Zadie Smith: in Conversation

Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith
Copyright Dominique Nabokov; used by permission.

We are thrilled to welcome acclaimed author Zadie Smith as Stanford’s 2019 Presidential Lecturer in the Humanities and Arts. And despite the event’s title, Smith’s Presidential Lecture will actually be a conversation, in which she will be joined onstage by Harry Elam Jr., Stanford’s Vice President for the Arts.

It is entirely fitting that Smith’s evening with us be a dialogue, rather than pure lecture. While her writing career spans two decades, two continents, fiction and nonfiction, and a fascinating array of subjects, the approach guiding that career has always been exchange: of ideas, of enthusiasms, between characters and cultures, artistic encounters, individuals and the systems they operate within. Smith’s body of work can be viewed as a series of thoughtful conversations, and Smith herself as one of the great conversationalists of the twenty-first century.

Smith’s Fiction: Conversations with the Novel

“Welcome to the house that books built,” wrote Smith in 2003 about her own college writing. “Wallpapered with other people's words, through which one moves like a tourist through an English country manor — somewhat impressed, but uncertain whether anybody really lives there."[1]

This characteristic self-deprecation, of course, elides the fact that Smith’s publishing debut has become the stuff of legend in the literary world — her first novel, White Teeth, was written in part during her final exams at Cambridge and published when she was just 24 to immediate acclaim and explosive sales.

What her commentary does hit upon, though, is that Smith is as much reader as writer. Her novels, all vastly different from one another, are each woven with a different strand from the literary tradition of the novel, taking up and interrogating a distinct approach to the form. In short: each of Smith’s engrossing books can be read as an intertextual conversation. “In a way, the point of Zadie is books. What the novel is for,” said novelist Hari Kunzru in a 2005 profile of Smith in The Guardian.[2]

White Teeth , published in 2000, is a densely populated comic novel set in the working-class neighborhood of Willesden in Northwest London, where Smith was raised — like Irie (one of her protagonists), by a working-class British father and a much younger Jamaican mother. The novel follows this family and two others that embody the multicultural tangle of the metropolis at the end of the twentieth century: the Bengali Muslim Iqbals with their twin sons, Millat and Magid; and the middle-class Jewish-Catholic Chalfens and their son Joshua. Each generation and all its members find themselves caught in a web of conflicting allegiances, motivations, and desires that run the gamut from religious fundamentalism to genetic engineering of rodents to rite-of-passage romance to fondness for a certain pub. Smith weaves all these threads with a touch that is somehow both satirical and compassionate, busy and intimate.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it “a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. This, White Teeth announces, is someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio.” [3]

The novel won a number of awards, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). Critics hailed it as both cosmopolitan in the vein of Salman Rushdie and a comic, Dickensian feast. Smith deliberately leaned into these influences, even invoking the riots surrounding Rushdie’s Satanic Verses as a plot point. The novel “quickly became part of the canon of modern British fiction with its combination of witty satire and insightful analysis of the experiences of a person of color in the changing reality of Britain.” [4]

Smith’s second book, The Autograph Man, received more mixed reviews (though it won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize for Fiction). It also registered the novelist’s ability to transform. This time her subject focused more narrowly on one central character — Alex-Li Tandem, a young Jewish-Chinese Londoner in pursuit of one elusive autograph by a reclusive Hollywood star — whose commitment to celebrity borders on the religious even while his personal relationships flounder and his sense of identity becomes unmoored. While still full of the zany humor of White Teeth, the Guardian remarked in its review that “The Autograph Man is a much darker and more subtle story.”[5] Stylistically, reviewers evoked comparisons — some enthusiastic, some not — to Dave Eggers, noting her high irony, her postmodern winks like changes in font and formatting, and her penchant for topical references that conversed with his work.

