#15: Zadie Smith 2016
Connection, the Comic Novel, and the Joy of Uncertainty, June 22, 2017
Novelist Zadie Smith answers questions from Calvin English professor Jane Zwart about Smith’s novels and essays. Smith reflects on judgmentalism in fiction, the origins of minor characters, the particular challenges of each novel, writing for the people you came from, and the ideal reader. Reading passages from her own novels and referring to Dickens, Morrison, Joyce, CS Lewis, and others, Smith considers her own and her characters’ religious experiences and the dialectic between certainty and joy. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Calvin alumna Bekah Waalkes.
- Zadie Smith,
- White Teeth
- On Beauty
- Swing Time
- Changing My Mind
- “Speaking in Tongues”
- The Autograph Man
- The Embassy of Cambodia
- C.S. Lewis,
- The Screwtape Letters
- Surprised by Joy
- George Eliot, Middlemarch
- Jane Austen, Pride
- George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [oo:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host.
This is the place where you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features Zadie Smith interviewed by Jane Zwart at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. Their wide ranging conversation includes Smith's love of C.S. Lewis, the challenges of literature about and for the working class, and the varieties of religious experience.
Zadie Smith is the award winning author of 5 novels, including White Teeth, On Beauty, and Swing Time. Her essays and book review are frequently published in the The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and many of those are collected in her book Changing My Mind. She is currently a professor of creative writing at New York University.
To help me introduce this session, I called up Bekah Waalkes, Zadie's student host while she was on the campus of Calvin College for the 2016 Festival. Student involvement is hallmark of the Festival of Faith and Writing. Members of our student committee help with everything from registration to shuttles to social media, and one of the fun perks of the job is spending time with our speakers while they're here on campus. Bekah, who has since graduated, was an indispensable member of the 2016 team.
[music, phone ringing]
Bekah Waalkes: [00:01:36] Hello?
Bekah: Hi, Lisa!
Lisa: [laughter] It's so good to hear your voice.
Bekah: It's so good to hear yours.
Lisa: It's so great to talk to you today Bekah. Where do we catch you?
Bekah: I am in my flat here in Budapest, Hungary. I just got back from a day at school, and I'm actually going to go back after this for a sixth grade production of Romeo and Juliet in English.
Lisa: [laughter] That's awesome.
Bekah: So I'm spending this year teaching English as a foreign language to primary school children in Budapest.
Lisa: Well, it was so great to have you on the student committee. You were also, in addition to being on the committee itself, you were our intern for the Festival of Faith & Writing that year, so you were kinda involved in things at a very crucial level [laughs, Bekah laughs] for our staff. We loved having you on the team. And then you helped wrangle the student committee, and you hosted Zadie Smith while she was here. One of the reasons we were excited to connect the two of you guys while she was on campus is that you actually wrote your honor's thesis on her book On Beauty. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you were so captured by that book and Zadie Smith's work in general.
Bekah: Right. So, I started reading Zadie Smith over the summer, I can't even remember which one, probably after my freshman year at Calvin. And I'm not even sure who recommended her to me, maybe it was a professor, maybe I just saw some books at the library. And I remember reading White Teeth and I couldn't stop reading it. I think I read it straight through and then I read On Beauty and then I read The Autograph Man and then NW. I just read everything straight and then Changing My Mind, I think.
And I just couldn't stop reading her and I think one of the biggest reasons was, and I think especially why On Beauty has always stuck with me is that there's just a sense of these really small stories and these really particular people who are so quirky that you can totally imagine them as your neighbors or other people in your life. And the sense that these particular people are part of this really big and abstract story, and overarching themes are working in their lives. I always felt that you just couldn't stop reading because you had to know how these big things would resolve.
Lisa: Yeah for sure. This interview that we're about to listen to that Jane Zwart does with Zadie Smith at the 2016 Festival, it covered a lot of territory. She dipped into a lot of her novels. And one of the things that was most, I think kinda charming about, I love the interviews of the Festival because you know people go off script, so to speak, from what they're going to talk about in their keynote or solo sessions. So you get these anecdotes and stories that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. And she tells a story about how compelled she was by C.S. Lewis, in general, she fell in love with the Narnia books when she was a kid, but specifically when she got older, David Foster Wallace actually suggested to her that she read The Screwtape Letters, and she had found that sort of explication of the Christian life in particular a really compelling read. I wonder what jumped out at you from that interview that you found really interesting as someone who's read a lot of her.
Bekah: [00:05:07] I really, I loved what she says when she’s seguing into this bit where she talks about C.S. Lewis, that by reading Surprised By Joy she was confronted as to the difference between joy and pleasure. So joy as something containing terror and delight and pain, you know, being more than just mere happiness. And so I think she talks about how to connect that joy in daily life and so faith being one way that you might connect this big, kinda frightening, joy that's so large to your particular daily life.
Lisa: Exactly, because I think she talks about how in her essay, I think it might be called “On Joy” or something like that, that this description that you just gave of joy as this combination of wonderful things, but also really challenging pieces too; the fear, the terror, these kinds of things. And how it was kinda unclear to her how you would want to live with more joy in your life, you know that was actually a really challenging idea because joy itself was such an unwieldy presence in your life.
