Zadie Smith presents ‘Swing Time’

Zadie Smith presents ‘Swing Time’

Event: Zadie Smith presents ‘Swing Time’

Venue: RIBA (hosted by the London Review of Books)

Report by Anealla Safdar

I like short novels. It’s annoying that I have to constantly be aware of this external person and their views. On the other hand, just as it is growing up in such a country in that position, it’s kind of an advantage. Your mind is always thinking three times over about everything.

Hip hop is more complex than it seems. It’s an incredibly complex negotiation between roots and progress.

Being identified wrongly is an interesting experience. When I was a kid it happened to me all the time. You’re aware of being subject to people’s assumptions. It was many times as a kid in England that someone sidled up to me and said something like: ‘Oh, you’re quite clever, you must have got your brains from your father.’

Being aware of being subject to people’s fantasies in a way, their fantasies about race, about inheritance, about what you are and what you might be and what it means, gave me a broad sense of identity. It didn’t make me feel any less what I was, but I was aware how much was projected on you by other people.

There is a sense in America that they [Black Americans] have been very tired of waiting for rights and respect from people who refuse to give it. So I do feel that someone like [James] Baldwin, the anger expressed, the purity of it, is a good model right now, to be honest, rather than coming on bended knee and saying: ‘Oh please notice that we also have right and are human.’ I am impatient at this point in my life.

In times like this, even writers who are not necessarily political in temperament, which I include myself, find themselves in unusual situations. I think of myself as a domestic, comic, writer … the times make strange writers of everybody.

Nothing interests me less than romance. I never write about it, I don’t consider it, I just don’t, it’s not part of my imagination. I’m only really motivated by family and extensions of family, communities, cities, countries. The idea of boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, I just, it does nothing for me … I don’t think I am a romantic person, for starters, that’s the main problem.

I feel like your work should come first. I know that’s an old lady thing to say. I know they’re having great romances and so on, I just don’t want it to be at the expense of what we’re doing in the classroom. I want them to get that first, and for that to matter more than whoever. [Advice to female students].

That’s really my only rule [to writing]: you just have to read a lot. I am a writer made by books, formed by books, and music, and film. I’m that person, but I think there are other routes to creating.

I’m not an adventurer as a person. I just like to have dinner, and have a nice drink, and talk a lot. That’s my thing.

I thought, what would it be like to try and write a book from someone who isn’t trying to be fair? The thing with the third person, or at least as it’s done so often in Britain, is that it’s this kind of wise, reasonable, consciousness, that deals with everything fairly.

When I’m reading, above all is the sentence for me. 

If I take off my head wrap and my afro is out, I’m perfectly untroubled as I walk down the street. The kind of fame which is impinging, is not really a writer’s fame.

The part I have appreciated about living in New York is that the racial conversation is so open and frequent. It’s been a kind of excitement to be around just a really exciting, intellectual, artistic Black community.

I don’t write first drafts and then go over them. I kind of obsessively do each sentence, each paragraph, each page, over and over and over again, so by the time I finish, I’ve finished, give or take edits from many people and friends … I have not got the ability of just writing freely, thinking: ‘I’ll just bang out 20 pages and deal with it later.’ I can’t be content with page two unless page one is okay.

The thing that Black people genuinely have to give up is the hope for historical documentation. It just isn’t there. It’s always so moving, for instance, to talk to young African-Americans when they want to know their grandparents, their great grandparents. It’s just a void, because there’s no record of slaves, no concern for them. They’re just gathered under the name of the place where they worked.

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Report by Anealla Safdar

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