WORD Christchurch: An evening with Zadie Smith

On Wednesday night at Christchurch's beautifully restored Town Hall, Zadie Smith, one of this generation's most important literary voices, took the mic at a WORD Christchurch event, her only New Zealand appearance.

A writer apart

In her introduction, WORD Christchurch director, Rachael King, quite justifiably described Zadie Smith as being on her dream literary festival guest list.

Listening to Smith over the next hour, it isn't hard to see why. Zadie Smith is as much of an erudite and entertaining speaker as she is a writer. Every word she speaks seems thoughtfully chosen, each stance she takes carefully considered. Smith spoke to New Zealand novelist and short story writer Paula Morris about her stunning career, from her hugely successful first novel White Teeth to her latest collection of short stories Grand Union.

Morris quoted Giles Harvey's recent comments in the New Yorker that -

"What Martin Amis once said about John Updike’s literary essays now seems true of Smith’s: you realize, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything she writes".

Smith joked that Harvey is a student of hers, so this should be taken with a grain of salt. Currently Smith teaches fiction at New York University, and lives in an NYU building "just like a student".

Paula Morris and Zadie Smith - WORD Christchurch
Paula Morris and Zadie Smith, James Hay Theatre, 13 November 2019 - WORD Christchurch

New York vs. London

She spoke of the hustle and bustle of New York in comparison with any where else in the world: "That's why there is the attitude of New Yorkers that if you leave New York... why would you live?" Smith recently wrote "when I'm in England all I can see is the limits of my life", but still, London is her home, and she admitted that at some stage, the necessary hustling of New York can just become too much. What does she like to do at home? Swimming at the pond at the Hampstead Heath is a highlight for her: "So many writers use the pond there, it's like a novelist soup".

"North or south London?" Paula asked.  "Always North" Zadie replied, "I'd sooner go the Timbuktu than South London". Paula, a former South London girl herself, sadly noted "we can never be true friends then...". 

As can be expected with any talk by Zadie Smith, identity was a big topic of the evening. She spoke of her mother's desire to always fill her bathroom with exotic plants, and her home with "West African tatt". Zadie described this as a part of an immigrant's desire to feel at home, a feeling of loss. While Smith doesn't quite fill her sofas with Union Jack cushions, she is still surrounded by symbols of home, like the books and comedies. "Growing up I didn't realise how much I would miss home" she admitted. There are still some things about America she doesn't understand even after 10 years of living there. Thanksgiving for instance, she describes to her children as "...some American thing - It's so close to Christmas, why would I do a turkey twice?".

Comedy and class

British comedy is a big love of hers which she shared with her father. Hancock's Half Hour, Fawlty Towers, and Monty Python, are some of the programmes she enjoys (cue major approval from the Helen corner):

"Comedy is just something British people can do - people in Britain are either a bit funny or expertly funny. Listening to locals at the pub sometimes the line between a little and expert isn't that different".

She also enjoyed the social aspect of comedy and how it could be 'a way of talking about things we didn't want to talk about". Basil Fawlty with his "inverted snobbery" and attempts to "fudge his class" was a classic example for her. Her father, she noted, was not like that of course, but like Basil he saw an opportunity after the war to fudge his class, albeit it "even less successfully than Basil'. He still had a little of his generation's subservience to authority too, for instance calling policemen 'sir', while her mother was "much more aggressive toward policemen, to say the least".

Greenwich, village of lapsed coolness

Grand Union however is set not in Britain but in New York: "No respectable writer would write about Greenwich village" Smith noted, but she finds areas like these fascinating. "Greenwich is covered in its own history... It's overlaid with myth, other stories, movies". Her most common conversation with locals there is "you arrived too late". In "the cool times" as Smith dubbed it, David Bowie lived there, and writers like Donna Tartt. Paula related that Tartt had to buy a shredder because fans kept going through her bins, trying to work out what she was working on. "I would do that" Smith responded, without a hint of shame.

Grand Union

Writing as experiment or duty

'Grand Union' has been described as 'ranging wildly',  a real bee in her bonnet for Smith: "doesn't everyone have interests that range wildly?". She admitted that she never aims to write something extraordinarily new -  she merely writes about what interests her. She doesn't set herself the task, for instance, of writing a novel without people, or without the letter 'e', as some writers have done. The opening story of Grand Union, she conceded is a little more "experimental" and explores the concept of time. She likes the Māori idea, portrayed by New Zealand writer Patricia Grace, of time as a spiral. "The clock is a metaphor, not a scientific fact... we are here but also in the past". Despite the death of her father, Smith says, he is still here - "When you lose a parent they are still present in the way you think, you remember, in the way you see the world... as real as my own hand".

Smith also commented on the reluctance which black writers, such as Richard Wright, have historically experienced in taking on experimental writing. Torn between portraying black subjects in fiction, and experimenting with writing, she likened it to: "Do I do my duty or do I run away to Paris?". In Smith's eyes, both actually go hand in hand: "Experimenting was also his (Richard Wright's) duty, his right to intellectual freedom and creativity".

