Interview by Jane Zwart
Zadie Smith has written five novels: White Teeth (2000), Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012), and Swing Time (forthcoming). She also writes essays—some of which readers can find collected in the books Changing My Mind (2005) and Feel Free (forthcoming)—and short stories. She spoke with Jane Zwart in April at Calvin College's biennial Festival of Faith and Writing.
I wanted to begin simply by asking about the fictions themselves, and if it's all right with you, I think we'll work in reverse order.
I'll start with a novel you still have in your possession: Swing Time, which is due to be published in November. When I heard about it—this new book—what I wanted to ask you is what you're writing it "to see if you can." 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 that had "four very different narrative modes." What test of that sort—doing something to see whether you could do it—led to Swing Time?
Actually, it sounds uninteresting, but the test was to write in the first-person. And to write a book that continues to have that feeling of realism and detail in its people but has also an almost fable-like quality.
So if it's a fable, it has a moral?
[laughs] It's hard to describe, but if you could have all Christian American life summed up by one life or all Polish Jewish life summed up by one life … I was trying to think about black life, I suppose, thematically—and so it's a little bit like that: the feeling of blackness.
All right: we'll wait for Swing Time itself and turn to NW. Before writing it, you'd written an essay about Middlemarch by George Eliot in which you talk about "the famous Eliot effect." And you go on to say of Middlemarch: "Here is the English novel at its limit, employing an unprecedented diversity of 'central characters.' The novel is a riot of subjectivity." Then you explain that each character in the book would think that someone else was the main character. Well, to me, NW—although it doesn't have as many central characters—feels like another "English novel at its limit," like another "riot of subjectivity." But I read it as less sympathetic to its characters than Middlemarch is to its characters. Is that fair?
I was thinking of it the other way around. What strikes me about Eliot and Austen and really about that whole tradition is how judgmental it is. Jane Austen is one of the most judgmental writers ever to have lived.
I think about that alongside the fact that both Eliot and Austen were without children. Because, as the daughter of somebody, you have a lot of judgments. You have a lot of opinions about your parents, about the village you live in, about everybody. One of the experiences of having children is that it thrusts you into uncertainty in a different way.
Austen seems to me absolutely certain, full of judgment. Because it's comic, maybe people don't notice so much, but Pride and Prejudice works through gradations of condemnation for everyone apart from Elizabeth, who is critiqued but finally saved. A lot of it is very severe, in fact, but it's all delivered in the comic spirit. Eliot does something similar. The most simplistic reading of Middlemarch is that is represents a kind of journey or guide through husbands or potential husbands and their various flaws. And I think White Teeth is written very much in that manner, under that influence. But as I've gotten older—and as I wrote NW—I felt less inclined to take that point of view.
That reminds me of what you say in a conversation with Ian McEwan, where you mention that his narrative voice seems to be absent of a judging consciousness. So maybe NW's sympathy is a kind of distance?
I prefer that distance. It seems to me in some way more ethical. The things which tire me in fiction are a kind of fake, aphoristic wisdom or this obsession with judgment—and I think comic novels are almost always about judgment in one way or another.
I had this incident last week when I went to a children's party with my kids—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." So I started talking about all the awful people and the terrible mother-in-law, and then I saw my daughter look at me like it hadn't occurred to her that this was what going into the world was for: to examine a lot of people and then do ridiculous impressions of them and find it hilarious. And I felt very ashamed when I looked at her. The question is: Is there another way of being in the world that doesn't involve this constant act of satire?
Do you feel, then, that using the first-person might be one way toward that?
One more question about the novel NW. In the essay "Speaking in Tongues," you refer to the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which a lot of people will know by way of the musical My Fair Lady. You say that in that play, Eliza swaps one voice for another but that the play itself is still many-voiced. Which got me thinking about the character of Keisha/Natalie in NW. Part of that book is about her swapping—not even entirely successfully—one voice for another. But could it also be said that NW, like Pygmalion, is itself many-voiced?
It is many-voiced, although I know that as I get older, it will be harder for me to imitate the voices of my youth—and of youth generally, just because the way kids talk round my way changes so much so quickly. It becomes antique: all that slang, all the rest of it. But there's still a certain rhythm to North London speech that I recognize and enjoy. And I am picking up—I hope—new voices. Being in America, I hear a lot of new voices. And certainly in Swing Time, I can see American speech encroaching on my fictional world.
My first question about On Beauty is about one of its Americans, but she also happens to be one of that novel's most minor characters—as well as, for me, one of the most beloved: Katie Armstrong. In the middle of the book, Katie Armstrong shows up for about seven pages. She's this especially young undergrad at an Ivy League college, and she feels like she doesn't understand her art history class because it seems not to be about the art. You write about her struggling with that predicament but also about her loving a specific picture—Rembrandt's Seated Nude—in part because she feels some affinity with the woman in it.