Bekah: Yeah, and there’s this sense in this whole interview that, I don't know, it skirts around faith a lot, which I remember finding really compelling. And this sense that a commitment to faith too is something that, like joy, it might in and of itself be this kind of stumbling block or something that might trip you up. You're not that sure you want more of it.
Lisa: Yeah [laughter]
Bekah: But you're sure that it's important and that [Lisa laughs, Bekah laughs] you need to be skirting around it or thinking about it in some ways.
Lisa: Yeah I think she’s very honest about this. She's clearly compelled by, I think she talks about aesthetic experiences people have, and is not willing to just chalk them up, so to speak, to aesthetic experiences, that there's something more going on there, but she herself acknowledges, I think, very honestly, that she's not sure she would want to be a person a faith per se because that would so disrupt her daily life [laughs]. And, she kinda likes her daily life [laughs].
Bekah: Yes! I love that line. And a sense that it's the certainty of faith that she finds, you know, complicating and disturbing as the sense that you have a right to all the answers, you have access to all the right answers and so. It sounds, yeah.
Lisa: That's where like, that’s what repulses her from faith, you know like from people of that kind of faith.
Lisa: As someone who's read her work, what was it like hanging out with Zadie Smith while she was here?
Bekah: I remember the first thing she said to Jane Zwart and I when we went to pick her up from her hotel was about predestination.
Lisa: Oh really?
Bekah: She was like "ya'll are Calvinists? Do you guys believe in that?" And I just remember being like 'umm this one's for Professor Zwart, I'm not gonna handle that.' [Lisa laughs] So I just like silently walked behind them, talking about deep theological concepts, trying to not trip.
Lisa: I think that just sums up a lot of our lives. [laughs]
Bekah: [laughter] Yes.
Lisa: Well thank you so much Bekah for joining us. It's been great to reconnect and talk about Zadie Smith.
Bekah: Yes my pleasure! [silence]
Lisa: And now, Zadie Smith in conversation with Jane Zwart at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Jane Zwart: [00:08:50] Zadie Smith. Thank you so much for talking with me this afternoon. And I wanted to begin by just asking about some of the books themselves. And I think if it's okay with you, we'll work in reverse order.
Zadie Smith: Sure.
Jane: Alright. So the only one I don't have here, I think you still have in your possession, and that is Swing Time, which you're going to have published in November. And one of the things I wanted to ask you about that book has to do with what your writing it to see if you can. So you've talked about writing On Beauty to see if you could get the tone or the color of a 19th century novel. And about writing NW to see whether you could write a book about four really different narrative modes. So my question is what test of that sort, to see whether you could do it, led to Swing Time?
Zadie: Gosh that's a really good question, it sounds uninteresting, but the test was to write in the first person. I guess that was the test in my mind. And to write something that was almost like a fable, like it continues to have that feeling of realism and detail, I hope, and of human people, but I [pause] yeah almost something with a fable-like quality.
Jane: [00:10:11] So, if it's a fable, it has a moral?
Zadie: [laughs] That's a good question. [audience laughter] I was trying to think about what it's like [pause], it's hard to describe but if you could have all Christian American lives summed up by one life, or all Polish Jewish lives summed up by one life, I was trying to think about that life I suppose thematically. And so it's a little bit like that, the feeling of blackness.
Jane: Alright we'll wait. [laughs, pause] I also wanted to ask you about NW.
Jane: And before writing that book, you had written an essay about Middlemarch by George Eliot. You talk in there about the famous "Eliot Effect." And this is a quote from you, you say "Here's the English novel at its limit, employing an unprecedented diversity of central characters. The novel is a riot of subjectivity." And then you go on to explain that each character in the book would think that someone else in the book was the main character.
Zadie: Yeah. [laughs]
Jane: So my question about NW is, even though it doesn't have as many central characters, it seems to me like another English novel at its limit, and like a “riot of subjectivity.” But I read it as less sympathetic to its characters than Middlemarch is to its characters, is that fair?
Zadie: I guess I think of it the other way around, like what strikes me about Eliot and Austen, that whole tradition, is how judgemental it is. Jane Austen is one of the most judgemental writers ever to have lived [audience laughs] And I think a lot about in terms of, well they're both without children which I think is very interesting because as the daughter of somebody you have a lot of judgements. You have a lot of opinions about your parents, about the village you live in, about everybody. I'm on the experience of having children is, it kinda thrust you into uncertainty in a different way. Austen seems to me absolutely certain, full of judgement.
I think because it's comic, maybe people don't notice it so much. The whole book, something like Pride and Prejudice, is gradations of total condemnation of everybody in that book [everyone laughs] apart from Elizabeth herself. It's very severe in fact, but it's delivered in this comic manner. And Eliot has something similar in the simplest way, it's a kind of journey through husbands or potential husbands and their various flaws. So, I guess when I was writing NW [pause], White Teeth is written very much in that mode, but as I've got older I become less inclined to write from that point of view.
