Zadie Smith, best-selling novelist and one of literature's most celebrated voices, will be speaking at the Christchurch Town Hall on Wednesday 13th of November. You can find out more and buy your tickets from WORD Christchurch. To say I am fangirling right now is a woeful understatement. I'd be swinging from the chandeliers right now if indeed I had chandeliers. I first fell in love with Zadie's writing after reading Swing Time, the story of two ambitious black girls growing up on a council estate, one talented yet self-destructive, the other less gifted but disciplined. The novel follows the girls through from their early days in dance school, through to their very different paths as adults. The story is truly gripping, and each sentence so beautifully crafted it would sacrilegious to skim a page. As a former dance student herself, Zadie's cultural references are also a joy to read, from Astaire to Michael Jackson; from Gambian drummers to Rakim. Smith beautifully captures the emotions that music and dance evoke for us all.
Smith has written five novels, two collections of essays, and many pieces for publications such as The Guardian and the New York Review of Books. Her debut novel White Teeth was bid for by publishers before it was even completed, and she has won multiple awards including the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Women's Prize for Fiction.
Her latest work Grand Union is a collection of short stories from multiple voices, ranges from Dystopian, to satire, to a narrative from God. There is a story of Michael Jackson driving Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of New York post 9/11; of a woman reflecting on her days at college “collecting sexual and psychological experiences” ; of a president executing his immoral citizens; and of God's decision to step away from his creation. With her signature style of perceptiveness and wit, Zadie effortlessly weaves her way through a dazzlingly varied array of voices, genres, and points in time. Unsurprisingly, 'Grand Union' has already been long listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Like all great literature, her work consistently provokes a strong reaction from her readers. She is unafraid to think, to experiment, and to challenge herself as well as her fans.
At the Hay Festival this year, Zadie very decidedly declared: 'Identity is a pain in the arse'. This just about summarises her style; she is always prepared to try a new voice, to write the wholly unfamiliar. "I have a very messy and chaotic mind",' she admitted, but how much richer her writing is for it. She has written of war, of immigration, of drugs, and swingers; of Bangladesh, and Jamaica; of the early 21st century, and (soon) the 1800s. She has written from the perspective of a Jewish-Chinese Londoner, a 47 year old Englishman, a young girl growing up on a council estate, of the living and the dead. Consistently though, she explores the themes of race, religion and class, in her uniquely pithy, and observant way. Smith has been described as a modern day Charles Dickens, with her epic narratives, and realist exploration of social issues. Fittingly, she once wrote of a cartoon she saw of Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters:
"It depicted Charles Dickens, the image of contentment, surrounded by all his characters come to life. I found that image comforting. Dickens didn’t look worried or ashamed. Didn’t appear to suspect he might be schizophrenic or in some other way pathological. He had a name for his condition: novelist".
As well as being an incredible writer herself, Smith also talks captivatingly of other writers and writing. Her recent piece for the New York Review of Books, 'Fascinated to Presume' takes an engrossing look at the meaning of identity, and the value of fiction in exploring this:
"I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head. As a kid, I was ashamed of it. Other people seemed to feel strongly about themselves, to know exactly who they were. I was never like that. I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God. My mind wandered".
Hearing her talk of other literature is also always enjoyable, in particular her own literary heroes such as Toni Morrison:
'Like a lot of black girls of my generation, I placed Morrison, in her single person, in an impossible role. I wanted to see her name on the spine of a book and feel some of the same lazy assumption and smug confidence of familial relation, of inherited potential, that any Anglo-Saxon boy in school felt—no matter how unlettered or indifferent to literature—whenever he heard the name of William Shakespeare, say, or John Keats. No writer should have to bear such a burden. What’s extraordinary about Morrison is that she not only wanted that burden, she was equal to it... She enriched our literary inheritance, and now every school child, whatever their background, can inherit Morrison as a literary forebear, a great American writer, who is as available to them—as ‘universal’—as any other writer in the canon. All readers and writers are indebted to her for the space she created."
An evening with a dazzling writer, formidable intellect, and eloquent speaker, what is there not to be excited about? I can think of no better way to end a blog on Zadie Smith than with her own words, any of her words really:
“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful...and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.”
An evening with Zadie Smith Wednesday 13 November 7pm to 8.30pm, James Hay Theatre, Christchurch Town Hall
WORD Christchurch, in association with Penguin Random House New Zealand, is proud to present an evening with Zadie Smith, one of the most critically acclaimed and important literary voices of a generation.
From her astonishing debut White Teeth, which captured London in all its multi-cultural glory, to her latest, Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s novels have incisively tackled race, class and politics, and been widely read and loved. Her first volume of short fiction, Grand Union, moves exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historical to the dystopian. It’s a sharply alert and prescient collection. Don’t miss your chance to hear this astonishing writer live, in conversation with Paula Morris, in her first and only New Zealand appearance.