Zadie Smith Interview: Such Painful Knowledge



Since she made her astonishing literary debut with ‘White Teeth’ in 2000, Zadie Smith has continued writing bestselling novels, making her one of the most prominent figures on the British literary scene. In this extensive, absorbing interview, Smith talks about her 2016-novel ‘Swing Time’, her Jamaican heritage and writing: “It’s almost like acting. What would it be like if I were a dancer instead of a writer? … What if? … It’s a kind of fantasy life.”

“Some struggles, even when they’re righteous, are personally deforming.” Born to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Smith grew up in North London in a family with little money, who had other worries than those of the typical white middle-class: “When your main concern is survival in your mind – whether warranted or not – everything else is a luxury.” She was acutely aware of being in a position, where it was easy to fall out of the system and responded by being “very, very good. But I think if you are very good, there’s a little bit of self-hatred which comes with it, because you think: Why do I have to be twice as good as everybody else? Why am I doing this, who am I doing it for?” It wasn’t until the age of 12 that Smith realized that Jamaicans were descendants of the slave trade, and she was astounded, as she had always thought that they were native to Jamaica. Now, a mother herself, she has come to realize how hard it is to explain such painful knowledge as mass atrocity to a child, even if you’re eager for them to understand: “There’s never a good time to tell your child about slavery, or the Holocaust.”

In the novel ‘Swing Time’ two girls of mixed race meet in a community dance class in London, in the early 1980s, and are instantly attracted to each other, because of an “inherent tribal instinct” that Smith believes all children have: “They are attracted to each other because they are similar.” The story, Smith explains, also captures how women take a strong interest in each other, even projecting each other: “It’s a kind of compulsion, but it’s very narrative at its root, which is part of the reason I think the history of the novel is so entwined with women. Some of its earliest practitioners – and its greatest practitioners – are women.”

Zadie Smith (b. 1975) is a British novelist, essayist and short story writer. She is the author of the critically praised novels ‘White Teeth’ (2000), ‘The Autograph Man’ (2002), ‘On Beauty’ (2005), ‘NW’ (2012) and ‘Swing Time’ (2016). Smith is the recipient of prestigious awards such as the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award for ‘White Teeth’, ‘Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists’ (2003 and 2013), ‘Welt-Literaturpreis’ (2016) and the ‘Langston Hughes Medal’ (2017). She lives in New York City.

Zadie Smith was interviewed by Synne Rifbjerg in August 2017 at the Louisiana Literature festival in Denmark.

Camera: Rasmus Quistgaard & Anders Lindved Edited by: Klaus Elmer Produced by: Marc-Christoph Wagner Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2018

Supported by Nordea-fonden

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