Jane: Yeah and I guess what I'm trying to get at is, you talked to Ian McGeechan about his narrative voice tending to be absent of a judging consciousness.
Jane: So maybe it's just a kind of distance or not as much.
Zadie: Yeah, I just [pause] I prefer that distance, it seems to me in some way more ethical or something. The things which tire me in fiction are kind of fake aphoristic wisdom or this obsession with judgement. I think comic novels are always about judgement one way or another. But the question is, is there another way of being in the world rather than judging it all the time? I had this incident last week when I went to a children's party with my kids, it was a three-year-old’s party and my husband didn't go. And when I came back into the apartment, the first thing my husband said was, "Tell me everything." If I just tell him about all the awful people and the terrible mother-in-law [audience laughs] and I saw my daughter looking at me like it had not occurred to her that that was what going out in the world was for, [everyone laughs] was to examine a lot of people and then do ridiculous impressions of them and find them hilarious. And I felt very ashamed when I looked at, like, is there another way of being in the world that doesn't involve this constant act of satire.
Jane: So using the first person as partly a way toward that.
Zadie: It's a way of avoiding that, yeah absolutely.
Jane: Another question about NW. So, in that essay “Speaking In Tongues,” you talk about Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which a lot of people will know by way of My Fair Lady.
Jane: And one of the things is that play you say is swapping one voice for another, Eliza's doing that, but the play itself is still many voiced. So, thinking about the character of Keisha Natalie in NW, I think part of that book is about her swapping, not even entirely successfully, one voice for another. But would you say, what you say about Pygmalion, that it's a many voiced novel?
Zadie: [00:15:16] It is many voiced. I think as it as I get older it will be harder for me to imitate the voices of my youth for sure. Just because the way kids talked around my way changes so much so quickly. So it becomes antique, all that slang, all the rest of it. But there's still a certain rhythm to Northlanders Beach to Southlanders Beach that I recognize and enjoy. And I hope I pick up new voices, you know being in America I hear a lot of new voices that I get to now write about much more than I used to. And certainly in Swing Time I can see the American, there are more sections set in America, you know, so it begins to encroach on my fictional world as well.
Jane: So let me turn to On Beauty, and ask you a question about probably the most minor, but to me, one of the most beloved characters in the whole thing: Katie Armstrong.
Zadie: Oh yeah, the student, yeah.
Jane: Yeah, so in the middle of the book, Katie Armstrong shows up for about seven pages. And she's this young undergrad that is at this Ivy League college, and she feels like she doesn't understand her history class because it seems not to be about the art. And you write about her, and her predicament, but also her loving this painting, Rembrandt's Seated Nude.
Zadie: Oh yeah.
Jane: And having this affinity... with that.
Zadie: I'm glad you're reminding me of all this, I've no memory [audience laughs] of any this happening in the book, but yeah go on.
Jane: Well, [Zadie laughs] let's remind you a little more. [continued laughing] Would you read the marked passage?
Zadie: Oh sure.
Zadie: From here, to?
Jane: Just keep going until you see another red bracket-y thing.
Zadie: Okay. [begins reading from On Beauty]
"The second picture on the other hand makes Katie cry. It is Seated Nude, an etching from 1631. In it, a misshapen woman, naked with tubby little breasts and a hugely distended belly, sits on a rock, eyeing Katie directly. Katie's read some famous commentaries on this etching. Everybody finds it technically good, but visually disgusting. Many famous men are repulsed. A simple naked woman is apparently much more nauseating than Samson having his eye put out or Ganymede pissing everywhere." [audience laughs]
"Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock to Katie at first, like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all of the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame, but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the crenulated marks of absent stocking on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labor. That loose belly that has known many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and may yet lure more.
Katie, a string bean physically, can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt was saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth as my nude is, and you will come to this point to, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy as she!'
This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age and experience - these are the marks of living. So Katie feels. And all this from cross hatching (Katie makes her own comics and knows something of cross hatching); all these intimations of mortality from an ink pot."
[mumbling] Oh well that's nice. [clearly] nice! [audience laughs] I hadn't read it in ages.
Jane: It's quite good isn't it?!
Zadie: Yes, it's not bad, yeah. [continued laughter] Thank you.
Jane: So the question I wanted to ask you about Katie, is partly what she as a character is doing in the middle of this novel, but also why she's there so briefly?
Zadie: I think I stole the idea, I think it's in maybe in Bleak House, I'm pretty sure it was Dickens, I have a feeling it's Bleak House, that there's a chapter that's self contained about a character who isn't involved anywhere else and I thought it was an interesting idea.
And then, I wanted to try and conjure it up from some of my experience when I was in college. Because I came so naively, you know, I came from a background in which no one in my family was educated to that level, and I was the first to go. And I guess I'd read a lot of stuff about Bloomsbury, I had a very romantic idea of where I was heading. And I was very enthusiastic so I think the first essay I wrote was all about, it was [laughs] kind of fictionalized, it was Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath, all these people talking in the essay, like [laughs] as characters.
