Briton, Jamaican, mother, writer, female: on becoming
whole with one of this generation’s most vital literary voices.
ZADIE SMITH IS THERE and not there. In the streaming image on my laptop she sits at a desk, backlit in her book-lined office, her right hand holding a goblet filled with liquid of such a dark crimson that it seems to suck all the other colors from the room. In the dim light Zadie’s face looks pale, the scatter of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose shifting around as if in no fixed position.
Circumstances have forced us to talk via FaceTime. It’s after midnight in London, where Zadie is; dark too where I am, in the attic of my house in Princeton, N.J. Despite the 3,000 miles of ocean that separate us, the illusion is that we are facing each other across our individual writing desks.
I don’t like FaceTime. The sudden projection into my presence of a staring, homuncular creature always feels strange and violent. It makes me anxious to have to talk to someone like this and pretend they’re real.
There’s another reason for my hesitancy to credit what I’m seeing tonight. I’ve just finished Zadie’s new novel, “Swing Time,” and am still living in its shadow world. Like the black-and-white musicals that feature in its pages, the book is a play of light and dark — at once an assertion of physicality and an illusion — in which the main character, a girl born to a black mother and a white father, tries to assemble, from the competing allegiances that claim her, an identity that allows her to join the dance. This narrator is unnamed, as is the African country where much of the action takes place. The novel cloaks existential dread beneath the brightest of intensities.
I check the digital recorder. It appears to be working. The shadowy figure on my screen appears to be Zadie Smith. And so we begin.
WHEN NOVELISTS talk about what they’re working on, they rarely mention subject matter. Plot, theme, symbolism, character — those staples of English class — few of which have much to do with literature, don’t come up. Richard Ford has written thousands of passages about the New Jersey real estate agent Frank Bascombe, describing his marriage, his divorce, the death of his son, his health scares and his armchair philosophizing, but when I asked Ford what motivated him to write those books, he replied, “Oh, I just felt like I wanted to write something first-person, present tense.” He didn’t have to explain this to me. The right voice, once discovered, guides everything the writer does and supplies all necessary information and insight — often enough, things you didn’t think you knew.
“Swing Time” is Zadie’s first novel written in the first person. This comes as a surprise, given the verve of her prose style in books such as “White Teeth” and “NW.” “I was always a bit contemptuous of the first person,” Zadie tells me. “I was stupid about it. I thought it wouldn’t allow me to write about other people. But, in fact, it allows you to do it in a really interesting way because it’s all inflected by the subjectivity of the character. Once I stopped feeling self-conscious about it, then it moved quickly. It did move quickly.”
I knew that already. Last winter, Zadie’s emails to me became not only more infrequent but shorter. Then things went silent, as they often do when a friend’s writing is going well. Novelists are like fur trappers. They disappear into the north woods for months or years at a time, sometimes never to reemerge, giving in to despair out there, or going native (taking a real job, in other words), or catching their legs in their own traps and bleeding out, silently, into the snow. The lucky ones return, laden with pelts.
As much as I missed Zadie, I was prepared to wait a year or two until she reappeared. But by May her new book was finished. One of the first things I ask her, therefore, is how she wrote it so fast. “I went to therapy,” Zadie says jokingly, but she soon grows serious and explains, “I’ve always felt very cringe-y about myself. Fiction is a useful way of getting around it or disguising oneself one way or another. Not being able to write in the first person was very much about that, and self-disgust or anxiety about saying ‘I.’ I used to sit in front of the computer and have a very tough time writing, and I just noticed, once I was in therapy, I didn’t find it so difficult to write.”
Like a good therapist I say nothing, only murmur, encouraging her to continue. And then Zadie says something I don’t expect, something much more surprising than her previous admission: “It did seem to me, when I was a kid and also now that I’m a grown-up writer, that a lot of male writers have a certainty that I have never been able to have. I kept on thinking I would grow into it, but I’m never sure I’m doing the right thing.”
Recently, a number of novels by women have investigated the nature of female subjectivity. Sheila Heti’s “How Should A Person Be?” and, in a more astringent mode, Rachel Cusk’s “Outline,” present female subjectivity as fragmentary or contingent. In order to dramatize such internal disarray, Heti paints a Cubist portrait of herself from shards of memory, taped conversations, lists and dialogue, while Cusk removes her narrator from direct scrutiny altogether, allowing her to take shape as a curiously empty space formed by the currents of talk that swirl around her. The impetus behind such experiments, as Zadie’s comment suggests, comes from the idea that the authority a male writer assumes doesn’t originate in himself but in the structure of society, which he inherits like a mantle, but which slips from the shoulders of a woman, or just feels ridiculous to wear.
