On Saturday I attended a reading and talk by Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she promoted her latest book, Swing Time. The ticket included a copy of the book, and I also picked up her first novel, White Teeth, and her collection of essays Changing My Mind from the DMA bookstore since - dare I admit it? - I'd never read a book by Zadie Smith before. As a matter of fact, the only piece I'd read by her before was the phenomenal On Optimism and Despair, published in December in the New York Review of Books.
Smith began by reading from the middle of her book for about 15 minutes (the 2nd trip of the narrator to Africa) and then spent about 45 minutes to 1 hour in conversation with Kris Boyd, host(ess) of the Think! program on the KERA TV/radio station, before opening to Q&A. Throughout, she proved herself to be an articulate speaker who thinks on her feet. I didn't take down any notes, so I bear all responsibility if I remember something incorrectly.
Overall I was struck by how down-to-earth yet well-spoken Smith was. For instance, when asked about blackface (the book starts with the narrator watching on TV Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie Swing Time, Astaire who imitates Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing while he wears blackface), she was careful to speak against general statements and preferred looking at the details of each appropriation instead. In this case, Astaire doesn't have his lips painted white and doesn't make wild, grotesque gestures, as would be expected in blackface. Instead, according to Smith, he does his best to imitate Bojangles as well as possible to provide a record of the way the man danced. Bojangles was a tap dancing icon and nothing would remain of his performances if it hadn't been for Astaire trying to record himself as Bojangles for posterity.
A powerful moment in the evening was when she talked about the obscenity of people being denied the opportunity of realizing their potential because of how they're being written off due to their poverty. She also talked a bit about her mother, the first trip to Jamaica (where her mother's family is from) where the two of them stayed in a hotel instead of with relatives and the dichotomy between those two worlds, the Jamaican world of her family and the Jamaican world of the tourism business, especially given that the hotels tend to be owned not by locals but by German or Swiss companies, the small hut, now half-destroyed, where her mother had grown up, and the current political situation, especially the possibility of the incoming president reducing aid to Africa, where Smith brought up the fact that developed countries have had a long tradition of exploiting African resources through some of their companies established there and that the African situation can't be resolved without a hard look at what those companies are doing to the African ecosystem. She mentioned Liberia but stopped short of referring to a specific company by name.
She also remarked that some reviewers had believed the unnamed African country that provides the backdrop for a part of the book was Senegal, when in fact it was its neighbor Gambia. I haven't read that part of the book yet but apparently she uses city names from Gambia, and compared the mistake to setting a novel in Paris without saying it's France and having a reviewer says it's set in Spain, but was also the first one to forgive the reviewers, having been a book reviewer herself and gotten boxes with one hundred books inside to read in a matter of weeks.
She was also asked if she had any formal background in dance, given the details she gives of the world of ballet in the book (she doesn't, but she dated a member of the Royal Ballet when she was young). Other questions focused on black British authors and her time at the University of Cambridge. In contrast with another famous person whose time at the university overlapped hers and hated it (and whose name I forget), she explained that she could see why this other person had hated it but it had been so hard for Smith to get there that she couldn't see herself react the same way when she was there (and again, I'm writing this from memory, so I am a little fuzzy on the exact words she used.) Regarding black British authors, she said she hoped the British publishing industry didn't think it was "off the hook" because it was publishing her and one or two other black British authors and she talked about the fads of the industry. Apparently, if I understood correctly, African diaspora - but written by African authors - is a big thing these days in the British publishing industry.
As a random point, I loved her aside about her kids being named "common" names, because she feels uncomfortable with the current trend of people giving their children unusual names, as if their lives had to be some kind of performance from the start. Smith of course doesn't have a common first name herself, but she was actually born Sadie and changed it to Zadie when she was 14.
Smith was born in North-West London but is now a full professor of creative writing at New York University, prompting the question from an audience member "you have referred to President Obama as 'my president'. Do you feel American?" And she talked about how if she felt American it was in big part "his fault" (tongue-in-cheek), and discussed the citizenships of her children, with her son being born in the US because she happened to be in the country that month, and feeling American, and having the blue passport to prove it, and being taught US history as "his" history, when his citizenship is an accident of fate due to his travels, and I think that's also where she expounded on the very American need to put down roots and belong to a tribe, and warned that a world entirely governed by tribalism is not in general a pretty world. Yet a profound concern for the United States radiated from everything she said, although she never actually answered the question with yes or no.
