A conversation with Zadie Smith about cultural appropriation, male critics, and how Trump interests her novelistically.

Zadie Smith on Appropriation, Male Critics, and How Trump Interests Her Novelistically

Zadie Smith on Appropriation, Male Critics, and How Trump Interests Her Novelistically

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 16 2016 11:15 AM

Zadie Smith on Male Critics, Appropriation, and What Interests Her Novelistically About Trump

A wide-ranging conversation.

Zadie Smith
Novelist Zadie Smith at Redaktion BLAU on Thursday in Berlin.

Brian Dowling/Getty Images

In an interview in 2000, Zadie Smith told the Guardian about the pressure she felt after the astonishing success of her debut novel, White Teeth. “I was expected to be some expert on multicultural affairs, as if multiculturalism is a genre of fiction or something,” she said. “Whereas it’s just a fact of life—like there are people of different races on the planet.” Whether it’s indeed a fact of life or, we now fear, a feature of American life that is at risk of erasure, multiculturalism in all its complexity is at the center of Smith’s books. From White Teeth to NW, which was published in 2012, Smith’s characters inhabit mixed urban communities, often in London. Her latest novel, Swing Time, is out this week; set in England and West Africa, the story concerns the friendship of two young girls who meet in a dance class (“our shade of brown was exactly the same”) and traces the paths of their lives over a quarter-century.

Isaac Chotiner Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate contributor. 

Smith, who grew up in London with a Jamaican mother and English father, has also established herself as one of her generation’s prolific essayists, weighing in energetically on such topics as Middlemarch and Brexit and E.M. Forster. (Her third novel, On Beauty, was an “homage” to Howards End.) She now lives with her husband and children in New York City. I had been trying to interview her for years, to no avail. When the chance finally presented itself, the date and time kept changing, usually a sign of a reluctant subject. But when we did eventually speak over the phone, the day before the election, Smith, now 41, seemed surprisingly at ease. (Weren’t we all in those innocent days?)

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Over the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the vulnerability one feels writing fiction, the arrogance of male critics, and why she doesn’t have a smartphone.

Isaac Chotiner: Has your view of multiculturalism and its inevitability changed?

Zadie Smith: I don’t think it has changed, but the word is used in two different ways. The first is a kind of ideological principle, and the second is just a descriptive fact. I’ve always dealt with it as a descriptive fact. On the right in England, it’s considered some kind of subterranean policy, but I consider it a consequence of things like airplanes and global travel. [Laughs.] I’ve never understood the argument about reversing or pulling back from something which is a geographical, social, and historical fact. I’ve never written from the perspective that it’s a concerted policy.

But now we have people here and in England trying to reverse multiculturalism, people who built large parts of their political platforms on that promise.

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My husband is from Northern Ireland, which is a completely racially homogeneous place, and was for hundreds of years, and they still managed to find the difference between which way you faced an altar, and then kill each other for at least 600 of those years. I don’t accept the initial premise. Do you see what I mean? If you engage with it, then you’re engaged with the idea that the only peaceful way of life is homogeneity. I think that is historically delusional and inaccurate.

[I know] that’s not what you mean. Yes, people are trying to reverse a mixed situation. What kind of reversal can we possibly be talking about, literal repatriation, is that where we’re heading?

Britain is probably going to pull out of Europe—

Yeah. It is. Obviously I feel sad. What other feeling is there to have? I also have some faith in Britain as a very mature parliamentary democracy and as we see already brakes are being put on. I don’t know. I’m not a fatalist.

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Reading your books in order, up through Swing Time, made me think you were becoming more fatalistic.

Well, you know it’s different to be 41 than 24, for sure. Life is facing in one direction, to one place. I don’t think there’s any novelist, or any artist, that doesn’t experience that feeling. You are death-facing: That’s just a fact. Particularly when you have children, you are now what’s between them and death. You change positions. I think that’s just an existential fact that can’t be avoided. But I do feel, as I think people do feel when they’re up against it, that you get tired of trying to represent your people to other people, and expect their sympathy and understanding. At a certain point you just want to defend your people for yourself and for them, and become less externally facing because there doesn’t seem to be so much point. I feel like the Black Lives Matter movement is part of that reradicalization of the civil rights movement, saying, “We are our people and we will protect our people.”

