Interview by Jane Zwart
As far as their religious preoccupations go, one thing I notice about those two books is that so much of White Teeth is about really fundamentalist approaches to religion whereas so much of The Autograph Man is about a belief that's more gentle and ecumenical. Would it be fair to say that you were done with the zealots by the end of White Teeth and ready to investigate an approach to belief that was a little roomier?
The Autograph Man was more about my interest in Judaism. In particular what I saw as its worldly aspect: that's what really interested me. I come from Witnesses. (Obviously, Witnesses are mentioned in White Teeth.) Their emphasis is entirely on the next world. This world, well, it's as if it doesn't exist. And if you move through the world as if this world doesn't exist, there aren't any limits, really, on how you'll behave within it. It's a frightening concept. Judaism attracted me exactly because of its emphasis on the worldly. When I'd be with my Jewish friends and try to get into a conversation about the afterlife, I was struck by how little interest it held for them. I'd never come across a religion like that, where [the afterlife] was not the focus. The focus was practice and ritual: ritual in daily life, ritual in family life. That really interested me, the idea of a people who are obsessively adding meaning to their daily lives in this ritualistic way.
Surveying the novels this way reminds me of an essay you wrote about Barthes and Nabokov, with this line in it: "The house rules of a novel—the laying down of the author's peculiar terms: all of this is what interests me." Between White Teeth and NW, or even Swing Time, how have your house rules changed?
I don't think you'd know that White Teeth and Swing Time were written by the same person. I guess there's Willesden in it, so maybe you'd know it from the content, but not from the tone. That attempt to please everybody, to make people feel comfortable with me, around me—I'm not interested in that any more.
I was very moved recently reading an interview with Toni Morrison. The interview was given in England, which is why I think the interviewer was troubling over [Morrison's] status as a black writer—but Toni said, "I write for black people. I mean, I'm glad when everybody else reads it, but I write for them." And many readers of the newspaper seemed shocked by this. I found it beautiful: a woman of 83 or whatever Toni is now, explicitly describing her project. Novels always create community around them, and I've always thought that my audiences were unusually mixed in all kinds of ways. But at the same time there are probably things intimate to my subjective experience that I finally do want to express more directly.
I think the main thing that's changed for me is that, though I still like to write comically, or in the comic mode, I don't want to make jokes at the expense of characters anymore. Or create characters that are basically only jokes. Or punchlines of one kind or another. My real-life brother is a stand-up, a very good one, and I feel like he's covered that part of the family business now, and I can be less funny.
While you're thinking about audience and who you're writing for, I wanted to mention the interview you did with your editor at Harper's when you started writing reviews for them. One of the things you said during that conversation was that it was really important to you that the people you came from could read your books, and I was thinking about that—you called it a "weird class-based Oulipo constraint" in the way that you write—when I picked up this tiny little book, The Embassy of Cambodia. There's a section in here where the narrator questions why she gets to possess the narrative voice. Will you read it?
"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss" was one of the mottoes 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 choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, "Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen's 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 up 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."