When I took a long time I'd written it, my professor gave it back to me and he just marked underneath 'this is not an essay.' [audience laughs] And that was the beginning of [laughs] of my education [audience laughs] at Cambridge. I happened to learn in Cambridge in '94, a time of a lot of theory, high French theory, so all my ideas about novels-- I really thought of them as this kind of, you know, truth and beauty thing, this kind of life changing thing--were not in fashion at all. And because I'm very easily influenced, I fully got on board the French Theory train and forgot about all that stuff.
And it was only years after truly writing this book when I thought, 'well you know, it was quite a brutal experience to have to go through, to have to give up one version of aesthetic pleasure and leap into this other purely intellectual response.’ So Katie was kind of about that really, and as a foil to how to take up so much space in the book.
Jane: [00:21:13] Well, and it's funny that that part is somewhat autobiographical because that's the least comic part of the comic novel, probably.
Zadie: [thoughtfully] Yeah.
Jane: I mean, so much of the rest of the novel is plain and fun. But she seems like a character out of some other book that kind of wandered in.
Zadie: Yeah, yeah, I think that's the way I think when I'm writing personally, I do feel much less funny, for the obvious reason that it's easier to ridicule other people than yourself. [everyone laughs]
Jane: Oh, I find it quite easy to ridicule myself. [continued laughter]
Zadie: [laughs] Oh, yeah.
Jane: So, another question about On Beauty, and about the character Zora, who, it seems by you, not by her parents as probably named for Zora Neale Hurston,
Jane: At least in part. And yet, she's a character that really doesn't seem, even though she's very into curating her identity, to borrow a phrase from your grad speech at the new school. She’s curating her identity, but she doesn't seem that interested in questions of her ethnic identity.
Zadie: No, it was interesting to me writing that book because I realized afterwards that me and Zora had somehow been conflated in a lot of people’s minds. Like I was in the playground a while after it came out, and one of the other professors, cause I'm at NYU so the other mums of professors, kept me and said, "I didn't know your father taught at Amherst."
I was like [laughs] my father did not teach at Amh-- like I realized they thought I was the child of academics and it was all my life. So that was funny, but [audience laughs] it was kinda a projection; I was interested in the children of those kind of people, cause I met them in college for the first time, I guess. Upper-middle class kids whose parents were writers and artists and intellectuals and journalists.
I was just so very inconceivable to me that idea, that your parents could be involved in that world. For instance, you could make art and offer it to them and they would respond to it in that kind of way as an intellectual. My mom certainly reads everything and is really fun with it, and now has a degree herself. But my father never read me, he read articles about me, but he never could get through any of the novels or anything. So it's funny that idea of a father like Howard who's kinda unimaginable to me.
So Zora, Zora was kind of a satirical representation, at least part of my adolescence, when I was so focused on trying to prove that I was British, which tells you something about Britain because I was born there and I have a passport. I shouldn't be needing to prove I'm British to anyone. But unfortunately, that's the way that country works. So Zora was kind of a satirical representation of that part of my personality as a teenager, which I kind of look on ruefully because I missed a lot. But, also I'm fortunate that my mother is very young, so I've had a lot of time to catch up.
Jane: I'll turn to The Autograph Man now. And you wrote somewhere that much of the excitement of writing a new novel is always in the repudiation of the one written before it. So, what I'd like to know about The Autograph Man is what you feel like it repudiates from White Teeth.
Zadie: Well, part of it was just a series of religious preoccupations, you know, which got worked out in each book. So in White Teeth, I was really interested in Islam and I'd read the Koran and lot of it came out of that. And then I had these kind of Jewish, mystic-y friends from college, and that's really where Autograph Man came from, just the kind of just an interest. And then my father died as I was writing it, and I became very interested to the point I was going to convert and all this craziness went on. So it's kind of odd thinking about it now, because it was a kind of [pause] obsession for a while, yeah.
Jane: Well and in terms of the religious stuff, one thing that's really interesting about those two books is so much of what is in White Teeth is about really fundamentalist kinds of approaches to religion.
Jane: [00:25:48] And so much of what is in The Autograph Man is much more, sort of, willing to compromise and gentle and eccumentical. So do you think partly you had done with thinking about the Zealots and decided to investigate something a little more gentle?
Zadie: It was more just my interest in Judaism, it's worldly aspect, that's what really interested me. I come from witnesses, obviously mentioned in White Teeth, whose emphasis is entirely on the next world. This world almost, moved through as if it doesn't exist. And I was wary of that just because, if you move through the world as if this world doesn't exist, there aren't many limits on how you'll behave within it. It's a quite frightening concept.
So I guess Judaism interested me because of its emphasis on the worldly, because when I thought of my Jewish friends, if I tried to get into conversation about the afterlife with them, it didn't hold any interest. [laughs] I had never come across a religion like that! It was not the focus; the focus was this practice, ritual particularly, ritual in daily life, ritual in family life. And that really interested me. So it started there, yeah, the idea of a people who were obsessively adding meaning to their daily life in this kind of ritualistic way.
