Zadie Smith looks genuinely shy at the rapture she receives walking onto the stage at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. She shouldn’t be. This smart, sassy writer is, as host Ted Hodgkinson, Southbank Centre’s Senior Programmer in Literature and Spoken Word, she is one of the ‘essential voices of our time.’
Most of her books – NW, On Beauty, White Teeth, and now Swing Time inhabit the thresholds of age, time, and place. Unlike the traditional narrative model, however, life does not contain one moment in which everything changed, or pivots upon, working towards some grand finale. It’s time that she sees as her theme, and ‘there is nothing else.’ “What could she know about the waves of time that simply come at a person, one after the other? What could she know about life as the temporary, always partial, survival of that process?” she writes of Aimee.
In Swing Time there is something else; there’s dance. The universal dance that fills the body with rhythm, everywhere from the markets of Liberia to the kitchens of North West London. The essential quality that seems to be there, somehow, within our bodies and bones. We get on to the idea of a soul. Different philosophical and religious thinkers and models have influenced Zadie, but her belief that ‘we all operate as spiritual beings’ and as though we are more than just blood and bones is not only hard to argue with, but evident when it comes to art.
Her books are acutely detailed, yet deal with the sweeping and essential. They focus on individuals, but those individuals operate within structures that keep them where they are. Structural inequalities anger Zadie, especially given that in her new home of America not everyone has access to the potential for fulfilling their talent. “Poverty is not just a headline, my love, it’s a lived reality, on the ground—and education is at the heart of it.” she writes in Swing Time.
Identity comes up a lot during the conversation. Anthropological, political and collective. Colour is key. A mixed race woman growing up in London and now living in New York could be confused about where they fit in. Biracial children ‘exist at the faultline of identity and this for Zadie is the fascination. How an individual might be compelled to a group, or not follow their ‘birthright.’ How do the structures we live in affect our sense of self, and what is that sense of self. ‘Existence precedes essence,’ she says. We’re thrown into the world, and building tribes of any kind is the only way to get through being an individual with a ‘strange amorphous collection of feelings.’
An intelligent thinker, her essays are a tribute to clear and rational thought. Thought is what drives her. She doesn’t accept. She asks questions. Working through these ideas and inhabiting different characters has a therapeutic quality for her. ‘I get to be my those people for a while, for my own pleasure.’ she says. ‘I’m never happiest than when I’m in the library writing,’ she says.
It might have been twenty years since White Teeth was published, but has Zadie grown? She realises, like her characters, that the delusional optimism of politics in the nineties hasn’t come to fruition, is more solid in her thought around the role of place, and well versed on structure and politics.
But, maybe she’s a teenager at heart. ‘Novelists don’t lose adolescence,’ she says. ‘We’re always asking “what is the meaning of life?”’ I for one am glad she writes down her answers.
It’s all part of what’s shaping up to be a vibrant and stimulating programme of literary events this year at the Southbank Centre.