Interview by Jane Zwart

Only Connect

A conversation with Zadie Smith.

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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.

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