English author Zadie Smith spoke at the college on Friday, March 3. The event began with a reading by Smith of a section of her latest book “Swing Time,” followed by a conversation with Jen Acker ’00, a Q&A session and a book signing.
Nearly 600 members of the college and town community attended the talk, which was free and open to the public and held in Johnson Chapel. The event was part of the college’s second annual “LitFest,” a multi-day literary festival that highlights literary life by bringing in authors and editors who share their experiences of writing to the Amherst community.
Smith is a critically acclaimed novelist, essayist and short story writer who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. She has written five novels and contributed a number of essays and short stories to publications such as the New Yorker.
Acker describes Swing Time as a “beautiful first-person narrative meditating on the connections and disconnections between two biracial girls, the vicissitudes of friendship and of family relations, the mesmerizing beauty of dance and film and music and the messy ways humans negotiate thresholds of similarity and difference across time and change.”
Smith began by reading a portion of the novel that shows the narrator contrasting how she and her friend Tracey were raised and their differences in lifestyle and values.
After the reading, Acker asked Smith about the novels she has written, pointing to the motif of friendship prevalent in her novels and asking Smith about her strong interest in such relationships.
“I’ve never in my life been interested as a plot subject in romance … it never occurs to me to write a love story,” Smith said. “The relations that interested me are the ones that you don’t choose … friendship is a secondary example … something that you’re kind of thrown into that has no natural break. Friendship and family seem, to me, hard things to extricate yourself from.”
Acker and Smith also discussed the structure of “Swing Time,” specifically the momentum of the chapters and their tendency to build to a climatic point and then stop short and pull back.
“When I’m writing, I’m always aware that people reading my book may not know these [characters], may not have met anyone like this, so I’m constantly hedging and trying to defend against what I know are assumptions about the people I’m writing about, or ideas, or cliches … or political opinions about them,” Smith said.
“I think it’s that that [has] created this unwieldiness in my novels, because I’m always having to … second-guess the reader’s assumption about everything that’s said in the book,” she said. “As all minority artists or whatever think, ‘Why can’t I just speak and be understood just directly without all this hedging?” Smith added.
The conversation transitioned to Smith’s experiences with her racial identity. As the daughter of an English father and Jamaican mother, “It’s quite fundamental, the idea of being read and misread all the time,” Smith said.
She added, however, that she felt “extreme curiosity and sometimes delight” rather than “offense or anger” at the confusion over her identity.
Smith also compared the differences she saw between black identity in England and that in America. The black British perspective, she said, was that “there was something particularly benighted and racist about America.”
However, having lived in both places, Smith said that she found the two places to be more similar.
The Black Lives Matter movement has made the discourse in America more “eloquent,” she said. “People in Europe can understand what’s going on … and be impressed by the variety of the resistance and just the variety of black lives in America.”
Smith also said that she feels more happy in America than in England.
“There is no one more American than a black American, and that’s not true of black British people,” she said. “I feel like I have to explain myself or read all the works of Shakespeare. You get tired of trying to get their approval … It is, [in] some ways, so easy to be an American.”