But even as her first two books squarely positioned Smith in conversation with other notable novelists of the postcolonial era, her third pivoted, remarkably, to an older — and far less fashionable — tradition.On Beauty (2005) is a loose retelling of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, a 1910 novel of manners and ethics set, in Smith’s version, in a New England college town. “It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other,” writes Smith in the acknowledgments of On Beauty. “This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.” [6]

A resounding success, On Beauty won the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. James Lasdun, writing for The Guardian, noted that this “hugely impressive” novel not only “ingeniously reengineered” the plot of Howards End but invigorated it: “A further pleasure of these charged encounters is the extraordinary vividness with which they have been imagined. Beautifully observed details of clothing, weather, cityscapes and the bustling human background of drivers, shoppers and passers-by are constantly being folded into the central flow of thought, feeling and action, giving even the most mundane moments … a dense, pulsing life.”[7]

2012’s NW provided yet another new exchange with the canon. While its setting is once again Smith’s stomping ground of Northwest London, NW exhibits marked disruptions in structure and voice, at times channeling the stream-of-consciousness interiority of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to highlight the inescapable limits of class and race even within contemporary cosmopolitan London. The novel follows two best friends, Leah and Natalie, whose differing degrees of ambition complicate and strain their relationship. We are also introduced to Felix, in the novel’s central portion, a solo character we follow around London for one magical, tragic day, in a lovely nod to Mrs. Dalloway. As in all her fiction, all three Londoners are drawn with both an acute eye for detail and a generous helping of compassion.

NW was chosen as one of the Top 10 books of 2012 in the New York Times, whose review called it “an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be. The result is that rare thing, a book that is radical and passionate and real.” [8]

Smith’s most recent novel, 2016’s Swing Time, is once again both a departure and a success. Its protagonist is an unnamed narrator, writing in the first person, whose story begins in Northwest London but takes her on global escapades: to America, to Africa, and back again. The narrator’s life is defined by her female friendships: first her childhood friend Tracey, a talented dancer, and then her employer Aimee, a famous singer trying to build a school in a West African village. Noted the Washington Post, “Swing Time is written in a different register [than Smith’s previous fiction]. For one, it’s in the first person, but it’s also measured and elliptical, all the more engrossing for its gaps, more likely to omit detail than to engulf us with it. After several valiant near-misses over the last year, we finally have a big social novel nimble enough to keep all its diverse parts moving gracefully toward a vision of what really matters in this life when the music stops.” [9]

With each novel, Smith has deftly engaged the rich traditions of the form and leapt lightly between both styles and philosophies. She works in nimble, thoughtful dialogue with her predecessors, enlivening their concerns, paying tribute to their voices, in conversation with their choices and questions. But like any good conversationalist, she does not parrot; rather she enlightens, using her own experience and talent to expand the scope of the dialogue itself, to take us to new intellectual heights. As Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer puts it, “Zadie Smith is not merely one of Britain’s finest younger writers, … but also one of the English-speaking world’s best chroniclers of race, class, and identity in urban confines.” [10]

Smith’s Nonfiction: Conversations with Art, Society, and Self

Since her debut, Smith has been carrying on a series of conversations with and about fiction via her own fiction. During the same time, she has married (the poet Nick Laird), moved to New York (she holds a tenured creative writing professorship at NYU), had two children, and become a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

In these publications and others, Smith has produced another rich oeuvre of conversations: a small trove of short stories, and a much greater number of essays, many of which are now collected in Changing My Mind (2009) and Feel Free (2018). “Usually an essay comes when I’m playing hookey from novel writing,” she said in the Guardian in January 2018. “Writing a novel is like doing a long-distance race, and writing an essay in the middle of one is like turning left off the route, finding a cafe and paying close attention to something different. It’s a form of relief.” [11]

And while their scope is different, these essays, like her fiction, illuminate Smith’s great gift for the exchange of ideas. She even describes her essays as dialogue with the reader in her foreword to Feel Free: “I feel this — do you? I’m struck by this thought — are you?” [12] Smith’s essays achieve a level of intimacy with the reader that elicits the feeling of a satisfying, revealing conversation. As one interviewer put it, “Smith’s writing is not only to feel as though you know her, but also as though she knows you.” [13]

And not only does she invite the reader to meditate on her subjects alongside her, Smith’s essays also often place those subjects in unlikely conversation with each other. Smith writes beautifully and with astonishing clarity about literature, film, visual art, and music, often touching on several media within the same brief piece. In “Some Notes on Attunement,” to consider the idea of taste and its change over time, Smith discusses Seneca, Kierkegaard, and Joni Mitchell. In “Windows on the Will,” Smith pairs Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World with the film Anomalisa (and also, briefly, with The Polar Express).