Jane: So question about White Teeth as well, and if you're willing I'm going to ask you to read a little bit again, this from the very end of the novel. And there are places where you've said, so starting with the green bracket-y thing. [brief pause]
There are places where you've said that in the end, you just kind of threw up your hands and so do all the characters, but I love the end of this book. It strikes me as sort of an opposite to the neat Victorian novel where, you know, everything gets wrapped up in the epilogue.
Zadie: I have not read this since I wrote it...
Jane: [Jane and Zadie talking simultaneously] I know,
Zadie: So talking about it,
Jane: I know you don't like to too so, [audience laughter]
Zadie: Something like 17 years ago
Jane: So I'm sorry for asking you.
Zadie: Okay. [begins reading from White Teeth]
"But first the end games, because it seems no matter what you think of them, they must be played. Even if, like the independence of India or Jamaica, like the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply a beginning of an even longer story.
The same focus group who picked out the color of this room, the carpet, the font for the posters, the height of the table, would no doubt check the box that asked to see these things played to their finish. And there is surely a demographic pattern to all those who wished to see the eye witnesses' statements, the identified Magid as many times as Millat, the confusing transcripts, the videotape of uncooperating victim and families. A court case so impossible the judge gave in and issued 400 hours community service to both twins, which they served naturally as a gardener enjoys his new project, a huge millennium park by the bank of the Thymes.
And is it young professional women aged 18-32 who would like a snapshot seven years hence of Irie, Joshua, and Hortense sitting by a Caribbean Sea? For Irie and Joshua became lovers in the end, you can only avoid your fate for so long. And while Irie’s father's little girl writes affectionate postcards to Bad Uncle Millat and Good Uncle Magid, and feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings. And could it be that it is largely the criminal class and the elderly who find themselves wanting to make bets on the winners of a Blackjack game, who are played by Alsana and Samad, Archie and Clara, in O’Connell’s, December 31st, 1999, that historic night when Abdul-Mickey finally opened his doors to women?
But surely to tell these tall tales and other like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it's not like that, it's never been like that."
[stops reading, silence] I have no idea what any of that [laughs] refers to. [everyone laughs] That's so funny! [laughter continues] Plot points.
Jane: So, yeah!
Zadie: Yeah. Well,
Jane: Glad to have given you that experience.
Zadie: Yeah [laughs, audience laughter continues]
Jane: I mean, do you feel like there's anything in there, sort of, the anti-victorian novel, or the anti-ending? Or are you just a puddle by your past self?
Zadie: [00:30:20] I'm actually quite amazed, I don't remember writing that. [audience laughs] I can't [silence] I remember I wanted to finish, I definitely wanted to finish. [more laughter] It also interests me, the thing of talking about it in terms of audience, that is recognizable, and a strange idea. As if you're trying to please everybody. [pauses] I don't know what to say about it.
Jane: We'll throw up our hands [audience laughter], and move on to the next thing. You also have written these interesting essays that kind of compare two things, and one of them is about Bart and Nabokov. And in that essay you say "The house rules of a novel, the laying down of the author's peculiar terms, all of this is what interests me." So how have your house rules changed from White Teeth, apparently there were none, [audience laughter] to NW or even Swing Time?
Zadie: I don't think you'd know that White Teeth and Swing Time were written by the same person, I don't think. The neighborhood is similar, there's Willesden in it, and you'd know it from the content, but not from the tone. [pause] I guess that the attempt to please everybody does not [pause] I'm not so interested in it anymore, you know? [pause]
And I was very moved recently hearing Toni Morrison say, she’s being interviewed in England, this is what came up in the interview; the interviewer was troubling of her status as a black writer, and she said, "I write for black people. I mean I'm glad when everybody else reads it, but I write for them." And English interviewer was so shocked as English interviewers tend to be when these things [audience laughter] mentioned. And I found it really beautiful, a woman whose age 83 or whatever Toni is now, just to explicitly describe her project.
And the thing is that novels always create a community around them, have a community in mind. And I've always loved that my readership is very mixed in all kinds of ways, but there are also things that are, I suppose, intimate to my experience and my community that I finally do want to express more subjectively, you know, and more directly.
And [pause] I think the main thing that changed for me is I still like to write comically, in the comic mode, but I don't want to make jokes at the expense of characters anymore, you know? Or create characters that are basically just jokes or punch lines of one kind or another. My real life brother is a stand up and a very good one, and I feel like he's covered that part of the family business now. [everyone laughs] And I can be less funny.
Jane: [laughs] So it's interesting that you're talking about audience and who you're writing for, partly because when you were writing those reviews for Harper's, you did this interview with your editor, ahead of time. And you said that one of the things that was really important to you was that there was a chance that the people you came from would read your books, or could read your books. And I was thinking about that, and you said it was kind of a weird class-based oulipo constraint in the way that you write. And then I picked up this tiny little book, The Embassy of Cambodia, and there's a really interesting and strange section in here where there's this narrative voice that has a certain kind of questioning about why it gets to be the narrative voice. So it's the last time I'll ask you to read, but
Zadie: No, no I like this one.