Objections to this theory come readily to mind, foremost the existence of women writers who are happily authoritarian; but also, the likelihood that the same anxiety bedevils male novelists as well. The machinery of omniscient narration can feel as clunky in my hands as, I suspect, it does in Zadie’s, for the simple reason that we inhabit the same literary moment. Cusk’s assertion that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” is an extreme, even absolutist, position. Certainly some of the most intelligent recent fiction has either strong or veiled autobiographical elements, whether you’re thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard, W.G. Sebald or Cusk herself. On the other hand, is there no way to mine one’s own emotional and biographical terrain for ore with which to construct other lives? Would Tolstoy or Shakespeare, alive today, only write about themselves?
Before I get the chance to discuss these questions with Zadie, there’s a problem with our connection.
“You’re cutting out so badly,” she says. “Should we phone?”
“Okay, let’s just go to audio.”
“Let’s try that.”
WE’RE JUST VOICES now, reduced and clarified. Zadie’s brings to mind Lear speaking of his daughter Cordelia: “Her voice was ever soft/Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” I think it must be easy to write with a voice like Zadie’s. Any word you vocalize sounds like a mot juste.
Like the narrator of “Swing Time,” Zadie was a talented singer from an early age. “In films and photographs,” says her narrator, “I had seen white men sitting at their pianos as black girls stood by them, singing. Oh, I wanted to be like those girls!”
Zadie was, for a time. She worked as a cabaret singer to earn money while studying at King’s College, Cambridge. Her love of the American songbook and of the black-and-white movie musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that used to air on BBC 4 are interests she shares with her novel’s narrator. “The most autobiographical part in the book,” Zadie tells me, “are the passions.”
She once showed me, with real delight, a photograph of an unrecognizable, overweight, curly-headed teenager whom she identified as herself. So along with her passions for singing and dancing, there was that: the original ungainliness, the dreaded self discarded, fled from, which remains in eternal pursuit. It’s that girl, as well as the singer and performer, that make Zadie the writer she is now.
“Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti,” she writes of the mother in “Swing Time,” but she might be describing herself. Zadie is a glamorous figure now, especially for a writer. Literary cocktail parties are not exactly star-studded events, but those thrown by Zadie and her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, come close. Among the mix of people who show up (and everyone does show up, which is itself remarkable) are Hilton Als, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, alongside actual celebrities like Lena Dunham or Rachel Weisz.
Zadie, in person, has an approachable, immensely welcoming air, to readers, fellow writers, doormen, cabbies, everyone she meets. She comes at you with that Nefertiti face, but then she makes a joke, or laughs, and her slightly snaggle-toothed smile puts you at ease, bringing with it all the warmth, chumminess and hugger-mugger family feeling of a girl from the Athelstan Gardens council estate. Zadie’s status as a former ugly duckling has given her a provisional attitude toward her looks. “I did not mind dressing up for strangers,” her narrator remarks in a passage Zadie admits is characteristic of her own story, “but in our rooms, within our intimacy, I could not be a girl, nor could I be anybody’s baby, I could only be a female human.”
I ask about that passage. “When I was growing up, just the whole idea of being a girl — it seemed like a lot of work to me. Even now, I will wear lipstick and mascara but I will not do anything else. I won’t do my toenails or my fingernails. I was terrible at dating because of what dating involves, the presentation of something.”
“You’re pretty presentable,” I say.
“I am presentable, but it’s like Nick says: The moment I come in, it’s sweatpants, make-up off, huge crazed Afro.”
“Men have never noticed toenails or fingernails on women.”
“I know. I also sense that. I often feel that women radically overestimate what men notice or care about.”
The work of being female, the performance of gender — Zadie has her limits. Whenever I compliment her on a dress she’s wearing, she tells me how cheaply she got it online. If I mention a new hairstyle, she thrusts a Cleopatran braid into my hand and says, “Extensions.” Once she called me from a hair salon, near tears, to say she couldn’t meet for dinner that night because her hair had “broken down” and she was going to have to shave her head and start over. When we finally got together, I expected her to look bristly headed and traumatized, like Dustin Hoffman in “Papillon.” But Zadie sauntered into the restaurant smiling, a mop of “Flashdance” ringlets bouncing around her face. Fake, too, apparently. Like femininity. Like literature. She wanted me to know.
BECOMING A PERSON, of course, means finding your people, and your place among them. For Zadie, who is biracial, this process wasn’t easy. She undertook her first trip to Jamaica, her mother’s birthplace, under duress. “It was the last place I wanted to be,” she says. “I believe my mother had a boyfriend there. I didn’t realize that until we got there. I just wanted to be in London with my friends. I was allergic to everything. I was too hot, I was sunburned. I didn’t want to belong to the place.”
Years later, she traveled to West Africa only to find that the place didn’t want her to belong to it. “One of the only things in the book that actually happened to me,” Zadie says, “is that I was in the middle of what I thought was some kind of spiritual experience in West Africa, this search for my identity. It became clear after the end of quite a long trip that everybody I had been with thought I was white.”
