Listening to Zadie Smith is like being offered every single flavor in the ice cream shop at once for free – overwhelming, exciting, satisfying, and then slightly disappointing when you realize it won't last forever. She is a profoundly intelligent and insightful person, and I will definitely go and see her talk every chance I get.
New Zealand festivals have been trying to get Zadie Smith to visit for the last 20 years. We finally snatched her while on tour in Australia for Grand Union, her latest short story collection. Paula Morris was the lucky New Zealand novelist and essay writer to sit down and interview Smith. I use the word interview loosely, as this slightly rambling conversation covered a wide variety of topics in the short time we had Smith to ourselves. On such a momentous occasion, I made sure to take my notebook and two extra pencils with me, knowing I would be furiously scribbling.
While sitting hunched over my notebook and looking up constantly, so as not to miss anything, I became aware of a theme running through Grand Union and other subjects, as Smith spoke. To me, it felt like the important thing she kept hitting on was how people use time. Each person measures it differently, depending on the events that happen in their lives. Smith specifically stated when large emotional things happen, such as the death of a parent, time distorts for those living that emotion. This was a blow to me; my grandmother recently passed away, and I experienced this exact phenomenon. All the years I spent with her crashed into one the moment I found out that she had passed. Later, standing in front of a large group of friends and family, trying to read my poem for her, I froze in place. Seconds became days as I tried to do justice to such a huge maternal influence in my life. We live our lives by the clock, but we never pay attention to how we spend that currency while we’re spending it.
“Large experiences manipulate the way we think about time. We’re here, and also in the past, and also always fearing the future.” —Zadie Smith, November 13, 2019, WORD Christchurch interview
Time weaves its way through much of Smith’s work. As a Professor tenured at New York University, she teaches 20th Century fiction writing and philosophy, which she presents as a sort of history class. The title story of Grand Union is an interesting mix of myth, supernatural, ancestry, and time. Smith plays with how the past touches the present by remembering parents, as we see in the story that begins with the narrator meeting her deceased mother outside a chicken shop to talk.
Smith explained that there are metaphors for time in every culture, using the Koru’s spiral rings in Maori culture as an example: each ring expands from the center but remains connected. Some cultures carry their history and ancestors with them every day, talking to them, visiting graves, making shrines, thinking of them. In my own culture, our ancestors are always kept close by. We create photo family trees honoring our ancestors in our homes, and in the Islands I come from, those who pass are buried on the family land so you can speak to them every day. To paraphrase Smith, your people stay with you and therefore are present in each experience. Your own history and that of your parents dictates how you live in the present and look to the future. It reminded me that often we don’t listen to our elders until it’s too late.
There were some moments where I became caught up in the conversation. They discussed new writers who had such an urgency to get what’s in their head on paper that they were overflowing with full novel ideas. Then they skipped over to short stories and the realization that publishers are no longer asking for them, so each story really is the writers’ baby almost completely. They talked about artificial constraints in 20th Century Modernism, such as writing a story without using the letter E, and how challenges like this can stretch a writer. Next, they went on to mull over the idea that some felt Smith’s short stories to be too experimental. Her response was simply that she believes she just has a wide range of interests. “Doesn’t everyone have wide ranging interests?” she asked. It really was like having a big deep and meaningful chat over tea with a friend, one topic rolling into the next.
Though Smith was here because of Grand Union, Morris also took the opportunity to ask about some of the essays Smith has written. She focused on one which has become a little controversial: “Fascinated to Presume: In Defence of Fiction.” I have not read this article, though the discussion that came of it has made me curious.
“What insults my soul is…that we can and should only write about people who are fundamentally like us… I do not believe that, I could not have written a single one of my books if I did.” —Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defence of Fiction”
This quote from the essay was picked out by Morris. At face value, it seems both innocent and inflammatory. Without reading through the entire essay I am not able to give this complex statement a full voice. Listening to Smith talk, it seems she feels that recently there has been pressure for people to only write from their very specific experiences. To an extent, this feels like a squashing of creativity and imagination, and it also puts the writers into boxes. No one can know your identity except for yourself, and often, this is a constant exploration and learning experience. Who am I to say whether one writer is more able to write a certain character than another? I do not know their true identity.
“If you allow identity to be determined by what appears to be likeness in the eyes of others you will lose a great deal.” —Zadie Smith, November 13, 2019, WORD Christchurch interview
Without having read the entire essay I can’t point to the views within it that rubbed some the wrong way. It will be something I seek to read, as I feel this is part of an important and larger conversation.
One thing is certain, Smith loves words. She is loathed to break words down too far, seeming to enjoy spending time with sentences that are ambiguous so the reader can take from it what they will. This creates a different relationship with each reader – each person reading her book will change it. She is a believer that nothing should be off limits and that each subject should be approached from a questioning or learning perspective – no thought that becomes an idea or argument is neutral, and the language you use to express your idea is the argument. Hence, all writers should question or argue with themselves: why do I think this, what is my emotional connection to it, is this true?
Essays for her are a way to explore complex arguments, but first and foremost are a prompt for every reader to make the active effort to decide for themselves. The thinking needs to be done first. It is not for the writers to determine what comes next, it is for the readers.
“You cannot control readers; they are radially free in front of you.” —Zadie Smith, November 13, 2019, WORD Christchurch interview
During the questions section after the interview, a man who described himself as an elderly gent of Smith’s father’s generation took to the microphone. He told Smith he was in the process of opening his mind and had only just come around to talking to people like her. Was that insulting or encouraging? Smith’s response was understanding and hopeful. She explained how she’d spent much of her youth surrounded by different cultures and people, and she could understand how others might not have the same opportunity. She finished by saying she would be happy to sit down and chat with this same gentleman so he could learn more and become more comfortable. I got the impression that she has spent her life fielding conversations like this, asking hard questions, and getting people to expand their experience and open their minds.
As with her books, the talk left me full of questions. Reading Smith, I can’t just put the book down and carry on. I need to sit, digest, think, and come to my own conclusions. Upon self-reflection, I would say my key identifying trait is that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’ve never fully belonged to anything, or any one group at any time. This means I am constantly seeking, searching, learning, and currently trying to reevaluate where to place myself. While I feel a connection to her – we are both biracial, living in cities or countries we weren’t born to – there is also a sense of distance. It feels like she’s always two steps ahead. While I’m trying to slow down and savor, spend, watch, and feel time, I’m also chasing some of her ideas trying to keep up. Smith never hands things to you on a silver platter, she makes you work for them