Jane: Will you read this section?
Zadie: I like this one, I'm very happy to read.
Jane: [laughs, audience laughs] Okay good. So just that section 13.
Zadie: [reading from The Embassy to Cambodia]
"To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ was one of the mottos of the Khmer Rouge. It referred to the new people, those city dwellers who could not be made to give up city life and work on a farm. By returning everybody back to the land, the regime hoped to create a society of old people, that is to say, of agrarian peasants.
When a new person was relocated from the city to the country, it was vital not to show weakness in the fields. Vulnerability was punishable by death. In Willesden we are almost all new people. Though some of us like Fatou were, until quite recently, old people working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the old and new people of Willesden I speak. I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not chose me, I must wonder what gave me the right.
I could say because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilben and Queens Park. But the reply would be swift and damning; 'oh don't be foolish many people were born right there, it doesn't mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It's all a lot of nonsense. We see you standing on the balcony, overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia in your dressing gown staring into the chestnut trees looking gormless. The real reason you speak in this way is because you can't think of anything better to do.’" [laughs]
Zadie: Yeah. [laughs]
Jane: [00:35:55] That sets up a kind of interesting relationship with writing for the people you came from, right? Because on the one hand you have talked about wanting to be able to write things that they could enter into, and on the other hand, and I admit I'm sort of conflating you with the narrator here, but on the other hand this section of this book, it makes it seems like that relationship is more complicated, like there's some kind of uncertainty about how to approach writing for the people you came from.
Zadie: I think it's a double bind of working-class literature, which is almost a tautology, almost. It's different, my brothers were rappers and all musicians who are almost always from working class backgrounds, don't have this tension because of the openness of music. You don't need a special education to listen to a song. It's something people become highly educated in music in the comfort of their own living rooms, largely for free. And so even when I think about working-class art, I think about music, because that's our greatest monument and pride.
So writing is just difficult, it's difficult because to write you do need to be educated, you need this process, you need to learn how to read. And the great working-class artists are people like Joyce, who creates a monument that, in fact, his people can't enter, can't even understand, his own wife couldn't understand it, wouldn't read it. So that's the thing, you create something that a narrow path on which people can't follow. And then some of the great artists we think of as working-class writers like Orwell, I'm going to talk about this evening, was of course an upper middle class boy from a fancy school who impoverished himself deliberately in order to write about these people.
So, I am aware of it, with The Embassy of Cambodia I was really hopeful, I knew they were going to sell it on the front of bookstores in that little bit by the counter, and I really wanted it to be published even though it seems so absurd to put Harbeck on a story, but I had the idea that maybe someone like Fatou would walk in and buy it. It's small and simple and open in the way it was written.
So yeah, it's on my mind. I used to think of it as a kind of weird burden or something, but now I think when I read hipster, avant garde writers or whatever and their audiences are so extraordinarily narrow and they have no anxiety or shame about it, but they want it that way. They came out of that system and they want to create that system behind them. And I feel like my work is getting more open, or I'm trying anyway. And there's challenges to think, “Can I say whatever I want to say in simple language?” It is an intellectual challenge. Does it have to be falsely complicated on the surface because it's a complicated idea? I don't think it does. So it's finding that balance. But, also I know very clearly that if I am in Willesden, I'm not in that community anymore the way my brother is, now my brother's on TV every night, but he's still there. He's still relatable in some way, whereas I have moved into a different class as far as they’re all concerned, which is correct. It's true.
Jane: So, we've been talking a little about the definitions that come out of place and have to do with place, and I'd like to turn a little bit, and we've touched on this, but the definitions that are born out belief or out of religious affiliation. And one of the things that is curious to me is from this interview where you interviewed Ian McGeechan, and you asked him if he had any patience at all for religion. And his answer was very unequivalently "No.” And you said, "I suppose I feel the same but I feel strange about feeling it." And then, in an interview seven years later, you said that your husband says, “You have to do everything you can not to be Christian [Zadie laughs] that you have to put all your energy into not being religious, that it's a daily effort.” [audience laughter]
Zadie: [00:40:34] Yeah, no, Ian and I don't agree at all. [Jane laughs] I mean when I was doing my interview I was very young and very starstruck and, he was a big influence on me when I was a kid, but we don't agree at all, and I've actually have several arguments on topics, [laughs] we don't really discuss that kind of thing anymore.
[pause] I guess I believe in that, [pause] like the variety of religious experience idea and that a lot of people have religious experience, you might not even think of or refer to themselves as religious. I think Ian would call those experiences aesthetic and he would, he's a great lover of nature and he uses poetry, I think, as a place where those feelings reside. But the extreme end of Ian's crowd hitches on the rest of it. The idea that I have heard expressed sometimes by some of them, for instance, that no book written by a person of faith could be taken seriously as a work of art. I mean, it's just so extraordinary and never mind Thomas Aquinas but [audience laughs] you know, Meryl, Spark, Grimm, Greene, Eliot, I mean such a long list. So it's interesting to me that, one of the things I felt when I was writing White Teeth, was that the religious impulse is also very strong in atheists, it's possible to be religious about atheism. From the kind of, if Ian's talking about that kind of dogmatism, that's equally available to people on both sides.