That’s interesting because I always viewed it as a movement that’s trying to get white America to care about black people when we, for so long, have not.

It is, but it’s also a movement of a certain amount of aggression, a certain militancy, which we haven’t seen in the world. I think it is a response to despair, and a rightful response. The civil rights movement is always moving between the Martin position and the Malcolm position and right now we’re in a Malcolm moment. I think it’s a good thing.

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What other things have changed about the way you look at the world now?

I don’t think I’m a particularly political person. I don’t have a political intelligence. My husband’s like that, I have lots of friends like that, but I’m not a political animal. When I’m looking around, I’m thinking intimately about people’s intimate life. That’s my business. Sometimes people’s intimate lives reflect the political world, but my first concern is always people.

I think the pessimism, if there is one, it’s just as you get older it becomes more and more obvious to you that life is not a perfected art. It’s not that generation after generation everybody improves and becomes better, but that you move in these constant cycles. Something I’ve found personally and maybe it has some resonance politically is that progress is never permanent. That goes for the welfare state, that goes for personal progress in your life. You have to be continually reclaimed, restated, reargued.

How do you synthesize that opinion with what you said about globalization being a fact?

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It is a fact, but under these new terms we have to make a case again for things like universal education, health care, welfare. You have to restate the case. Although again I feel myself to be a bit of a political dunce; you can’t really do it by just repeating the pieties of the ’70s, the ones I grew up with. As much as I love them and grew up within them, I think you have to find a new response to new circumstance. I don’t know who that would be in England. We have to wait for that person to arrive.

Prince William.

He’s perfectly placed.

You said your concern was people, not politics. Does anything interest you about Trump, novelistically?

What interests me, which probably doesn’t interest other people, is the children. I’m going to talk in a generalization. When people are children of narcissists, and there are multiple children, they usually bond together against the narcissist. But when you have a lot of money, as Trump does, that seems to skew the whole thing. What I find so painful is the idea of children competing for the affection of a narcissist, whose affection they will never receive. That seems to me just excruciating. That’s what boggles my mind: Reading interviews with them where they boast about who gets to call him in his office more regularly or who saw him more than four times during their childhood. It’s so sad, that part. It’s slightly unbearable. Also because if the children don’t correct the narcissist, he goes to his grave never knowing. I think that’s the kind of man he is, right? He’ll never know.

I imagine Saddam’s kids, or Qaddafi’s, being the same.

But even with the children of a dictator there’s usually one who turns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. Maybe just to be told you are the prettiest is enough from this kind of parent.

Does anything interest you novelistically about Hillary Clinton?

Uh, no. [Laughs.]

That might be a credit to her. She might be person enough to not be caricatured by a comic novelist like me.

Do you spend most of your time in New York now?

I live here … and I am American in all purposes except I have a green card so I can’t vote. I don’t know if I’ll become a citizen. I was talking to another writer this weekend, Hari Kunzru. He’s like me. I think we both always thought of England as home. We’ll go home and be very nostalgic about home. When the country you come from changes so radically as it has recently, it’s just a strange immigrant experience. Not that I will ever move home, but you feel like now I have no two homes. I’m not at home in two places. It’s a weird feeling. Maybe it’ll change again, but yeah it’s strange.

How much time are you in London these days?

As soon as the kids come out of school, June 16 whatever, we go to England and see my family and his family and the kids see their cousins, and we come back the day before school starts. I go as an outsider. It’s compounded not just by not being there but by the time passing. You’re already nostalgic as someone who’s now, whatever, 25 years older. When I’m there in the summer, it’s so beautiful, England in the summer. My children love it so much and all our family are there, so it has a kind of idyllic tone, but I know that’s not the same as England in February and all year round.

Because of what I said before, because of that mature parliamentary democracy and because I have so many friends there who I know are working on the side of good, I’m not that pessimistic. I think there’s only so far Britain can go wrong. I guess I’ve had that sense since I was a kid. Maybe I’m wrong, and it could fall straight into some.

