[Photo by Chris Boland]
Zadie Smith represents many things. For young black English students at Cambridge, she has become the template for a particular model of “success”, somebody who wrote in their spare time and was good enough to be published, all whilst doing an undergraduate degree and doing that pretty well too. I think there are many reasons why her story resonates. She came here when there were fewer black students than there are now and thrived. She showed that it is possible to come to Cambridge and not only survive it, but to enjoy yourself too. Her existence makes it clear that blackness and artistry needn’t be mutually exclusive, even though Cambridge can make it feel like they should be.
She was eaten up by the mainstream, presented as evidence that Cambridge was finally becoming meritocratic – look! She made it! So can you! But I’ve realised she’s indebted to her education here in ways that we are not, and finally this is becoming acceptable to admit. We have different priorities now, different models of success which we will create, and others will dismiss as faulty in 10 or 15 years. She is an untouchable giant no more. The brilliance of her writing exists to remind us what is possible if you work hard and take yourself seriously as a writer. It reminds us why a free education is crucial and is something that we should never view as impossible. She let me ask her 5 questions.
1. What do you think the relationship between art and politics is or should be and do you see that relationship played out in your own work?
I have no theories on that front, except to broadly concur with Orwell that, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Any work of art will by necessity have a certain emphasis, a set of values, an aesthetic, an insistence on some qualities and not others – and all of this has a political aspect, which can be more or less explicit. To bring it consciously to mind as an intervention, as Orwell did, is one approach.
To sublimate it aesthetically as, say, someone like Nabokov did, is another. Both Orwell and Nabokov are concerned with ‘freedom,’ but Orwell is proscriptive where Nabokov is descriptive. I don’t have any prejudice against direct intervention. I think of my work as somewhere between these two poles, though. I don’t have the kind of certainty Orwell had: he had an ideology on which he was clear. I am more confused and more tentative.
2. Can you talk about another piece of art (not a novel) that struck you recently, something that you loved instinctively, and explain why?
I don’t see the need to speak of instinct in loving something! You can love something rationally and in a considered manner. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was to me a wonderful example of a political novel filled with aesthetic pleasure, in which in fact there is no contrast between ‘art’ and ‘politics.’
3. I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of an education, especially because of devastating reforms to higher education but also because proximity to art and knowledge is important. It’s something that is emphasized by the protagonist’s mother in Swing Time. In a world where things once considered public are becoming more and more exclusive, as a writer what do you think are the best ways that we can make sure all kinds of art remains accessible and make those who are most marginalised feel like they have ownership of it?
I think my sentences have consciously simplified and that part of it was this sense of wanting to be as accessible and open as possible. It started with ‘The Embassy of Cambodia.’ When I started that story it was in a very convoluted voice. But I kept having the thought: would Fatou read this?
It’s a personal question, perhaps a bit ridiculous (could my character read about herself?) and I can see how for many writers, whose subject and audience are united (novels about middle class psychiatrists read by middle-class psychiatrists) it never really comes up. But in Embassy it came up. And it ends up being a practical and philosophical challenge too. As in: is it possible to say the most complex things in simple language? I think that’s a principle a writer should aim at, just as a mathematician tries to express a complex formula in the smallest space possible. Mathematicians think of this as ‘elegance’ and I think of it that way, too.
4. How does knowledge of a canon (however narrow) affect your writing, do you see yourself coming from a school or particular line of writing?
Literarily speaking I was built by the canon, as it was taught in English state schools in the 80s and then at Cambridge in the 90s. My sentences were formed in those fires and I will never be free of their influence. It’s just what happened. It was a great advantage really because it gave me a very keen sense of what had come before. I always warn my students: how can you hope to be new if you don’t know what has already happened?
At the same time, of course I would have liked, as a young person, to know a lot more about other traditions: the African literary diaspora, the French nouveau roman, German philosophy, Polish poetry, Caribbean drama and so on. But I came to all these things as an adult and they have enriched by adult life.
5. What traits does your ideal reader possess, if they exist?
Flexibility, an absence of dogma, self doubt, humour.