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.
To read the rest of my account of the evening and my comments on the book, please click here.