I used to feel that way about the U.S.

Right now. Right. Exactly. No, I’ve never felt this way. Never. I was saying that to Nick this morning. I’ve never had the feeling, certainly not in Europe, even when I lived in Italy under Berlusconi, I’ve never had a feeling like I have about tomorrow.

In your Brexit essay, you referred to yourself as middle class. Is that still how you think of yourself?

I don’t think it’s a matter of opinion. What else could you call yourself? I know artists sometimes think they’re exempt somehow because they’re artists, but I think that’s a crock of shit.

I assumed you were making more money than a middle-class person now. I think this is a U.K. versus U.S. difference.

I see what you mean. You could absolutely call me upper-middle class, or whatever you want to call me. I just meant that for me working-class life is a daily experience and once you’re removed from it … people in England feel differently. They feel like it’s a mark of birth, and it’s never removed.  I was born working class, but I’m not working class anymore.

I came across a quote where you talked about the “essential hubris of criticism” and how protected a position the critic is in compared with novel writing. Do you still feel that way?

Yeah, but I don’t mind that. I think it’s just different stages of life, like the kind of young angry man criticism that you write when you’re straight out of college and a young man. [Laughs.] It’s good that that stuff happens. Somebody has to walk in and say, “This is absolute shit.” Separating wheat from chaff with that kind of venom is completely appropriate for the young boy with a pen who wants to make a name for himself. I guess as I’ve got older, and with the more novels I write, I’ve gone soft from that boy’s opinion because I know what it takes to write a novel. There are plenty of novels I absolutely hate, but it’s no longer of interest to me to publicly destroy them. I know how much it hurts, and I just can’t do it.

I still think of criticism as a beautiful and intelligent way of describing the lay of the land. When I write criticism now, I do tend to write about things I love just because I’m more motivated by that. Hate is not enough for me anymore. It doesn’t give me the requisite energy to write 5,000 words. It really has to be adoration, I guess. But I do feel when I am writing criticism that I am much more defended, sure. I can be cool in criticism, and I can be right, which is a great joy, whereas in fiction you can only be variously vulnerable. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel, and you’ll always look the fool in some proportion, and also you’ll always reveal yourself in a way that is kind of horrifying. I can tell from somebody’s sentence the type of person they are and that’s the risk with a novel. With criticism it’s all much more disguised.

Since you now teach, how would you say teaching a novel is different from writing literary criticism about a novel?

I teach great novels so that makes life much easier. There are no novels in the course that are not great novels, in my opinion, and I guess I take my opinion quite seriously when it comes to other people’s fiction.

You can of course decide that you don’t like Kafka, you just find him boring. But I can still show you the way these stories work, their operations, and I still know that will be good for you, even if you dislike him. It’s like bad-tasting medicine or whatever.

Before I start a course each January, I think, Oh my God, how am I going to do this? I get anxious. Then once we’re in full swing, it’s always good. There’s always one very, very bright kid and then there’s lots of really good kids. There’s always one extremely bright kid. I don’t know how I would get that otherwise in my life, with two small children, and mostly a domestic life. Having that conversation every Monday and Tuesday with 12 19- and 20-years-olds has been extremely useful for me. I hope it’s been useful for them too.

I’ll do a follow up interview with your students to see.

They do that anyway in America! They fill out forms. I don’t know if I’m a very good teacher, but I mean well is all I can say.

One of the most famous pieces of criticism of the past several decades is James Wood’s review of White Teeth, where he talked about “hysterical realism.” I know you have referred to it a lot, and I was wondering, looking back 17 years or whatever—

[Grunts.] Ages.

How did that piece affect you as a writer or affect your psyche?

I think male critics would like to believe that, wouldn’t they? Particularly with girl writers—that they’re constantly correcting them and improving them. What do I think now? Personally I think that to write White Teeth at 21 is not too shabby, actually. That’s what I think.