I'm glad you can remind me of all this. I don't remember any of this happening in the book. [laughs]
Let's remind you a little more. Would you mind reading the marked passage?
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 has 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. 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 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 stockings on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labour. 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 stringbean, physically—can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, 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 crosshatching. (Katie makes her own comics and knows something of cross-hatching); all these intimations of mortality from an inkpot!
Quite good, isn't it?
[laughs] Thank you.
Of course. But let me ask about Katie. What is she as a character doing in the middle of this novel? And why is she there only so briefly?
I think I stole the idea from Dickens. I have a feeling it's in Bleak House that there's a chapter, self-contained, about a character not involved anywhere else in the novel. I must have thought that was an interesting idea.
I do remember I wanted to find a conduit for some of my experience when I was in college—because I came to university life so naïvely. I came from a family in which no one was educated to that level. I was the first to go, and I'd also read a lot of stuff about Bloomsbury, which gave me a very romantic idea of where I was headed. I was enthusiastic, too. So the first essay I wrote—about Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath—was kind of fictionalized. All these writers were talking in the essay, but as characters. I took a long time over it, and then my professor gave it back to me, and he marked underneath: "This is not an essay." And that was the beginning of my education at Cambridge. [laughs]
I happened to land there in '94, a time of a lot of theory, especially high French theory. All of my ideas about novels—you know, I really thought of them as this kind of "truth and beauty" thing, this kind of life-changing thing—were not in fashion at all. Well, because I'm very easily influenced, I fully got onboard the French theory train and forgot about all that "truth and beauty" stuff. It was only years after, when I wrote this book, that I thought it was quite a brutal experience to have to give up one version of aesthetic pleasure and have to leap into this other, purely intellectual response. So Katie was kind of about that (and, of course, she's a foil to Howard, who takes up so much space in the book).
Let me ask you a question about another young woman in On Beauty, the character Zora (who, it seems, was probably named for Zora Neale Hurston). Even though she's very into "curating her own identity," to borrow a phrase from your commencement speech at the New School, she seems hardly at all interested in questions of her ethnic identity.
No, but what's interesting is that Zora and I became somehow conflated in a lot of people's minds. I realized it when I was at the playground shortly after [On Beauty] came out and one of the other professors at NYU—another mom—came up to me and said, "I didn't know your father taught at Amherst." [laughs] And I said, "My father did not teach at Amherst." I realized she thought that I was a child of academics, that it was all my life. I had written myself into a new family. Like the kind of people I met for the first time in college, I guess: upper-middle-class kids whose parents were writers and artists and intellectuals and journalists. It was just inconceivable for me, that idea, that your parents could be involved in that world. For instance, that you could make art and offer it to them and that they would respond in an intellectual way. My mum certainly reads everything I write now and is really responsive and smart with it—and of course has a degree herself now. But my father never really read me. He read articles about me, but he could never get through any of the novels. So the idea of a father like Howard is something I had to imagine; it wasn't my own reality.
Anyway, yes, Zora. When I was an adolescent, I was, I think, very focused on proving 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 that's the way that country works. And Zora is a satirical representation of that part of my personality as a teenager, which I look back on ruefully now because I missed out on a lot. Trying to get other people's approval when I could have been doing something more interesting. My Jamaican heritage—my African heritage—has become much more interesting to me now than the fact that I happen to have a British passport.
So it seems that heritage is something that you've thought about in religious and artistic terms, as well as in ethnic or cultural terms—which is why I wanted to ask you about a claim you made shortly after you had written The Autograph Man: that "much of the excitement of writing a new novel is always in the repudiation of the one written before." What, from White Teeth, does The Autograph Man repudiate?
I think those two books trace a series of religious preoccupations that I was working out. In White Teeth, Islam. I read the Koran, and a lot of the novel 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.
But my father died while I was writing the book, too, and my interest in Judaism became less theoretical and more spiritual—to the point where I thought I might even convert. The book itself is a form of idiot's kaddish. It's odd thinking about it now, but it was an obsession for a little while.
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."
So I suspect what you just read of pointing to a tension about how to approach writing for the people you came from—especially when you're writing for them in two senses (for them as your audience and for them as their representative).
It's the double-bind of working-class literature, which is itself almost a tautology. Almost. My brothers are rappers. And musicians—pop musicians are almost always from working-class backgrounds—tend not to come up against this tension because of the innate openness of music. You don't need a special education to listen to a song. People can become highly educated in music in the comfort of their own living rooms, largely for free. So when I think about working-class art, I think about music—because that's our greatest monument and pride.
