While I was writing my previous post about Zadie Smith, a t-shirt that I’d ordered arrived in my mailbox. Though I don’t often wear graphic tees, this one wooed me just as the Southern women writers whose names it bears captivated me when I first encountered their writing. Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.
In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, Zadie Smith writes:
This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”–that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance–seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of oneself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . .
Almost–but not quite. That is to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”
Smith, Zadie. “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” Changing My Mind. Penguin, 2009. pp. 3-13.
Thursday night when Zadie Smith spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne, she said that one of the inspirations for her novel Swing Time was an encounter at a birthday party, one where she witnessed a girl repeatedly interrupting her daughter, Katherine (Kit), to ask her questions about herself. Listening to Smith speak of the girl’s intense interest in her daughter reminded me of the novel’s first description of the narrator and her friend Tracey:
There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same–as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both–and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. (9)
Friday morning when Smith and her husband–the poet and novelist Nick Laird–spoke to a smaller group, mostly students and faculty, she talked more about her writing process. That thing that people call drafts is what I do with every paragraph, every day, she said, unlike her husband who “writes through.”
Halfway through she freaks out and throws it in the bin, he added, and I take it out and tell her it works.
When an audience member asked Smith what she hasn’t written that she still aspires to, Smith said that she would like to write a one-hundred and ten-page novel and noted her admiration for Penelope Fitzgerald’s novella The Blue Flower. But I know that I probably won’t write one because I write long, but “I hold it out as a sort of fantasy.”
As a novelist, Smith remarked, I am using language to convey the reality of human experience, but the language of our shared experience–social media and television, for example–is surreal to me. “What’s that show about the scientists?” she asked, turning to her husband.
“The Big Bang Theory,” Laird answered.
“Yes, The Big Bang Theory,” she said. That seems very surreal to me because the way they talk isn’t really the way people talk to one another.
Prose is so wide open, Smith said. With piano, for instance, there’s a certain level of competency. You know that when you sit down, you’ll be able to play. But every time you start to write, the page is completely blank. That’s what makes it so stressful. When it works, it’s the best version of yourself on that day. There’s a period of intensity when everything comes together.
Now as I find myself revising an essay on Smith’s novel Swing Time, I am invigorated by her reflections on craft and her candor about her own idiosyncrasies as a writer. And I hope that my students who heard her speak will return to their own drafts, as I have, with a renewed faith in the process–the belief that we will reach that period of intensity when everything will come together.
Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.
Smith, Zadie and Nick Laird. “An Evening with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 22 Mar. 2018, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.
—. Q&A. LR Visiting Writers Series. 23 Mar. 2018, Belk Centrum, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.