For Smith (as for the best conversationalists), no cultural artifact is either above or beneath her, so long as it’s good. In her essays she has mused on everything from Justin Bieber to Zora Neale Hurston to the comedy duo Key and Peele to Jay-Z to The Philadelphia Story. These musings, and the unlikely pairings her astonishing intellect produces, provide not just enlightenment, but also enthusiasm: she writes essays, most often, about what she loves. “I like to know I love something before I pitch it,” she said to the Guardian, about her material in Feel Free. “For me, writing 3,000 words about something you don’t really like is a kind of torture.”[14] These passionate encounters with art provide readers with a means of appreciating that art in new and absorbing ways.

And of course, Smith’s essays and criticism, like her fiction, illuminate not just good books, movies, and visual art, but larger social questions. These conversations have stakes. But Smith considers those stakes with that rare (and getting rarer) touch: nuance. She is the type of conversationalist who can see an idea from more than one side.

For example, in “Getting In and Out” for Harper’s, Smith (in one of those unlikely, perceptive pairings) analyzed the horror film Get Out; “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till that was exhibited by the Whitney as part of its 2017 Biennial celebration; and a letter about the painting, which urged the Whitney to remove and destroy it. The essay triangulates these artifacts in order to consider charged questions about cultural appropriation, providing a thoughtful, resolutely logical response (“Each individual example [of possible cultural appropriation] has to be thought through[15]).

The ability to “think through” is one of Smith’s essays’ great contributions to our current discourse: she contributes to the most pressing debates of the day with intellectual rigor and with care. “I don’t think of myself as a contrarian,” she says in response to a question from a reader in the Guardian. “I’m useless at confrontation. But I also can’t stand dogma, lazy ideas, catchphrases, group-think, illogic, pathos disguised as logos, shoutiness, ad hominem attacks, bombast, liberal piety, conservative pomposity, ideologues, essentialists, technocrats, preachers, fanatics, cheerleaders or bullies. Like everybody, I am often guilty of some version of all of the above, but I do think the job of writing is to at least try and minimise that sort of thing as much as you can.” [16]

Since 2001, Zadie Smith’s intertextual novels have provided a series of fascinating conversations about the role and the direction of fiction. Her career in essays expands into an even broader array of subjects. Across both genres, like a great conversation, her writing is absorbing, exuberant, and nuanced — a true, and exciting, dialogue, even when Smith’s conversation partner on the page is herself. We are so fortunate to continue that conversation at Stanford on March 7.

[1] Quoted in Edemariam, Aida. “Learning curve.” The Guardian. 2 Sep 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times: Quirky, Sassy and Wise in a London of Exiles.” Review of White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. New York Times. 25 April 2000.

[4] Campion, Edmund J. Review of Zadie Smith, by Philip Tew. The European Legacy 19.1 (2014): 101-102.

[5] Clark, Alex. “Signs and wanders.” Review of The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith. The Guardian. 14 Sep 2002.

[6] Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin, 2005.

[7] Lasdun, James. “Howard’s Folly.” The Guardian. 9 Sep 2005.

[8] Enright, Anne. “Mind the Gap: ‘NW,’ by Zadie Smith.” New York Times 21 Sep. 2012.

[9] Charles, Ron. “Swing Time: Zadie Smith’s Sweeping Novel about Friendship, Race and Class.” Washington Post. 9 Nov. 2016.

[10] Heller, Karen. “Life in a Gritty Part of London — Novel’s Author Focuses on Two Women from the Same Neighborhood Who Follow Different Paths.” Review of NW, by Zadie Smith. Philadelphia Inquirer. 9 Sep. 2012.

[11] “Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind.’” The Guardian. 21 Jan. 2018.

[12] Smith, Zadie. Feel Free. New York: Penguin, 2018: xi.

[13] Weir, Keziah. “With Feel Free, Zadie Smith Solidifies Her Status as an Essential Chronicler of American Life.” ELLE. 9 Feb. 2018.

[14] “Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind.’” The Guardian. 21 Jan. 2018.

[15] Smith, Zadie. “Getting In and Out.” Feel Free. New York: Penguin, 2018: 220.

[16] “Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind.’” The Guardian. 21 Jan. 2018.

Text by Laura Marostica.
Stanford Libraries, 2018.