Writing is more difficult. It's difficult because to write you do basically need to be educated. You can have outsider painters and outsider musicians but outsider writing—in the sense of truly outside, outside any system—is hard to find. Writers need the process. You need to learn how to read. And sometimes a great working-class artist—someone like Joyce—creates a monument which, in fact, his own people can't enter. His wife, for example, couldn't stand Ulysses, couldn't read it. So that's the thing: you create a narrow path in which only certain people can follow. And, then, some of the great artists we think of as working-class artists, like Orwell, were of course upper-middle-class boys from the fancy schools who impoverished themselves deliberately in order to write about these people so strange to them, the working class.
With Embassy of Cambodia, I was really hopeful. I knew they were going to sell it in the front of bookstores, on that little bit by the counter. I know that it seems so absurd: a hardback for a story, but I had the idea that someone like Fatou might just walk in and buy it, so small and simple and open in the way it was written. But of course it was 12 quid. I remember never being able to afford hardbacks. So perhaps she might sit in a corner of the bookshop and read it for 20 minutes and then discreetly put it back on the counter.
And yes, the question of class is always in my mind. I used to think of it as a weird sort of burden or something, but now—when I read the hipster avant-garde artists or whatever and their audiences are so extraordinarily narrow and they have no anxiety or shame about it—I think, well, they wanted that, and I didn't. They came out of that system, and they wanted to create more of that system behind them. I feel like my work is trying to move in the opposite direction, getting more open. I'm trying, anyway. The challenge is 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 about finding that balance.
But also very clearly, I'm not, when I'm in Willesden, part of that community any more the way, for example, my brother is. My brother is on TV every night, but he's still there. He is still relatable in some way, where I have moved into a different class, as far as they are concerned. Which is correct. It's true.
Having talked a little bit about the definitions that come out of place, I'd like to turn (and we've touched on this) to the definitions that are borne out of belief or out of religious affiliation. And you're clearly interested in such questions, too. That's clear in the fiction. It was also apparent in that interview you did with Ian McEwan. You asked him whether he had any patience at all with religion and his answer was an unequivocal no. And you said, "I suppose I feel the same, but I feel strange about feeling it." Seven years later, on being interviewed yourself, you mentioned your husband's claim that you "have to do everything you can not to be a Christian," that you "have to put all your energy into not being religious," and that it's "a daily effort."
Yes, Ian and I don't really agree on religion, but I was very young and very star-struck when I interviewed him. He was a big influence on me when I was a kid, but we have actually had a few arguments about religion.
I guess I believe in the variety of religious experience—that a lot of people have religious experience, people who 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—point to poetry as a place where those feelings reside. But the extreme end of such thinking and the idea that I've heard expressed from time to time—that no book written by a person of faith could be taken seriously as a work of art—is to me a little extraordinary. Never mind Thomas Aquinas—but Muriel Spark, Graham Greene: there's such a long list.
And one of the things I felt in writing White Teeth is that the religious impulse is also very strong in atheists. It's possible to be religious about atheism. If what Ian was talking about was dogmatism, that's equally available to people on both sides.
So, yes, I'm very interested in ecstatic religious experience. I had a very good friend in college, Jess Frazier, who's a philosopher and academic and whose task it's been for a decade now to go around the world and ask people what their idea of God is. I always thought what a fantastic job that must be.
What you've just said goes some distance, then, to explain to what you owe your patience with faith. What do you owe the resistance to?
It's all the usual complaints: organized religions and dogmatism and a complex torturous metaphysics that I usually can't get behind. All of that kind of thing.
But in a very childlike way—it was my instinct as a kid, and it remains—I read all these different texts as interpretive works of moral philosophy. They have something to say about what it means to be in the world. To me, the texts of Islam are about submission, for example, in a mode I find fitfully compelling. Submission is a part of human life, after all, or it should be. An awareness of limits. But if the Koran was the only book I was allowed to refer to in the world I would feel entirely diminished by it. As it is, I add it to all the other books and find beauty in it. The New Testament—with its insistence on the sin that happens inside our souls even before it's acted upon—that is another interpretation of an aspect of life that I find useful and beautiful. The Old Testament with its emphasis on the law, on right action in the world, whatever you feel in your soul … These all seem to me aspects of human experience, and I take them as seriously as what I read in Kierkegaard or Plato. To me, these are writings—writings about the nature of what it is to be in the world—created by humans, who were themselves inspired by a form of ecstatic knowledge. Where that comes from I don't know, and I suppose I don't really care. The text for me is more important than the source. That's probably not enough for most seriously religious people, but that's how I experience these books.
Speaking of religious texts, I also wanted to ask you a question about C. S. Lewis—and you should know, C.S. Lewis is to most people around here what the Pope is to Catholics. In one interview, you talk about reading Lewis's Surprised by Joy, which made me look back on your own essay of definition about joy, about how it's very different from pleasure. You describe joy as "that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight," and you go on to say, "If you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn't be at all sure 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." Do you see someone like Lewis using Christianity to make an accommodation between joy and the rest of his everyday life?
