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Zadie Smith on the questions we should ask about identity politics

Illustration/Weef

As she heads to a WORD Christchurch event with a new book, Zadie Smith makes the case to Diana Wichtel for the right to be wrong.

Interviewing Zadie Smith is like trying to keep up with a speeding train, destination unknown. Our conversation ranges from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to what Austrian theologian Martin Buber had to say about relationships with pets: “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

And she was an early adopter of what has proved to be perfectly reasonable anxiety about the seductive assaults on the way we think and feel in a mercilessly digital age. “Everybody finds it hard – I find it hard – to allow for the idea that we have been nudged and manipulated. If I am thinking about opening up my laptop before I’m thinking of looking into the face of my child at 9am, my behaviour has been modified fundamentally.” She judges what she calls the “ultimate capitalist machine”, not the people who use it. “I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about that,” she says. “Heroin is very moreish.”

She has a way with a metaphor. The watery soundtrack to our chat suggests she’s also having some sort of plumbing emergency. “I’m cleaning as we’re talking,” she explains. “But carry on,” she says encouragingly. I’ve had people do many things during an interview – eat, speak Elvish, perform whale song … Cleaning, not so much. But then Smith has cut her own channels through the literary world since she erupted into it in 2000, fresh out of Cambridge University, with her first novel, White Teeth.

“A preposterous talent,” said novelist Julian Barnes. She was declared heir to an array of writers: Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Charles Dickens … It was all too much for English critic James Wood, who invented an overblown genre to account for the likes of Smith and David Foster Wallace: hysterical realism. All of this suggests a difficulty in dealing with a strong new female voice – Smith was 24 – producing a stunning, decades-spanning, multicultural “Big Novel”.

Smith took it on the chin, writing in the Guardian to reassure Wood that she was not “sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.”

Zadie Smith:  “In these arguments about identity, I realised a while ago I’m too proud.” Photo/Getty Images
These days, she lives in New York – she teaches creative writing at New York University – with her husband, Irish novelist and poet Nick Laird, two young children and an aged pug. She was born in Willesden, north-west London. Her mother emigrated from Jamaica in 1969; her father was English. When we speak, she’s just back from a trip home to launch Grand Union, her first collection of short stories. She avoids the reviews. “I try to not get online, just so I can get up in the morning. Get on with. Domestically, it doesn’t help to be in a fit of sadness.”

She shouldn’t be troubled by too many bad reviews for Grand Union’s stylistically various, inventive, sometimes dystopian mix. The Lazy River is about couples and their children enjoying the seductions of a swimming pool with an artificial current that carries holidaymakers in a lazy, inevitably symbolic loop at a Spanish hotel. “Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read, to tan … Then we all climb back into the metaphor.”

Smith will explain her often-elliptical stories reluctantly, if at all. But that one is based on real life, or as real as life can be at a Spanish hotel with a lazy river. “As a rule, I’m very bad at vacations. I don’t really accept the category of nothing. I don’t like to do it,” she says. “But I have been to such a place.”

Surely she didn’t spend as long as her characters do on their inflatables, languidly circling the drain. “Oh, a long, long time. I don’t remember doing anything else. I’m not one for excursions outside of the hotel,” she says enigmatically. At least she occupied herself generating metaphors. “I wrote it a long time afterwards. Sometimes you’re thinking and you don’t even realise you are.”

The story mines her preoccupation with the way we live: “Down below, the Lazy River runs, a neon blue, a crazy blue, a Facebook blue.” She doesn’t like where we’re being propelled. “The lessons of the 20th century are when someone tells you it’s inevitable, it’s ideology. If they tell you it’s natural that a nine-year-old should have an iPad and a phone, they have to, everybody has one – the moment you hear that, you are in the realm of ideology. I’m really just trying to remind myself of that minute by minute.”

Photo/Getty Images
Her resistance to the digital world is part self-preservation in a rackety world of hot takes and pile-ons. “I just wait for individual readers to talk to me. It’s always too late anyway, because you already wrote the book.”

The new collection touches on the Orwellian, censorious world that technology enables. In Now More Than Ever, a New York professor grapples with cancel (or call-out) culture. University colleagues hold signs featuring damning black arrows, pointing at the apartments of colleagues who have sinned intellectually. “The only abstainers are the few remaining Marxists … who like to argue that the whole process is fundamentally Stalinist.” Hear, hear, a reader might find herself thinking.

The story makes an unnerving case for the right to be wrong. “I don’t mind being wrong. Wrong is fine. It’s all cool. I think absolute humility in front of the possibility of other minds is a really important place to start.”

So, she just ignores it all? “I’m not ignoring it,” she says drily. “I’ve just written 6000 words about it.” I meant that she seems admirably determined to do what she likes, anyway. But, yes, I tell her, Twitter reveals that quite a few writers here were struck by the essay she’s referring to, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defence of Fiction”.

“What does ‘struck’ mean?” she says. “That sounds ominous.” Well, the essay was provocative, in its carefully argued way, in times when you need an algorithm to figure out who is allowed to speak or write about whom. In it, she quotes Walt Whitman – “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself” – in defence of what she calls “our indefensible art”.

She suggests reframing terms such as “cultural appropriation” as the more generous “profound-other-fascination”. She quotes British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: “These ideas of cultural ownership share some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity.” That brought some up with a start. It runs counter to current notions of identity politics and cultural appropriation.

