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Zadie Smith Has a Question For You

The Grape, October 2015
Oberlin, OH

Fall arrived in Oberlin the same day as Zadie Smith. Gray and gloomy, the Ohio skies did not provide as warm a welcome for the writer as one might have hoped. But despite the drizzle, clumps of dedicated students huddled around the doors of Finney Chapel, anxious to be in the presence of one of the most celebrated voices of the 21st century.

Smith, who is also a creative writing professor at NYU, has a dazzling knack for witty characterization and clever prose, crafting modern day epics that are usually set in the northwest of London, her hometown. The author of the novels White Teeth, NW, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty, as well as a number of essays and short stories, she was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and has also won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Though each of Smith’s novels has its own distinct cast of characters, who span a spectrum of ethnicities, religions, generations and geographic locations, her work deals consistently with themes of race, gender and class, and their complex intersections in the modern world.  

After getting over one’s initial disbelief that Smith had miraculously appeared in Lorain County, Ohio, it became clear that her creative approach to salient racial and cultural issues made her a particularly well-matched speaker for the Convocation Series. However, she did not focus her lecture around these topics, opting instead to the topic of writing head on.  Using an endearingly goofy PowerPoint, replete with plenty of clip art and Internet stock images, Smith answered the question “Why Write?” in seven points.

She began by asserting that many of today’s generation of writers don’t know how to answer a simple question—why write? The word “writer” itself has become anachronistic, she argued, as many of today’s youth prefer to nebulously label themselves “creatives.” No longer is the writer set apart by being the creator of an individual experience amidst a sea of mass conformity. In the age of social media profiles and Selfie Sticks, everyone’s lives are being “creatively” packaged with the idea that everyone’s experience is radically unique. 

Smith then used the evolution of hip-hop as a parallel for the trend of writers writing for the sake of creating a brand, rather than to create purposeful art (although she did give Drake a shout out for being a master lyricist). She described how hip-hop, as a form of creative writing, began in began as a form of resistance of Black youth to the hegemonic status quo, but how many modern artists capitalize off their fame in a phrase that many used to call “selling out,” but now call “consolidating their brand.”

Smith often alluded to George Orwell throughout her talk, as the author was the inspiration for the lecture topic. He himself answered the question “Why Write?” as such: sheer egoism (or the desire to be clever, talked about, have a reputation as a writer) aesthetic enthusiasm (love of words, crafting sentences, the craft of writing), historical impulse, and political purpose. Smith questioned if Orwell’s answer is still relevant today. Egoism is still part of writing, she said, but in our generation, everyone wants to be an individual—a goal no longer confined to the writer or artist.

Smith also encouraged burgeoning writers to “be a spanner in the works”— to refuse narratives of the naturalization of globalization, of social order and social constructions. “Creatively refuse, claim freedom inside books, surprise and challenge the brand-narrative,” she insisted. “Good creative art is racial. Make space for yourself in creative arts; refuse form and identity of products.”

After her presentation was over, the author fielded several questions from the audience, which ranged from inquiries about her biracial identity to her opinion on Kim Kardashian. Many in the audience involuntarily groaned at the mention of the reality star’s name, but Smith responded to the question with good humor and startling insight. “I once saw her for 20 minutes,” she confided, “and it was an extraordinary sight…I’ve never seen the show, but the only thing that interests me is a woman who exists purely through images. It’s a very ancient idea; it’s kind of like being a medieval icon, like a Black Madonna. That’s what it reminds me of. That everything you see about her is visual, a certain icon of beauty. It’s a very strange role for a human being to play.”

The audience laughed, and in that moment the magic of Zadie Smith seemed to crystalize definitvely. This Cambridge graduate and best-selling author, radiant in a high-necked blue blouse, was as comfortable discussing mundane pop culture topics and imbuing them with hidden meaning as she was discussing the trials and tropes of being a successful writer in the modern age. It was clear that Smith’s role as a professor at NYU provided a unique patience and warmth when addressing students. As the crowd filed out, most students looked as if they were in a dreamy haze, clutching copies of her various novels lining up eagerly to get them signed. With her bewitching combination of remarkable intelligence and gracious humor (and a smoky British accent on top of it), they were all too happy to fall under Smith’s spell for an hour or two.  





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