Lewis is my earliest influence. I loved Narnia so much, was obsessed with it. And the closest I ever came to being a formal Christian was The Screwtape Letters, which actually David Foster Wallace recommended to me. I found it convincing. I think he found it convincing, too.
For me with Lewis, though—well, it goes back to something I said before, the idea that all these texts perhaps refer to an ultimate reality or gesture toward it. But the question of submitting to one particular cultural response to that ultimate reality? I never understood how I was meant to make that choice. With Lewis, it's the commitment itself that's important, the fact that he has made this choice. That is faith. And I suppose what I'm saying is I am a faithless person, who occasionally admires faith in others.
I think Lewis is also the most beautiful writer. The clarity is so fine. And the intimacy. If you're suffering from grief, to read his book on grief—it's so direct, so lacking in cant and pomposity and bluster. He's very clear, and he also has that kind of writerly instinct for knowing your doubts or suspicions. He really has them covered. That's what Screwtape is, basically; it's just a series of pre-emptive descriptions of your objections, articulating them before you can yourself and in this manner neutralizing them.
But I guess even from the Narnia books, I always thought that—it sounds ridiculous—that to make good on the kind of belief expressed in them—not to be in bad faith—would be to be enormously lost to joy, so that you wouldn't be able to go about your daily life. I think maybe that's one of the frightening things about faith for me, that it would be an obstruction of my daily life, and I like my everyday sinful life.
Just one more question about religion. You have a number of characters in your fiction who use the phrase "God-bothering," and I'm not trying to "God-bother" you. But it is remarkable to me how consistently the characters in your fiction are themselves "God-bothered," how many reckon with some kind of religious identity or affinity or the like. Is that, in part, your way of thinking through the problem not of faith but the problem of a faith that hardens into a claim of having the only answer?
Yes. What troubles me is the certainty. I like that picture that Graham Greene gives of a kind of extreme Catholicism, almost undone by doubt. But not quite. He says, "Even when my characters think they're sinning against God, they're mistaken." They try, but they can't even get there. His Catholicism is really interesting to me because it lives in uncertainty. You cannot know God. You cannot know even when he is disapproving of you. Your knowledge of him is so minute and so partial. So that religious people in Greene come off quite badly—formally religious people, people who think they know the rules of the game, the rules of their relation to God, who's being punished, who's not being punished. Greene's wary of those people, but it's out of respect for a God who is larger than their arguments. That vision attracts me. But anything which condemns—you know, throws the stone at the house next door: I can never join those clubs. My own sins are too evident to me.
My main and closest religious feeling is one expressed by Iris Murdoch in a book about the Good: that the Good is God, and that the knowledge of it—the fact that we can all even speak of the Good as a concept at all —is in itself the evidence of God. That's a very stupid paraphrase of what she says, but that conflation of God and the Good is as close as I've come to faith. But I don't find it to be even a statement of belief; it seems to me evidently true that the Good is God in the world, or as close as we're going to get to it/him/her: anywhere goodness is 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 almost a force in the world: that's the thing that I believe—quote, unquote—in.
I don't think, like behavioral psychologists do, that being good is only a way of protecting yourself. That just as we don't stampede in the crowd because we know that if that person stampedes, I also get killed—that goodness is only this, only a kind of defensive mode. I don't think that covers half the evidence you see of good in the world.
One last question—and this one about readers. You claim, in Changing My Mind, that "Joyce's ideal reader was himself, and that was his purity. Forster's ideal reader was a kind of projection, not one entirely sympathetic to him." Who's your ideal reader?
I guess mine's more like Forster's than Joyce's. I admire Joyce, but I suppose I don't love him really. I love The Dubliners very much, but when Joyce enters that other mode, to me it's kind of like a self-pleasure. Writing Ulysses, he was so happy creating this monument to himself and to his experience. I don't know … Maybe I begrudge him. Maybe I have a little suburban soul, like Forster's, that shies away from epic display and tends toward self-hatred. I would like to escape from both of them, though, and imagine instead a basically smart and open person who will follow me along my own road for a while.
With Swing Time, I have come round to thinking about wanting to speak to readers like me and have a book open enough that they can speak back. I think that's my mode. I don't think I have a big elaborate internal world to offer the world. Joyce considered himself very interesting and brilliant—and so he was! I feel myself to be something more like a blank space or a mirror in which others might find a working reflection of themselves. I'm always trying to ask people "Did you feel this? Has this occurred to you?" I'm always trying to make that kind of connection.
Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College and, with co-director Jennifer Holberg, leads the newly launched Calvin Center for Faith and Writing.
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