Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Zadie

Picture this: the vast council housing estates of North West London, 1975-1985, a young girl who grew up happy and admits it, collecting stories and observations from her neighbours, friends, family, all mashed together from the whole wide world in a place that was meant to be a bucolic Eden (with indoor toilets, private gardens, all the modernities!) that instead got swallowed up by the relentless pressing on of an unstoppable city. Picture the most beautiful skin you have ever seen, the product of a combination of Jamaican and Irish that the world needs more of. Picture all that just a bit older, a bit wiser, on the wide ivyed expanses of Cambridge, one of only four black women on campus. Four. Picture what that does to her mind, already brilliant because of genetics, the influence of friends and geography, books, of having grown up with stairwells encased in glass instead of concrete because she swears that makes a difference. Now picture all that wrapped up in the coolest headscarf you have ever seen and there you have it: Zadie Smith. Sigh.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to her reading/interview/book signing at Toronto’s Harbourfront last night (hosted by the fab Becky Toyne) and I was the opposite of disappointed. I was detnioppasid.

She was jam-packed with so much easy, casual wisdom. I’m paraphrasing, so just picture these words but, like, much more eloquently said. And delivered by a deep voice. I did not expect that voice.:
“I just think that the novel has endless possibilities. I’ll hear from readers and they’re like ‘Argh! Where did the quote marks go? Why didn’t you use quote marks?’ I mean, in what other medium can you evoke such emotion, such anger? And over the smallest thing. It’s just a quote mark! [laughs] So for me the novel is an incredibly exciting form to work in.”
She also spoke about the weirdness of success and how it changes people, not her specifically, but she has been around such people. Men and women so rich that their group of friends has become so tiny that the most important thing all that wealth and success has done to them is make them this: lonely, utterly. And isn’t that strange, she said, because it’s something we’re all supposed to strive for. Success. And then when we get there – in our Range Rovers sealed off from the traffic and our vacations on private islands and our mansions for two and our VIP areas… well, what’s the point? And then she laughed and you knew it would all be okay.


There were so many golden nuggets like that. I wish I had a better memory or that I’d brought a pen. But I couldn’t look away from the stage anyways, so I probably would have ended up scribbling all over my pants. You wouldn’t be able to see the pen because my 9-5 pants are black, always, but I would have known.

And her reading. Wow. Normally I get bored at readings and leave disappointed. But Zadie read like a champion, like a natural who knew how to marry the English language and vocal chords better than anyone had ever managed to do ever. Her reading of her latest book, NW, made me love NW. (Until then, I had only been liking it.) Because now I really understand what she was aiming for. And so now I’m all in.

To hear what Zadie actually said and to hear her read – because you MUST hear her read – the whole shebang will be broadcast on CBC radio’s Writers & Company on October 7. Eleanor Wachtel was a wonderful interviewer, by the way. Even though she didn’t ask a follow-up question when Zadie alluded to a “nearly fatal” incident that made time feel suddenly irrelevant. If you ever bump into her at a party, give it an ask, will you?


  1. Replies
    1. Oh man, Jackson. Zadie is SO awesome. Have you ever gone to a reading of hers?

    2. Not yet, but I definitely plan on it. I've been wanting to read white teeth for years now but I've got too much going on. After I'm done w/my dissertation, I'll hit her stuff + then go hear her read. She's teaching at NYU, so I know she'll have more readings in the future. So glad you got to hear her . . . you're inspiring me to go hear her read.

  2. You should have sent this to The Millions before that other blogger did! This was poetic and I felt like I was at this event. (And I laughed at the writing on black pants bit.) Plus you met Eleanor Whachtel, one of my favourite Canadian minor celebrities, host, as well, of the TIFF Books on Film series.

    1. Aw. Thanks Alana.
      Eleanor was great. She asked pretty much everything I wanted to know about. I really should get tickets for that TIFF series.

  3. "On Zadie." Brilliant. (Brilliant post!

    I loved White Teeth, but lost interest in Zadie when I was forced to call her to do an interview for the epic masterpiece, The Eminem True Hollywood Story. (She'd done on of very few interviews with our Mr. Mathers.)

    I was excited until I spoke to her. She was a raging lunatic bitch. She mostly wanted to know how I got her number, and when I told her I'd called (the UK version of) 411, she lost her shit. "I will not now or ever do an interview with you or anyone like you," she said, hanging up on me before I hung up on her.

    I know. That she was nasty shouldn't impact my feelings about her writing, but then again: On Beauty sucked.

    (I'm just catching up on your blog, and I'm psyched.)

    1. Gah ha ha! I'm grinning like an idiot right now. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Julie, your stories are the BEST.

      I completely agree with you about personal feelings impacting your thoughts on an author's writing. It's like bad customer service at a good restaurant. All it takes is one bitchy waitress one time and I'll be a hater for life.