The Athenaeum was prepared, armed with extra folding chairs for those who showed up after dinner was over, just to see writer Zadie Smith speak. You know you’re important when the folding chairs come out. Her interviewer on this Nov. 3 night was Claremont McKenna College professor Chloe Martinez, who seemed giddy to be speaking with such a titanic writing figure.
The audience also seemed a little awestruck — when it came time for the Q&A portion of the talk, hardly a single student could contain themselves to just one question, and understandably so. Smith is a captivating speaker with a deep, meditative voice. She talks in winding, eloquent sentences not dissimilar from her writing.
The night began with a discussion of “Intimations,” a collection of essays Smith wrote and published in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when she was “comatose with depression.” Nothing, she said, felt more inessential than writing.
Then she began doing just that, spurred on by a meme she had seen of Mel Gibson talking to a blood-covered Jesus “like he’s the one with the problem.” She retreated to a room in her home and wrote a piece which she sent to a friend, who wrote back calling it “helpful.”
“No one had ever said that to me before in that direct way, and I thought: There is something that I can do … I can write and I can make money,” Smith said. She donated all the royalties from “Intimations” to the Equal Justice Initiative and the New York City COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
Smith also spoke about other creative endeavors of hers, past, present and future. These works included her books “White Teeth,” “NW” and a half-completed novel she’s working on, set in the 1800s in England and Jamaica. The talk was most riveting, though, when Smith discussed writing as a portal to the world more broadly.
When asked about writing in unconventional forms, Smith responded: “It’s all about time … When we talk about the straight film or the straight book, time passes in a certain way that you’ve decided is real and natural. But time isn’t anything like that, you don’t fall in love with a few scenes and then you get an ice cream and then you’re married … What they’re doing to your conception of human life and time is demented.”
“When you talk about Virginia Woolf or experimental writers, to me, all they’re trying to do is get closer to what time actually feels like, what it actually feels like to be alive … it’s realism to me,” she said.
Later, she discussed why she often withholds important information about characters in her books. Once again, it’s all about writing to reflect the real world.
“I find sometimes in conventional fiction, what’s happening is a lie, really — we know each other very well, we completely understand each other, we know our children, they know us — I don’t think that’s how people actually experience their lives.”—Zadie Smith
“There’s a great mystery inside of people. It’s very, very hard to know other people, it’s almost impossible in fact. I find sometimes in conventional fiction, what’s happening is a lie, really — we know each other very well, we completely understand each other, we know our children, they know us — I don’t think that’s how people actually experience their lives, I think there’s always an uncanny moment when you think ‘Who are you?’”
Smith also mentioned that she might be done writing essays. She’s in her mid-40s now and has been in the writing world spotlight for over two decades. During lockdown, she said, she found a great silence breeding inside her, something she feels has grown with age.
“I really love that Hannah Arendt line, she said something like: ‘Sometimes, it’s good not to speak.’”
Later, she added: “I think if you watch novelists as they get older, a simplification occurs.”
She said now, she could never write a book as frenetic and jam-packed as her first novel “White Teeth.”
“I thought I knew so much … I know nothing now. A silence opens up inside you, that’s the best way I can put it,” she said. “It’s really important to me that when you’re young, you should know everything. I always think that young people should be trusted in politics, but older people should be trusted in matters of the heart, because you learn. It’s a long and painful humbling, and it really is a kind of knowledge, but it’s much quieter.”
Smith isn’t tackling ideas no human has ever endeavored to understand before. What makes her so captivating is that she doesn’t shy away from her humanness, doesn’t try to maintain any sort of mystique; she listens to brown noise to focus, her two big life changes post-lockdown have been that she no longer smokes or buys plastic water bottles.
She’s never reaching for profundity. Instead, she seems to see the world in front of her, take it in, and try to understand it, just like the rest of us.