Is it any surprise why someone so multiple would begin life as a novelist by penning “White Teeth,” which tries to pack every shade and type of Londoner into its 480 pages, or why now, another lifetime later, that same writer might want to go inward rather than outward?
The title “Swing Time” has two meanings, after all. One refers to the 1936 musical of the same name and to swing music generally. But there’s another sense in which swing isn’t an adjective defining time, but a verb acting on it. To swing time: What does that mean?
In structure, the book alternates between chapters involving the narrator’s childhood friendship, in London, with a girl named Tracey, and chapters when, as an adult, in the employ of an international pop star who goes by a single name, Aimee, she travels to Africa in connection with the founding of a school for girls. The two-step the book performs crosses not only times but continents. The narrator’s search for identity is local and immediate, as well as distant and historical. “It just seemed to me,” Zadie says, “that what was done to black people, historically, was to take them out of the time of their life. That’s what fundamentally happened. We had a life in one place and it would have continued and who knows what would have happened — nobody knows. But it would’ve gone a certain way, and we were removed from that timeline, placed somewhere entirely different, and radically disrupted. And the consequences of that are pretty much unending. Every people have their trauma. It’s not a competition of traumas. But they’re different in nature. And this one is about having been removed from time.”
The flow of Zadie’s voice ceases a moment. I sense that something has shifted in her expression, and for the first time during our interview, I wish we still had video. “I suppose the phrase is quite popular at the moment — check your privilege,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anybody on earth for whom that isn’t true. There is no unimpeachable identity from which you can operate in the world from a position of righteousness at all times. Sometimes, at a certain moment in history, people have decided that you are close to that figure. How tempting it must be to grab it with both hands and be that person, the unimpeachable moral person of rightness and rectitude. But you know it’s an illusion.”
At one point in the novel, the narrator, while in Africa, visits a nearby island where slave ships once departed with their cargo of human beings, bound for the West Indies, America and Britain. Many a novelist might have provided a scene where she gazes out over the water and comes face to face with the horror of it all. Zadie doesn’t do this. Her narrator, acutely aware of the pitfalls of what she calls “diaspora tourism,” fails to conjure the obligatory images in her mind, and thereby protects the history of the site from becoming kitsch.
Zadie’s reluctance to traffic in stereotypes doesn’t, however, prevent her from dealing with the history of slavery. In fact, it allows her to find the ways in which that history is still occurring. Early in the book, the narrator describes a mad playground game that erupted in her school when she was 9: “It was like tag, but a girl was never ‘It,’ only boys were ‘It,’ girls simply ran and ran until we found ourselves cornered in some quiet spot, away from the eyes of dinner ladies and playground monitors, at which point our knickers were pulled aside and a little hand shot into our vaginas, we were roughly, frantically tickled, and then the boy ran away, and the whole thing started up again from the top.” At first, this seems to be a form of sex play. But as the game continues, and moves into the classroom, a change occurs. “The random element was now gone: only the original three boys played and they only visited those girls who were both close to their own desks and whom they assumed would not complain. Tracey was one of these girls, as was I, and a girl from my corridor called Sasha Richards. The white girls — who had generally been included in the playground mania — were now mysteriously no longer included: it was as if they had never been involved in the first place.”
This is how colonialism enters the novel, not by the narrator’s reanimating its remnants in West Africa but, much more frighteningly, in her finding its deformations and hierarchies still operative in her school classroom, in London, in the early 1980s. Somehow her male classmates have understood that it is the brown girls whose panties they can pull aside; and it is the brown girls who accept this as a natural order of things, all at an age before sex has become conscious. “Those things don’t disappear,” Zadie says. “They don’t disappear.”
The present craze for autofiction is a valid response to the anxiety that it is getting harder to make fictional worlds credible. But to insist that the only road to authenticity runs through the autobiographical is to confuse means with ends. Zadie, at any rate, doesn’t appear to be going down that path. In trying to find the right perspective with which to treat her fractured identities — as a woman, as a black person, as a British subject — she has moved toward a level of self-expression new to her fiction, while continuing to rely on her imagination to supply the contents of her narrative.
It’s very late in London now. We’ve been talking for a long time, and I want to let Zadie go. But before we hang up, she mentions the novelist Darryl Pinckney. He and his partner, the poet James Fenton, appear as themselves near the end of “Swing Time,” and I ask about the eruption of truth into fiction. “Darryl, to me,” Zadie says, “is a model of — I can’t describe it — but active ambivalence. He is as well read on African-American issues as anyone could imagine being. Yet there is also a part of him which is radically existential. He is absolutely aware that there is such a thing as having been subjected to the experience of blackness, which causes all kinds of consequences, political, social and personal, and at the same time, he claims the freedom of just being Darryl, in all his extreme particularity. I haven’t met many people like that.”
I get the sense that Zadie wants to become such a person. But when I mention this, and say she already seems that way to me, she goes quiet for the first time all night.
“Oh,” she says, and nothing more.