But, yeah, I'm very interested in ecstatic religious experiences. I had a very good friend in college called Jess Fraser, who is a philosopher and academic whose task has been for a decade now to go around the world, asking people what their idea of God is, and he just goes everywhere and does this. All over the place, all over India. I always thought what a fantastic job that must be. I'm always very jealous; she's going to publish her findings at some point, but I'd be very curious to read them.
Jane: So that explains what you owe your patience, or even interest in faith to. So, what do you owe the resistance to?
Zadie: [pause] Well it's all the usual complaints [audience laughs] about organized faith, and dogmatism, and complex metaphysics that I can't get behind, all that kind of thing. [pause] But in a very childlike way my instinct as a kid, and it remains, is that these various texts are interpretive works of philosophy, they have something to say about what it is to be in the world. To me, the texts of Islam are about submission in a very interesting way. Submission is one part of human life, should be. [pause] The New Testament with its insistence on the sin that happens inside, even before it's acted upon, is another aspect of life I find very interesting. The Old Testament with its emphasis on the law, these all seem to me aspects of human experience, and I [pause] take them as seriously a when I'm reading __ [00:44:42] or if I read Plato. To me these are writings, writings on the nature of what it is to be in the world. But, that is probably not enough for most seriously religious people, but that's my experience.
Jane: So I also have to ask you a question about your reading C.S. Lewis, and you should know C.S. Lewis to people around here is what the Pope is to Catholics. [audience laughter]
Zadie: No, I love Lewis so much it's, yeah.
Jane: Yeah. So, you talk about reading Surprised By Joy, and one of the things that I was thinking about when I read that was your own essay of definition about joy, and how it's very different from pleasure. And in talking about your child you say, “she's sometimes a pleasure, but mostly a joy.” And that joy is this strange mixture of terror and pain and delight. And you say "If you ask me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life I wouldn't be sure at all I did. It's not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives." So I wonder if you see someone like Lewis using Christianity as a way to make an accommodation between joy and the rest of his everyday life.
Zadie: [00:45:50] Lewis, for me, he's my earliest influence because I loved Narnia so much, I was so obsessed with it. And then [pause], the closest I ever became to being a formal Christian was The Screwtape Letters, which actually David Foster Wallace recommended to me. I found it just incredibly convincing, as I think he found them convincing too.
I think for me, with Lewis, with what I said before, I don't know how clear it was, but the idea that all these texts perhaps refer to an ultimate reality or gesture towards it, but the question of submitting to one cultural response to that. I never understood as a teenager how I was to make that choice. How Lewis interests me is the commitment itself is what's important. It's that he has made this choice. I think I could make it in many places but [pause] but I was always impressed by his choice to make this commitment.
He's also the most beautiful writer, he's just a stunning, stunning writer. The clarity is so good. And the intimacy. If you're suffering from grief, to read his book on grief is so direct, and so lacking in cant and hypocrisy and bluster. You know he's very clear and he's kind of got that writerly instinct for knowing your doubts and suspicions, and he already has them covered, that's what Screwtape is basically. It's just this series of guessing your complaints and getting there before you [audience laughs] and articulating them so well.
But I guess, even from the Narnia books that to, it sounds ridiculous, to make the commitment would to be almost to be lost to joy, like you wouldn't be able to go about your daily life. I think that's maybe that's one of the frightening things about faith to me, is that it would be an obstruction of my daily life and I like my everyday sinful life. [audience laughter] That's the problem.
Jane: Good. So, one more question about the religious sort of realm, and you have a number of characters that use the phrase "god-bothering," and I'm not trying to “god-bother” you, but I think it's interesting how consistently characters in your books have some kind of religious identity or affinity or what have you. And I wonder if part of the problem with faith, as you see it sometimes enacted or played out, has to do less with the belief and more with the kind of unilateral, “I have the only answer,” sort of zealotry.
Zadie: Yes, it's the [pause] it's the certainty. I like that picture that Graham Greene gives of a kind of extreme catholicism, that even when people think-- he says "Even when my characters think they're sinning against God, they're mistaken. They try, but they can't even get there." [audience laughs] And that to me is more interesting, his catholicism is really interesting to me because it lives in uncertainty, you cannot know God, you cannot know even when you are truly disapproving him, sorry, he is disapproving of you. Your knowledge of him is so minute really, and so partial. So that religious people in Greene come off quite badly, formally religious, in the sense of people who think they know the rules of the game, their relation to God, who's being punished, who's not being punished. He is wary of those people, but it's out of respect for a God who is larger than than their arguments. That vision attracts me.
