An interview with Zadie Smith

We spoke to the British novelist about her latest work, Swing Time, ahead of her appearance in Montreal.


Novelist Zadie Smith has a lot in common with the protagonist of her most recent work, Swing Time, released last fall. The author and her unnamed character both were raised in multicultural working-class London neighbourhoods during the 1980’s with Jamaican mothers and English fathers, wrapped in racially ambiguous features of the sort that complicates the senses of identity, culture and belonging for many mixed individuals.

Smith is well known for her insightful reflections in her novels and essays about issues of race, class, identity and social change, and Swing Time has been called her strongest work to date. On the eve of Smith’s 42nd birthday earlier this week, she tells me over the phone about how her approach to writing has developed over time.

“One of the things that happens when you get older is you don’t think about trying to talk to great crowds of people,” Smith says. “I don’t really think about that anymore. I think about me and the page, and maybe my husband and maybe two or three friends. In my mind it’s quite an intimate process — even though I know I have readers, I don’t tend to keep them in mind too often when I’m writing anymore.”

The ability to keep herself at a distance from the potential audience reaction to her work is no doubt made easier by her choice to stay away from the rapid-fire internet opinion factory that is social media.

“I don’t use social media because I don’t have the time, she explains. “I have to make a choice between doing that and writing and looking after my kids. To me it’s all about pleasure. You can come at these arguments about the internet through luddite-ism or principle, but what I’m ever concerned with is what brings me joy and pleasure and what doesn’t—and that doesn’t, to be honest. If it does for other people, cool for them but it’s not for me. I definitely can’t be Roxane Gay or Ta-Nehisi Coates—I give that area to other people and it’s fine with me. I’m obviously out of touch in a million ways, but for me it’s worth it so I can do my work.”

In that time that Smith dedicates to her work, she searches through her own self, flaws and all, to create characters who are fully realized, nuanced and relatable.

“I make characters that seem to me to be credible. I suppose when I’m putting people through hypothetical situations, I think of myself and my flaws. I generally tend to think that I’m an average type of person, so if I’ve had this bad thought, most people have. I kind of go from that basis and extrapolate from my own knowledge of myself.”

In the novel, the narrator’s own sense of self is complicated by the fact that despite her passion and study, she lacks the natural talent for dance that her best frenemy, Tracey has in spades. As the two young girls’ lives diverge and occasionally intersect to dramatic effect, the narrator’s adult path takes her to some extraordinary places from New York to West Africa as the assistant to a world-famous pop star who develops a white saviour complex as her preferred brand of social responsibility.

Race and identity issues at the personal and societal levels are major themes in the novel and in many of Smith’s non-fiction essays as well (she’ll be releasing a collection of essays called Feel Free in the new year). Across Smith’s works, both fiction and non-fiction, she employs a classic three-pronged approach to articulating her ideas.

“I was educated in things like Aristotle’s idea of rhetoric,” she explains. When you make an argument, you make it through Ethos, Pathos and Logos — Ethos appeals to ethics, Pathos appeals to emotion and Logos appeals to logic. I realize we’re living in an age where people feel that pathos is all you need when you make an argument—as in, ‘I feel it, and so it is true.’ However, an argument is not just emotion. You can feel something with incredible strength, but that’s not enough. It’s not true just because I feel it to be true. That world is chaos in my opinion.”

When I ask about her take on the current climate of greater social awareness and activism around race issues, she say, “That’s all wonderful to me and I’m glad that it’s happening, but I’m also wary that it’s only conversation. Until things change with the structural situation of Black people in this country, I’m not going to be so delighted that I can see Beyoncé on the cover of every magazine in America. It’s all noise. The cultural stuff can help for sure, but we’ve been here before and we know the difference between representational diversity and actual change.

“Let’s talk about serious things that would change the lives of Black children in this country, structural change like funding every school district equally no matter what tax bracket that district happens to be in. That’s what concerns me. I think there are great writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a good example of someone who’s more interested in the actual history of this country and the actual reality of the systems that govern Black people in this country than more of the culture stuff. We’ve always been spectacular at culture—we are the culture of America, no one’s in any doubt about that! But that’s not the only thing that matters.” ■

Zadie Smith will appear at the Rialto Theatre (5723 Parc) tonight, Thursday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m., $15