The talk was sold-out, with many African-American women in attendance - and many non-African-Americans like me in attendance too - and a genuine sense of excitement in the air. My neighbor in particular was thrilled when Smith came out wearing her hair in a bit of an Afro hairdo just like hers - Smith's pictures don't show her with that hairdo so my neighbor hadn't expected it, and she had just been talking about her hairdo as hopefully not blocking the view of the people being her (it is just how her natural hair looks, she hadn't particularly tried to style it that way or antagonize people). When Smith stepped out of the backstage area to the lectern, my neighbor gasped and giggled in surprise. It occurred to me how quickly we tend to dismiss the power that seeing someone who looks like you be successful can have on your life. We talk of mentors and role models without thinking of which mentors, which role models really would have the most impact. Smith proved herself to be a much needed source of wisdom in today's less than thoughtful climate.
And now, the book. If I were to write a one-sentence review, I would say: I find Swing Time massively underwhelming but love Zadie Smith enough to read anything she writes next. If I were given a second sentence to expand my thoughts, I would add that White Teeth, or what I've read so far, is light-years better - ebullient, raucous, joyful, with sharp observations of the world her characters live in and a firm ability to conjure their environment for her readers. Swing Time never steps out of the unnamed character's head. A common complaint is that the narrator has no name, but I think it's not the main problem. The main problem is that the narrator's voice tells us a lot of things without letting us see them, which creates a distance between the reader and the narrator that even a skilled novelist like Smith can't bridge.
Smith herself admitted during the talk that people often reproach her not to be visual enough in her writings - she was talking about the adaptation of Swing Time into a TV series, which she is writing in partnership with her husband - and afterwards when I read Swing Time it occurred to me that was exactly the problem. I love ballet, I love the premise of two brown girls trying to become ballet dancers, but the narrator is a meek character often in the shadows, Tracey's sidekick before she becomes pop star Aimee's doormat, and showing the world of the novel through your least interesting character (of the three) is rarely a good idea.
White Teeth has a completely different voice, and is a much more gripping book. Interestingly, Smith was interviewed by KERA's Boyd on air a few days ago (you can listen to the interview here), and is quoted as saying: “I think most of us if we had to look at our journals or the little short story we wrote when we were 21 we’d feel quite sick of our process. But of course what I wrote when I was 21 is on bookshelves all over the place so I’m confronted with it a lot. But as you get older maybe you also get a bit gentler towards your younger self. When I look at books from the past that I’ve written it’s not that I love them, I can’t say I love them. But I do think some variety of, I don’t know, like, ‘You go girl! That’s not bad.’ At 21 you’ve got a lot of energy. Perhaps it’s a bit overwritten, but I feel distant from it that I’m impressed in a distant way.”
What shocks me in this quote is that White Teeth is a far superior novel to Swing Time, as if Smith was hoping that with fame and time she would be able to let go of the rules of writing she had been taught and just write the way she wants, the way she hasn't been able to before, even if that makes her former professors or longtime readers shake their head in disbelief. I wonder because I'm tempted to do the same thing at times, when I look at my novel-in-progress, which I have been working on (on and off) for about eight years now, in English. And thankfully I am only a few weeks away from being done. When I started I had no understanding whatsoever of what made a novel for the American market (and an upcoming post will be about Yuyin Li's essay in the New Yorker about her renouncing her Chinese mother tongue to write in English, about which I have a lot to say, as someone whose mother tongue is French and chose to write in English, but mostly Li misses the point).
When I look back at how I wanted to tell the story, I think I had more originality back then in the structure I had planned for it, and I did write that book and some agents read it and they liked the premise but not the way I told the story. And so I tried to revise it, made it worse, let go of it for a while, put it out of my mind, then tried to make a play out of it, and finally admitted that the idea really wanted to be told, and told well, in a novel, and I'd better get back to work. Sometimes I miss the originality of the structure I first had had in mind, though - don't we all want to be originals? at least we creative types who like to write? just the idea of writing a novel suggests you want to write a story you don't think has been told before. And perhaps if I have enough readership someday I'll be tempted to let go of the storytelling rules I learned at the UCLA Extension School and write however I want. But when I see the result in Smith's work I have to face the facts: it doesn't work. If you want your story to be as powerful as you can make it, to touch as many people as you can, you just can't have a narrator that stays in her head the whole time and is less interesting than the people she observes, even if you think it's brilliantly off the beaten path. So I'll keep reading White Teeth instead and then will get myself On Beauty, and perhaps NW, while I eagerly wait for Smith to publish her next novel.
To read Claire Messud's review of Zadie Smith's Swing Time in NYRB, click here.