She spoke admiringly of experimental young writers who make her think: "I have to up my game". There are many writers who inspire her like Toni Cade Bambara, Camille Bourdain, and Tolstoy (cue even more excitement from the Helen seat). She described writers like Salman Rushdie (now a friend of hers) and William Faulkner as being 'overwhelming', as their gifts are so abundant. "You have to be careful not to become them - there is no air left for you".

Identity and fiction

Inevitably, Morris led the discussion to the topic of Zadie's recent essay for the New York Review of Books: Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction. Somewhat controversially, Smith has written:

"What insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now —that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally “like” us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.”

Smith however, was loathe to paraphrase "what took me 6000 words to address" (cue panic and guilt from the Helen corner at all the paraphrasing in the course of this post - eeks). She did though stress her view that identity cannot be determined by the likeness of others, and what people think they know:

"you cannot know what goes on inside people... and that's why fiction is annoying, it invades impenetrable parts of ourselves we police so carefully, it messes with our own ideas of what self even is".

Zadie Smith - WORD Christchurch
Zadie Smith, James Hay Theatre, 13 November 2019. WORD Christchurch.

Morris marvelled at how Smith, a giant in the field of fiction, has managed to branch out so successfully into the field of essay writing: "There's no class on how to write an essay in high school" Smith observed: "just on where not to put an apostrophe". She does not teach her students how to write essays either:

"You can't," she said simply, "Just write an English sentence first! I say to my students, just write me four pages where there's not a mistake, then we'll get onto the philosophy of whether you have the right to write that or not!".

Why did she write her defense of fiction? "The writers' community also has rights - we may be monstrous sometimes but I thought I would describe what it is we thought, what we thought we were doing. It is for readers not writers to determine what happens next. It is for every reader to take the prompt to think, and not just to say 'this is what Zadie Smith thinks so I think this too, I don't want that either'".

The relationship between writer and reader

Smith is hugely aware of the almost sacred relationship between writer and reader. She bemoaned those writers who leave no freedom for their readers, who "call you an idiot really if you don't follow them". She finds the skill of leaving 'space', of conceding that as a writer you don't have total control, perhaps more common in female writers. She likened the experience to seeing Yo-Yo Ma (who also visited Christchurch this week):

"Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach is totally different from anyone else playing Bach. It is like a different art form, as is a book in the hands of a different reader".

The lack of control is something you simply have to concede as a writer: "You can hope all kinds of things, but you are not there at the moment of reading. The positive effects are not yours to know about".

Completing your work, Smith concluded, is your sense of achievement in the end.

Morris quoted one critic's observation that after 55, a writer's best work is behind them, citing Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Smith replied that as you get older, writing certainly becomes different, you lose that energy, that urgency, that confidence, you had as a young writer. "I was writing 4000 words a day when I was working on White Teeth, which seems unimaginable now".

Musicals, conflict, and intergenerational discord

The evening ended with a number of audience questions including one related to 'Swing Time' which was simply "why do you like musicals?". "There are so many elements to a musical, like an opera" Smith replied, "you need to be a good actor, singer, dancer, and there's the story, and set...I'm also fascinated by the distortions in history". She pointed to the woeful lack of black people in Meet Me in St Louis, and Calamity Jane clearly being an LGBQT movie disguised as a Hollywood musical. Favourite musical? 'Singin' in the Rain', and only musicals up to The Sound of the Music for her (cue: even more agreement from the Helen seat). 

In answer to another question from a self titled "middle aged, uptight Englishman, who has no idea how to relate to you" Smith descibed her own experiences of growing up the daughter of two very different human beings - one a man much like himself, and the other a black jamaican woman: "It is possible to experience differences and survive -  It isn't always pretty, there are arguments, but it can be interesting. It doesn't always have to be resolved in judgement. You don't always have to understand". She pointed out that he will know this, and will have experienced this, himself, for instance on Christmas day surounded by his family at the dinner table: "Do you get on?". The short answer, no... but that's okay.

Paula Morris and Zadie Smith - WORD Christchurch
Zadie Smith takes an audience question from a self-described "uptight Englishman", James Hay Theatre, 13 November 2019.

The final question put to Smith was on the topic of inter-generational discord. As the generation of the 60s rejected what had gone before them, she now sees the Millennial generation looking back at their parents' generation, repulsed. In her view, the reaction is justifiable looking at the state the world has been left in. "The 60s generation were high on LSD, while this generation is high on the internet - at the moment of greatest freedom there is always something nefarious underneath". While she finds this manipulation worrying and dangerous, she pointed out it was always there.

"It will be messy, people will be hurt, but something better will rise in its place".

A fittingly thought provoking way then to end Christchurch's first fascinating meeting with this 'overwhelming talented' novelist, essayist, and speaker, Zadie Smith.

Find out more