The fourth event in 2015’s Spring Literary Festival began with an introduction from UEA’s Philp Langeskov which summarised Ali Smith and her writing perfectly. An author who refuses to conform to genre and expectation, winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa novel of the year award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, she is someone who truly believes that, in her own words, ‘Everything, sooner or later, transforms into story’.
Ali Smith’s modesty was immediately apparent as she walked up to the microphone and expressed a sincere wish that she really was ‘all those things’. She then proceeded to do a reading from her latest novel How To Be Both. The novel is published in two reversible halves. Fifty percent of the copies were published beginning with one half, and the other fifty percent began with the other. Ali read from both halves, frequently provoking laughs from the audience and a hum of satisfaction and appreciation as she read the last sentence.
The talk then transformed into a chat show with Philip as the host and Ali as the guest, leaning back comfortably in her arm chair, but often sitting forward and waving her hands as she got excited and passionate about her answers. She revealed that the idea for the randomised reversible halves of her novel came from José Saramago’s The Stone Raft in which the narrator laments the fact that narrative must happen in sequence and can never happen all at once. Ali suggested her structural idea in an attempt to create simultaneity in narrative, to produce the illusion that her narrative was happening ‘all at once’.
She went on to talk about her discovery of the Renaissance painter Francesco Del Cosa, on whom she based one of the halves of her novel. Del Cosa was an artist whose existence was forgotten until the 1890s and even now very little is known about his life which allowed Ali to play with his existence and change him into the character in her novel. ‘I hope Francesco is okay with it,’ she said, ‘I did make him a woman.’
Ali Smith genuinely believes that the Renaissance was full of girls dressed as boys trying to achieve their dreams. How To Be Both explores this fluidity of gender and sexuality, not only through the character of Del Cosa, dressed as a boy to achieve her dream of becoming a painter, but through the character of George, a modern day school girl whose certainty in sexuality and gender evolves into openness throughout the novel in a very moving way. How To Be Both explores the reality of being both male and female, alive and dead, in the present and the past.
Her novel also deals with the evolution of technology and the dangers it carries with it. George’s discovery in the novel of violent pornography on her iPad, coupled with Ali’s pained expression as she talks about having to produce podcasts, might lead one to believe that Ali disapproves of technology. However, Ali disagreed with this conclusion, telling Philip that technology is merely another thing humans invented that can be used for both good and bad. ‘The mystery of being human,’ she said, ‘is only made bigger by technology’.
Ali Smith’s talk at UEA showed her to be a modest, funny, intelligent writer who is truly passionate about books and words. She left the audience with a feeling of possibility and potential and with the idea that ‘books are really alive’. It is easy to say that How To Be Both, with its reversible halves and beautiful story, really is alive.