The light in Zadie Smith

In recent years, Zadie Smith has become something of a fashion icon. It’s a fate that’s arrived, for better or worse, at a number of our greatest female authors, from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion. Smith currently looks out at us from the cover of The Gentlewoman magazine, and at a number of booksellers purchases of her long anticipated new novel, Swing Time, are accompanied by a stylish matching tote bag. The commodification of Zadie Smith, however, is no great surprise; when a person seems to live their life so deliberately, yet with such openness to the world around them, it’s little wonder the rest of us would want to claim some part of that for ourselves.

On a harsh November Tuesday in Cambridge, a sold-out audience filed into Lady Mitchell Hall to do just that, settling in to hear Smith discuss her new novel over the course of a conversation that alighted at such topics as female friendship, Michael Jackson, and why in such troubling political times it’s imperative that writers, even those who have been apolitical in the past, “continually express shock.”

Her interviewer, Tom Gatti, was initially vexing, asking questions of his subject that followers of her recent press tour had already seen posed to her a number of times. Interrogations like “What’s your take on the appropriation debate?” felt a little obtuse, and Smith’s initial responses (“Whenever I’m asked that question…”, “I’ve talked about this a lot recently…”) seemed like winks to the audience. However, Gatti’s focus on her recent media appearances eventually proved its merit; his mention of her recent Guardian feature, ‘What Beyonce Taught Me’ led to one of the greatest laughs of the evening, when Smith informed the audience that the title had actually been ‘Dance Lessons for Writers’ before the newspaper opted for something more catchy.

Something happens to a room when Zadie Smith begins a thought. It’s hard to describe in a word, but if one existed for the moment when hundreds of people slow their breathing, prick up their ears and lean inwards, it would apply here. Most of the time, Gatti was as enraptured as the rest of the audience, happily taking a backseat as Smith described how Michael Jackson’s skin transition “taught a generation of black children about denial”, as they watched their hero leave them behind.

Smith’s response to the question of appropriation and identity politics was optimistic, if a little evasive; for her, identity is “an act of commitment and love – it’s not naturally with you. You may be born in Britain, but you choose to be British.” Yet there was a melancholy to her assessment of the way our identities are formed today. Throughout her life, Smith described, she’s become herself by reviewing her recent actions, then gaining insights about her character from them. These days, Smith fears that the young people she teaches are going about this process in reverse order; choosing who they want to be before they’ve become that person, presenting an image of themselves on social media then working to fit into the mould they’ve cast for themselves.

Swing Time, Smith’s fifth novel, has been hailed as the finest example yet of the author’s eye for observations like these. The story pursues the friendship of two girls who meet as children in a dance class, prompting a question from Gatti about what distinguishes female friendships from male ones. In response, Smith addressed a misconception people often apply to female friendships: that they are characterised by envy. For Smith, what some might lazily point to as envy is actually a feat of “radical imagination” – when a girl imagines herself in a friend’s life (by no means, I can confirm, a uniquely female trait) this is evidence not of jealousy but of a “joy of inquisition” that “clearly can have toxic elements, but is also an extraordinary fictional instinct.”

I first came across Smith’s writing via her journalism. If James Salter wears the olive wreath for the ability to “break your heart with a sentence” of fiction, the same award for non-fiction is surely Smith’s for the taking. Her March 2016 review of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa for the New York Review of Books was less a review of the film than a review of the day she watched it, the people, books and places that occupied her life for those hours, and includes such exquisite questions as ‘if hotel rooms exist to anticipate desire, to meet and fulfill all our needs, why do we so often feel despair in them? Is the fulfillment of the desire itself the despair?’

It’s this ability to observe and interrogate the space around her that Smith’s readers have always appreciated. In the same essay, the writer cites ‘the boredom of our own needs’ as the reason we so complicate our lives. Once our basic needs (health, food, protection from cold) are met, we must formulate new wishes to keep occupied – in Smith’s words, we ‘build on this narrow strip the extraordinary edifice of pleasure and pain, of hope and disappointment…so as to always have something new to desire.’ In just a few lines, tucked into what was ostensibly a film review, Smith does more to describe the human condition than some philosophers have in decades of work.

Which is why it was such a delightful surprise when, with the evening winding down, Smith descended to audience level, taking a seat at a table with a glass of wine, and proceeded to preside over the slowest-moving line I’ve experienced at a book signing, spending minutes at a time in intimate conversation with each new admirer who came before her; open, engaged, and ready for her next subject.


About Author

louischeslaw Louis Cheslaw once was the substitute on his school basketball team, until lack of skill derailed his career. Hoop dreams behind him, he now writes about arts, culture, and social media. See website (below) for more information and a video of him attempting to cover Bonnie Tyler.

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December 2021
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