“Even those phrases you just gave to me, they’re not my phrases, neither identity politics nor cultural appropriation,” she says. “The first task of the thinker is to think; I don’t know how else to put it. Once you’ve taken the terms of the argument, you’ve already given too much.” Don’t take the bait, she advises, of secondary terms.

She’s taken some flak for her insistence on questioning even the questions we’re asking these days. There were calls for a painting about Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, to be removed from last year’s Whitney Biennial exhibition. Open Casket was painted by white artist Dana Schutz. In an essay in Harper’s, Smith wrote, “I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed – and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible – that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another.”

Her story Kelso Deconstructed is about the last days of Kelso Cochrane, who was murdered in 1959 in a racial attack in London. “If I write about Kelso, is it my subject because I’m black and British? How does that work exactly?” she says. “His death matters to me because it matters to British history and because I have concerned myself with it. But my right to the subject doesn’t run through my blood. Because if it did, there’s a whole series of other subjects I can’t touch on the same logic. You cannot switch the logic halfway through the argument.”

Not on her watch.

These issues are not just intellectual. “In these arguments about identity, I realised a while ago I’m too proud. That’s what it is. I’m just too proud. Like, the idea that you can appropriate something from me?” She’s not having it. “You can’t appropriate anything from a white guy, right? He’s so secure you can’t take anything from him. I resent that relation. I resent the idea that my culture is so vulnerable and so easily damaged that you could take something from me. You can’t take anything from me.”

It’s how she was raised: “That our culture was the equal of, transcendent of, as long as, as important as – that’s the community I grew up in. That’s a Maroon head I have on my shoulders.”

Photo/Getty Images

She’s referring to her maternal heritage. Maroons descended from Africans who escaped from slavery. The title story, the final in the collection, in which a woman goes on an outing with her late mother – “She was dead, and in heaven, but for convenience sake we met outside the chicken spot at the top of Ladbroke Grove” – reaches into a similar ancestry. “I’m sure every Jamaican family tells themselves they’re Maroon, but I believe my family are Maroons. Whatever you’re told as a child, you use as an instrument to create yourself,” Smith says.

The story draws on other early experiences. “My brothers and I were brought up as feminists. To me, that story was a fictionalisation of the idea, what if femininity wasn’t masochistic? Because that’s what I grew up with, an absence of masochism. That’s a great gift for any mother to give her daughter, so I want to pay tribute to it.”

The wit and playfulness in her writing are possibly another gift. “Our family situation was pretty laughable, no offence to my family. We had to find some comedy in it.” There was the parental age gap. “My mother was 20 and my father was 50. Yeah, it’s pretty hardcore, man. The Hegelian idea is that the children then are the uniting synthesis. Instead, we just turned it into absurdity. Just the extremity of the gap at every level – racial, age-wise … They came from different realities. We were, like, born existentialist.”

As for her own daughter and son, don’t ask if they have phones. She’ll fiercely question that question. “I really, really think that if you try to move the argument into this question of choice …” Here she does a very good impression of an annoying virtue-signaller: “‘Oh, I don’t have a phone.’ It’s like saying, ‘I eat kale.’ It’s completely irrelevant, who can or cannot have a phone. It’s a luxury. But if you’re asking me personally, yes, I avoid it. But I can.”

Smith will be appearing at this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival. It’s hard to read one of her stories without thinking of that city. It’s called Two Men Arrive in a Village. The title sounds like the beginning of a joke. It’s not. It’s about an atrocity, a sort of fable. “Yeah, I’m interested in fables. I like them, particularly old Jewish ones.” In the story, a woman who wasn’t there during the horror the others endure leaves the room when a survivor is about to name one of the men. “She decides to remove from the aggressor his triumph of being named,” Smith says. We talk about Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to name the perpetrator after the terror attacks at the Christchurch mosques. “Yes, I think that’s a folk instinct and it’s the correct one. It’s not in my practice to believe that people can fall beneath human consideration, but that’s about as close as you can get, right? It’s a very ancient instinct, in women particularly, perhaps because men are so – no offence to men – keen on naming things and themselves all the time. So, one of the things you can deprive them of is their claim to fame.”

These days, mass murder can be live-streamed. We’re back to the internet. “There’s the conflict we’re having when we’re having these conversations. We know we love this thing, but we also know this thing is destroying our familial relationships, our love lives, our democracies – the list is so long, one really doesn’t know where to end it. We should have flags that say, ‘Deprive the data point.’ Deprive it. You’ve given it enough. Lay down tools.” Oh dear. Much more of this revolutionary talk, I tell her, and I’ll be forced to get out of the lazy river and get off Facebook. “Lay down tools,” she urges, laughing. “Lay down tools.”

Well, it’s one thing you can do in a chaotic world. “Chaos is too weak a word. Total despair, environmental, existential, political,” she says. “And, by the way, of all the things that are inessential in the present moment, up there shining at No 1  is writing a book of short stories,” she says with bleak good humour. “Despair is my daily drink.”

Of course, she doesn’t entirely despair. “What is the alternative, apart from some optimism? I personally find my generation to have been pretty ruinous to the planet and to the politics, and so what’s left to us?” she says. “I sometimes think the only useful job we can do is, with our pre-internet brains, to try and think through things. We are adult humans. We can think. It’s about all we’ve got left to offer. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Zadie Smith will be a guest of WORD Christchurch for An Evening with Zadie Smith, November 13.

Grand Union, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $35)

This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.