But yes, anything which condemns, you know, throws the stone at the house next door is my issue. My main and closest religious feeling is one expressed by Iris Murdoch about “The Good.” “The Good” is God, and the knowledge of it, the fact that we can even speak of it as a concept is the evidence of God. Now that's as close as I've ever come. And I don't find that even to be kind of a statement of belief, it seems to be evidently true. That the Good is God in the world, and anywhere it's practiced, acted upon, remembered in moments of danger or horror. I don't see what else God could be but that. And that existence of Goodness in people as an idea, as a kind of almost force in the world, that's the thing that I quote-unquote believe in.
I don't think for instance like the behavioral psychologists that good is just a way of, a way of protecting yourself so that we don't stampeded in a crowd because we know that if that person stampedes I also get killed, it's that kind of defensive mode. I don't think that covers half of the evidence you see of good in the world.
Jane: [00:51:31] Thank you. So we've talked a lot about the “what” of the books and the “why” of the books and the “where” of the books, but I wondered if we could end by talking a little bit about the “how” of the books and a little bit about craft. And one of the things that you've talked about, and especially I think in conversations with other writers, is this sort of problem of what, or how much, or how to borrow from your own life. And how to sort of balance on the one hand, wanting to leave certain experiences to just be themselves, and being willing to pull other people or experiences in and use them as fodder for fiction in some way. So can you talk a little bit about how you negotiate that.
Zadie: I think when I was young I thought I was going to be a very moral novelist, not like Roth and all these guys who I was coming out from underneath. [pauses] But it's not true. I use everything in the end. Yep, unfortunately that's what writers do. And all the things I used to so disapprove of when I was young, exactly the idea that they will use everything as copies, or as everyone said they will do anything really for something on the page, has also proven to be true of me.
I don't mean to do it, and when I'm writing I'm not thinking--you fool yourself. You say, “so and so won't be hurt,” and, “this won't matter,” because you can't really bear to take it out. And a lot of it is done subconsciously, and I think it does hurt people, but [pause] I suppose I thought I wasn't a kind of psychological writer like the rest of them, I was much more distant from the process, but as I've got older, I’ve realized that we're all quite similar [laughs] in temperament, and it's quite hard to get out of it. And you know, those books, I think of those Philip Roth books that cause so much pain, and Bellow’s books particularly, to real individuals who were in them or--and I don't know what to do about that.
The books remain and they're still wonderful and they have a separate kind of good effect on other individuals and will continue to do that, but I don't think you can deny the harm they do in the moment. They do a lot of harm.
Jane: [quietly] yeah. [silence] So, in terms of that raw material, you write somewhere about how your husband, who is also a writer, and you, maybe you still do this, worked on different floors of the library. But as you did so, how you sort of collected interesting looking people, and their quirks and their faces, and then at the end of the day, you'd sit down and sort of swap the material you'd gathered.
Jane: So my question is, just, how did you decide who ended up with who?
Zadie: We don't think of it, in that essay, I make it sound like a technical procedure, it's just the way we talk to each other. It's certainly the case of these books we're writing now, both his poems, and he's finishing a novel, and the novel I'm finishing. We both were talking about it a few nights ago, and realizing-- he was telling me the plot, and I was thinking “there will be things that are similar,” I think, because we haven't spent much time talking about the books this time while we were writing them. But, because we spend so much time together, I think some of the deep patterns are the same. But I didn't worry about even overlapping material, or I never think of material in that way. Like if me and another journalist wrote the same event writing about the same thing, it doesn't bother me. I always assume whatever, whenever the situation passes through you, it is has it's individual color, it can't really be replicated.
Jane: [00:55:45] So one last question. You say, in yet another essay, that Joyce’s ideal reader was himself, and that was just purity. Forster’s ideal reader was a kind of projection, and not one entirely sympathetic to him. Who's your ideal reader?
Zadie: I guess mine's quite like Forster's. I admire Joyce but I don't, I suppose I don't love him really. I love the [unintelligible] very much. But when he enters that mode, it's kind of like a self pleasure, it is that Ulysses. He used to delight everyday at the end of the day's work, he was so happy creating this kind of monument to himself, and his memory, and experience.
And I don't know, I do like fiction more outward facing and I have come, particularly in Swing Time, where I'm thinking so particularly of certain kinds of readers and wanting to speak to them [pause] that I think that's just my mode. I don't think I have a big elaborate internal world to offer the world, I'm more, I'm always trying to ask people, did you feel this, do you feel this, does this occur to you? I'm always trying to make that connection with other people.
Jane: Well, from looking around, I think it's happened. And on behalf of all your readers here I would like to thank you so much for talking with me today.
Zadie: Thank you, thank you very much.
Lisa: [00:57:20] Many thanks to Bekah Waalkes. We're excited to see what cool things are in store for her in the coming years. Thanks also to Zadie Smith, and to John Wilson, who published an edited version of this interview by Jane Zwart in the Sept/Oct. 2016 issue of Books and Culture, available online.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart. You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu and, if you’re into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
If you like what we’re doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.
Also, we’ve got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you’ve been at some of these Festivals and have favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at email@example.com and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.