Whether it was good or bad or whatever, I was a kid and I’m proud of it. When I look back, it feels like a different lifetime and I can’t imagine how it was written, but I’m glad of it. I never did disagree with James’ criticism, but the one thing I do feel is that there is sometimes, not with James really, but certain attitudes amongst male critics that they think perhaps I am vulnerable or unsure of myself. I genuinely believe in change in prose. I want it. That kind of restlessness is what makes me continue. Not liking something I did before is just a way of saying it’s now time for a change. That’s the way I’ve always operated. I kind of like it.

What do you mean by change in prose?

To me, when you think of painters, you don’t find it at all surprising that they have periods, right? Abstract periods, figurative periods. That’s how I think of writing. I want it that way. The idea that I am ... I don’t know. The way that male critics write about women is always a little funny. It’s part romantic, part corrective, part, “now listen young lady.” [Laughs.] I think they can’t help it. It’s just so deep in our dynamic, in the culture. In middle age you just have a certain comfort in yourself and you just start moving in your own way. I’m quite determined in my own way.

Speaking of male writers covering female novelists, what did you think of the apparent unmasking of Elena Ferrante?

I’m about to write about her new book. I admire her enormously, and I had no interest from the start, nor did anybody, who really writes, I think. Literally, I’m not trying to be gauche: I do not understand the argument. It’s like saying, who is Shakespeare? Shakespeare is whoever wrote all those plays. What more do you want to know? All that happened is that someone gave me a name that is not Elena Ferrante. Just in every other way it doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel a kind of deep connection with the consciousness that wrote those books. I love that person, and I send her my love virtually, wherever she is. The rest of it is just nonsense to me. Literary gossip.

Since your new book spans continents, from Europe to Africa, did you think about the target audience? Who are you writing for?

This time I was thinking very particularly about black girls. I’m very happy if other people read the book, but that’s who the book is for explicitly, and that’s who I wanted to write to.

You’ve probably followed this debate in the literary community about Lionel Shriver and cultural appropriation. Given that you’re someone who has lived in different places and mixed racial backgrounds, what do you make of this conversation?

I did not read the article … but I obviously had heard about it. It’s just a question of approach. I would not take Lionel’s approach. I also think there’s an enormous amount of pious cant spoken about it. I’m almost never accused of cultural appropriation—why not? Because I’m brown and Bengalis are brown and so it’s all the same to white people? It’s interesting. It’s a kind of fake piety. I do resent the idea of being portrayed as such a vulnerable human that if you involved yourself in any aspect of my “culture” I will crumble at the idea of you borrowing it from me.

The whole thing is told from a white perspective, which is completely annoying to me. In terms of things that I borrow, of course I use things all the time. I have absolutely no defense apart from I love and am curious about other people’s lives and I am explicitly a voyeur. That’s why I started writing: because I wanted to know what’s it like to be a Jewish Chinese guy or an old black woman or a white professor or whatever. That is my absolute intention to get under the skin and do that. I can be wrong. People tell me I’m wrong all the time. I get letters and people get grumpy, but that’s the risk you take.

Given that the world feels so fragmented, have you thought more recently about the famous Forster phrase, “only connect,” which is the epigraph to Howards End, and is, in part, a call for connection between people?

Yeah. It’s so easy just to fall through the gap because there’s the lack of collective experience. I was making my children watch There’s No Business Like Show Business because Nick was out of the house so I could get away with it. It’s a slightly terrible musical from the early ’50s. In the middle of it, one of the characters leaves the family act and becomes a priest. My daughter said, “What is a priest?” I thought, Jesus, when I was 7, is there any way I wouldn’t have known what a priest is? I don’t think so, just because you had a collective culture, the TV, but also our community, the church at the end of my road. You would’ve known.

It’s like wow, that’s a big gap, clearly that’s a quite serious thing not to know at 7 that there has been, in fact, our whole society is founded on a faith that she only has the vaguest idea of. She’d heard of Judaism just about, but that was it. That kind of thing is quite shocking to me. I don’t know. It’s atomized. I have no answer. It’s curious to me to watch it happening in my children. They’re kind of piecing together a world. They can’t even go through the record collection as we did and think, Oh there was the Beatles and there was the Stones and here’s Ella Fitzgerald. They only have this iTunes, which just seems to be a random collection of names and titles. There’s no pictures, no context, no historical moment. It’s so odd.

