smith.
Zadie Smith was in conversation at Benaroya Hall on February 27, 2019, as part of our Literary Arts Series; SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey gave this introduction.