‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind’, Q&A excerpt with Zadie Smith
Keeping on the somewhat accidental theme of inspirational literature, brought up by Phuong referencing Matt Haig’s book in her exploration into Mental Health and belonging, as well as the latest post by Feaben featuring spoken word artists - we thought we would share an excerpt of a Q&A from The Guardian between various leaders in the literary world and acclaimed writer Zadie Smith (read her bio, here).
‘Zadie Smith has been a vital literary voice since her first novel, White Teeth, became an instant bestseller. Here she answers questions from famous fans and [Guardian] readers.’ - Kathryn Bromwich
Nikesh Shukla, Writer and editor of The Good Immigrant
What song lyric best describes you?
“And I just blame everything on you/ At least you know that’s what I’m good at” – Kanye West
Sharmaine Lovegrove, Publisher of new inclusive imprint Dialogue Books
How has it felt for you, from such a young age, to be viewed as a mouthpiece for race, gender and culture because so few others have been invited to have their stories heard?
I never conceived of myself as a mouthpiece. Nor do I think of myself as telling “my stories”, exactly. I think of myself as thinking about all sorts of things, on the page, in public. I try to point out the idiosyncratic way in which I think and also the commonality I’m seeking. Something like: “I’m thinking this – are you, reader?” But I don’t mind if the answer turns out to be no. I’m less interested in convincing people of an argument than in modelling a style of thinking. That’s what’s important to me in the literary world: ways of seeing and thinking.
When new voices come from underrepresented constituencies, there’s always the hope of a new perspective: a new angle, a new mode (though, in fact, nothing can ever guarantee true “newness”). For example, if I’m reading Teju [Cole]’s essays, I’m confronted with a mind that works completely differently from mine, with a different focus trained on different subjects – Lagos, 16th-century Flemish art, photography – and that’s thrilling to me. Or I can pick up Imbolo Mbue and read about New York from a perspective I couldn’t conceive by myself: that of a recent Cameroonian migrant. Or I can read Edouard Louis and know something of what it means to grow up in extreme poverty in contemporary France – I mean, how the world might look to a person who has been formed by such experiences.
I like to hear a variety of voices, but they don’t have to be personal stories. What I’m really interested in is other conceptions. People have radically different minds, in my view, and I want to be exposed to as many of them as possible. I think there can be almost as much difference, experientially speaking, between you and the person next to you on the bus as there is between me and my pug. And if, as too often happens, publishing houses choose only writers they recognise, from their own milieu, their own backgrounds, class, perceived community etc, well, then you get far less variety in this pool of minds and we all miss out. Writers principally – but readers, too.
Juno Dawson, Author of The Gender Games
Several years into my transition, I’m still referred to as “trans author Juno Dawson”. Do you also feel you have a dual role as an author and also a “voice” of your community?
My trouble is I can’t think of community in the singular. Doesn’t everyone exist in a Venn diagram of overlapping allegiances and interests? I’m a black person, also a woman, also a wife and mother, a Brit, a European – for the moment – a Londoner, a New Yorker, a writer, a feminist, a second-generation Jamaican, a member of the African diaspora, a Game of Thrones-er, an academic, a comedy-nerd, a theory-dork, a hip-hop-head and so on.
I am delighted to be all these things and everyone, no matter where they are from – if they really think about it – will find themselves with a similar plurality of communities. At different moments, you’ll feel the pull of certain commitments more strongly, especially if an aspect of your identity is particularly embattled.
But the whole debate can fall into a kind of trap. I know the argument: no one calls Don DeLillo the “white American author Don DeLillo”, so why should I put up with being called “the black British author Zadie Smith”? But by that logic, the rhetorical pressure falls on this idea of neutrality, as if to be white is not to possess a race or an identity – is simply to be “the author” – whereas to be black is precisely to have an identity. And then from there you are forced into the corner where you find yourself arguing that to be truly great, truly “the author”, you must have your blackness forgotten, you must aspire to people seeing “beyond” it, “past” it.
It’s a version of that backhanded compliment I sometimes heard as a child: “Honestly, you’re just my mate, I don’t even think about your colour. I’m colour blind!” I think you have to reverse the concept to see how strange it is: “Oh, Don, I don’t even think about you being white any more, I just love your books!” No, I don’t desire this supposed neutrality. I am all the things I am – and also an author. It’s all inseparable, as Don and his whiteness are inseparable.
Chris Ware, Cartoonist
Do you have any secret techniques for overcoming self-doubt?
As you know, there isn’t really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.
Matt Haig, Author of books including Reasons to Stay Alive and Humans
You have been skeptical about things like Twitter and Instagram in the past, as you value your “right to be wrong”. Do you worry about what social media is doing to society?
My worry is narrower: myself, my family. I can’t stand the phones and don’t want them in my life in any form. They make me feel anxious, depressed, dead inside, unhinged etc. But I fully support anyone who finds them delightful and a profound asset to their existence! Different strokes for different folks.
The societal question is more complex, although I think it’s users themselves and not luddite abstainers like me who are best placed to speak on it. But as you’re asking… Maybe it’s time to speak a bit more honestly to ourselves about how we’re using this technology. Avoiding self-deception – that’s the hardest bit. You have to get off the defensive, out of the public argument and just sit in a corner with yourself and do a frank accounting. What is this little device in your pocket doing to your intimate relations with others? To your behaviour as a citizen within a society? Maybe nothing! Maybe it’s all totally cool. But maybe not?
I’m not delusional – I don’t envision people casting their devices en masse into burning bins any time soon. (And I’m as addicted to my laptop as any user of an iPhone.) But perhaps a reassessment is due, along rational lines. Do we really need to be online for 27 hours a week? (This is the latest figure for teenagers, but it grows crazily with each year that passes.) Do we need the internet in our pocket at all times? Do we need it resting by our pillows at night? Do our seven-year-olds need phones? Do we wish to pass down our own dependency and obsession? It all has to be thought through. We can’t just let the tech companies decide for us.
Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London
I read in a previous interview that you consider London to be a ‘state of mind’. I think you’re right. What does London mean to you creatively and how does it influence your work?
The people, the humour, the variety of place and circumstance are all endlessly interesting to me. There’s also the microcosmic nature of north-west London in particular. A lot of things that happened in England over the past three centuries can be found in north-west London in miniature: enclosure, industrialisation, suburbanisation, immigration, gentrification…
Question from Guardian reader, bellaireland:
I’ve been a huge fan of your work since White Teeth. I cannot believe it’s been nearly 20 years since that novel was published. What advice would you give to a young, twentysomething BAME writer today?
I feel fraudulent giving advice. I’m a writer narrowly focused on the page in front of me and then the page after that. But maybe that is advice in itself: focus on the page in front of you. That’s what I see in a writer like Toni Morrison. A fierce, unyielding work ethic, focused on the page. She was on a mission from the beginning, to complete this cycle of books and set down her ideas, impressions, and memories, both personal and historical. You can’t distract her from this task. For me, a living example like that was always more useful than “advice”.
Read the full Q&A, here.
Anything here that sparked your interest? Comment below!
Want to read some of Zadie’s work? An excerpt of ‘Swing Time’, is here.