It’s an honor to introduce Zadie Smith. I shouldn’t be nervous, because introductions are easy, right? Zadie Smith, meet Swarthmore College and Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Swarthmore, Zadie Smith. Yet introductions are really impossible, because more words need to be said but it’s hard to be brief—and don’t worry, I will be brief—about a writer whose intelligence in these insane times we desperately need.
Zadie Smith has published lots of fiction and nonfiction and won lots of honors, but I don’t want to list these, for you can easily find out about these on your own. We all secretly know that prizes for books may be good for many things but they don’t ensure that new generations of readers will keep an author alive. Only immutable but light-filled writing will do that. So let me mention just a few of my favorite passages and sentences of hers, ones I believe will last because, as Ezra Pound said, only emotion that has found its form endures.
Consider some of the treasures to be found in her essay collection Changing My Mind. There are meditations on Zora Neale Hurston, E. M. Forster, George Eliot, Barthes and Nabokov, Kafka, and David Foster Wallace that will make you want immediately to read these authors if you haven’t, and if you have will make you want to go back to your book shelves and pull them down again. There’s surreal and harrowing journalism on what she saw and heard during a trip to Liberia, and delightful pieces on Hepburn and Garbo and what it’s like to be in Hollywood during Oscar Weekend. (About the latter, she hilariously imitates both a star-struck celebrity puff piece and an intellectual’s disdain for everything that is fun but “vulgar.” But don’t be fooled; Smith is ultimately up to something very different.) Changing My Mind also has her thoughts on Obama’s Dreams of my Father, which include these sentences: “The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man” (136). And her analysis of contemporary fiction, which discusses its metafictional vs. realist divide and then slyly hints that really good fiction not just changes our minds but finds ways to synthesize these two traditions while making neither insular nor predictable.
But tonight I’d like to spend a little more time introducing you to two essays, “Smith Family Christmas,” written for the New York Times in 2003, and her moving tribute to the novelist David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008. The commissioned Christmas piece contains no schmaltz. It’s a sad and funny look back, at parents and siblings and the craziness of family, which in some ways mirrors the craziness of the nation you happen to be born into. “On this most sacred of days,” she remembers, her uncle Denzil wanted to do “the things we do not do because we’d always done them another way, our way—a way we’d all hated, to be sure, but could not change. Denzil wants to open a present on Christmas Eve—don’t do that, Denzil” (227). Note how she’s both voicing the family rules here and viewing them from outside and beyond, a rueful retrospective on how small holiday tensions hide greater ones. The same supple voice, full of deadpan wryness, works on her birth country as well: “the Smiths lived in London in a half-English, half-Irish council estate called Athelstan Gardens, one black family squished between two tribes at war. It was confusing. I didn’t understand why certain football games made people pour into Biddy Mulligan’s pub and hit other people over the head with chairs and bottles” (226). Yet in the end her little essay about our wars disguised as celebrations is full of forgiveness. Now that she has her own family, regarding holiday festivities she says let’s try it again, let’s believe we can do it better, “the ritual, the dream, the animating spirit, the whole shebang” (229).
Swarthmore’s Jonathan Franzen published in The New Yorker his own tribute to David Foster Wallace, one in which he recounts how he was tempted to put his own life in danger in a kind of bizarre tribute to Wallace’s own edgy battle between his death wish and his will to live and write. Yet Franzen also suggested that for all his friend’s pyrotechnical writerly gifts there was one subject he couldn’t explore deeply: human interconnectedness, especially love. Zadie Smith takes a very different tack. Writing about Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace’s uncanny gathering of experiments in short fiction, Smith says that “the real mystery and magic lies in [its] quasi-mystical moments, portraits of extreme focus and total relinquishment. We might feel more comfortable calling this “meditation,” but I believe the right word is in fact prayer. It’s true that this is prayer unmoored, without its usual object, God, but it is still focused, self-forgetful, moving in an outward direction toward the unfathomable…. Wallace understood better than most that for the secular among us, art has become our best last hope for undergoing this experience” (295). Wallace’s stories, she says, “repel the idea that a just society can come from the contract made between self-interested or egotistic individuals.” And then, marking Wallace’s interest in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and what she sees as his spiritual affinity with Simone Weil and Kant, Smith gives us a dazzling Wallacean footnote that begins, “All three [have] in common that the business of ethics properly concerns good relations between people rather than the individual’s relation toward some ultimate goal, or end” (291).
Zadie Smith’s own fictions have quite similar concerns, and they map these locally and globally. They appeal to the better angels of our nature even as they make us see ourselves at our most embarrassing worst. In Smith’s latest novel, NW, the narrator at one point articulates a character’s worry and frets that “Nothing survives its telling” (16). Yet for a novel to get written and live for readers, of course, that must not be completely true—we need to worry about how false language may lie and even kill, but novels we keep reading prove the right words eventually, after some struggle, can be found, and, when found, generate pocket-sized miracles of understanding. Otherwise, why write, and why read?
We are passing through a time in our nation where many of us are increasingly self-segregating by class, education, income, religion, and politics—how we work and travel, to some extent, but especially where we live and how we spend our leisure time. The factors driving such homogenization are many and complex, but these developments, if they continue, will be as corrosive for democracy as money buying politicians. The trend is happening globally as well. One of the purposes of education should be to combat stratification, but historically that has been the novelist’s role too—and it’s never more needed than now. Don’t believe in the death of the novel. It’s the dearth of novel readers that ought to cause worry. Today’s best novelists model for us what it’s like to talk and to listen across our many divides. And let me suggest to you they don’t sound like Tom Wolfe, whose characters only know how to scream at each other. In the long history of social fiction, the great story-tellers have always told us tales about contact zones, not comfort zones. Zadie Smith’s four novels are most famous for detailing the rhythms and crossings of urban contact zones, but she’s also explored how contact zones can be experienced on the road, or at a college or university. This writer is a powerful search engine, a social network generator who works not by cajoling us to click “like” but to take risks as readers, to change our minds. Please give Zadie Smith a most warm welcome.