I don’t want this to sound like a gendered question, but you keep mentioning your kids, and so I was wondering if you felt that motherhood changed you as a writer.

I think it’s superuseful. I remember when I was pregnant with my first child: I was at a book festival and a writer of my own age, who will remain nameless, sat opposite me and said, “God you’re having a kid huh?” It was a man. He said, “I guess you’re going to lose a lot of time and you must be worried about falling behind.” I was about seven months pregnant, and I just had a sudden inspiration. I said, “Yeah I guess so” and then, “You must be worried about just a complete lack of human experience that you’re now going to be 40 and then 50.” His face went so pale. It was a wonderful way to frighten him back.

The honest truth is that Eliot wrote without children, Woolf wrote without children, Gertrude Stein, loads of people write extraordinary things without children so it’s not any answer. Every life that you live will give material for fiction. But given that I do have children, it is that experience of just the simple thing of seeing life in the round. It’s so dull to say that, but it is extraordinary to see your childhood replayed, refracted, to see yourself saying things your parents said, to be in this new relation to death.

When I think of writers, I really love someone like Ursula Le Guin, who had three kids and lived an entirely domestic life. I feel her children in those books, I feel that the weight of it, her experience of being a girl, a woman, a mother, an old woman, it’s almost overwhelming when you read her. I don’t know, when I read Woolf, I love Woolf and I love Eliot, but they remained young women their whole lives. That’s part of their genius. They had that pointed, critical perspective, which never faded. What I get from Le Guin, maybe because I’m now heading in the same way, is something I appreciate particularly.

Are there any young writers or books you’ve read recently that have particularly piqued your interest?

I was really blown away by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. I just thought it was stunning. Alexandra Kleeman I thought was incredible. Ottessa Moshfegh: the short stories are really great. To be honest, I think it’s a great time. I know It’s very unfashionable to say that, but the moment I finished my novel I started reading through the books that have been sent to me for the past two years, and I was really impressed.

Gosh, Zadie, that’s a very positive take.

It’s because I’m not writing a novel! It’s such a joy not to write a novel. Phone me when I’m writing a novel: I’m like, “It’s the end of the world.” Then I’m really in a grumpy mood. I said to Nick, it can’t be that all these novels are brilliant. I must be in a good mood. But I was really struck particularly by the women. I thought Alexandra Kleeman’s book was sensational. Then I’ve got her stories I’m about to start. It’s exciting to me.

Do you feel that the internet changed your reading or writing habits?

It was. That’s why I had to stop. I totally admire people who carry on full tilt and are also able to read books. For me it was either/or. So I’ve chosen to be an old grump, or whatever I am now, less and less in touch because it’s important to me to continue reading. Also because I’m of my generation. The kids will do their own thing, and God bless them, but I’m writing primarily for the people who came up with me. And in order to keep my brain working fully, I need to not be on that.

I will lose something, absolutely. I will not understand what Snapchat is, probably never, but I will still read things in the way I read them and take my time when I’m trying to respond to something. I can’t get involved because I’m an addictive person and I can’t concentrate if I let that in.

You have a smartphone though, right?

No, I don’t have a smartphone. I have a flip phone, which is why I had to get you to ring here because it would’ve run out of its $30 pay-as-you-go if you’d rung me on it. [Laughs.]

Wow. That’s bold.

It is not bold! It’s not. That’s such a crazy thing to say.

We lived our whole lives without this thing for so long. It’s not even interesting. It’s just what it is. I still have a laptop, it’s not like I’m a nun, I just don’t check my email every moment of the day in my pocket. That’s it. It’s not a big deal.

It makes almost no difference. The only thing I have to do, which is annoying, is before I go somewhere I have to print out a map on my printer from Google Maps. That’s it. That’s literally the only difference it makes to my life. Apart from that, I know what’s going on, I know the news, I can check it all on my laptop at bedtime. I find out everything, it’s all fine. When I’m with my children, I’m not thinking, Oh what happened on Twitter? That’s the big difference. I just want to be in my life, that’s it. I’m selfish that way. I love my life.