My Evening with Zadie Smith

Last night Zadie Smith spoke at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Anticipating a reading from her newest novel, Swing Time (November 15), which focuses on dancing and the ways we construct time, the author announced that, due to publisher’s advice (eye roll), she would instead be reading one of her short stories, “Two Men Arrive in a Village”.

Any initial dismay at the departure from Swing Time was quickly dispelled when she began reading. Smith, who used to perform as a cabaret singer, has a powerfully melodic voice that gives grace to just about every word. The small crowd of mostly students and adoring readers fell completely silent and subdued at the sound of her voice. From where I sat, not a single phone was texting or Snap chatting or engaging with anything other than the story at hand. Maybe it’s because Zadie Smith speaks so much about social media, or maybe it’s because she speaks so eloquently about time – how we create it, how we lose it – but for whatever reason, the audience was fixed and phoneless (a rare treat) for the duration of the reading.

Here is an excerpt from the story, which you can read in full courtesy of the New Yorker:

Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank—having strayed far from the main phalanx—and every now and then from above, in helicopters. But if we look at the largest possible picture, the longest view, we must admit that it is by foot that they have mostly come, and so in this sense, at least, our example is representative; in fact, it has the perfection of parable. Two men arrive in a village by foot, and always a village, never a town. If two men arrive in a town they will obviously arrive with more men, and far more in the way of supplies—that’s simple common sense. But when two men arrive in a village their only tools may be their own dark or light hands, depending, though most often they will have in these hands a blade of some kind, a spear, a long sword, a dagger, a flick-knife, a machete, or just a couple of rusty old razors. Sometimes a gun. It has depended, and continues to depend. What we can say with surety is that when these two men arrived in the village we spotted them at once, at the horizon point where the long road that leads to the next village meets the setting sun. And we understood what they meant by coming at this time. Sunset has, historically, been a good time for the two men, wherever they have arrived, for at sunset we are all still together: the women are only just back from the desert, or the farms, or the city offices, or the icy mountains, the children are playing in dust near the chickens or in the communal garden outside the towering apartment block, the boys are lying in the shade of cashew trees, seeking relief from the terrible heat—if they are not in a far colder country, tagging the underside of a railway bridge—and, most important, perhaps, the teen-age girls are out in front of their huts or houses, wearing their jeans or their saris or their veils or their Lycra miniskirts, cleaning or preparing food or grinding meat or texting on their phones. Depending. And the able-bodied men are not yet back from wherever they have been.

The story “Two Men Arrive in a Village”, although distinct in just about every way from Swing Time, manages to take on the trademark topics that interest Smith in the upcoming novel and much of her other work. It’s all about implication, about implicating the reader: to act, to feel and to move.

In a Q&A after the reading, Smith talked about how the story, which centers on violence towards women, is intended as a fable and meant to make readers feel. Outside huts, houses or apartment blocks, Zadie makes it clear that this violence is everywhere. It has occurred in the past, it occurs in the present, and it will likely occur in the future. At no point does the story let you settle comfortably into one location, somewhere you can completely relate or completely distance yourself. It holds the reader in limbo between a known world and a foreign one, forcing us to see the ubiquity of violence and demanding we create the space-time links that Smith is pointing to.

During the Q&A, writer and professor Bret Gladstone pressed on this point, asking Smith about the way we deal with this kind of violence today: Everywhere in the news we hear about atrocity, yet we don’t feel it. Why is this? Smith responded that she does not think we are desensitized or suffering from a depreciating empathy (the usual answer) but rather that we are too far from the news we hear. In an older time, we were concerned with our own village, our own block. Now is no different. We are still concerned, first and foremost, with a small circle of lives. True empathy, the ability to really feel and hurt for others, can only stretch so far – to the vanishing point of what is immediate and intimate to us.

This response stemmed easily from the story she had just read; it matched the state a reader arrives at by the end of her story. The violence in the fable is simultaneously close and far away, and occurring throughout past and present. The distances in space and time, all squeezed together at once, effectively cancel each other out, leaving us with a raw empathetic feeling that cannot be spatial hitched. Similarly, when we engage with the news – Gladstone recalls the images of Syrian refugees – the images ask us to feel, but feeling can’t avoid being watered down by distance. It’s the same empathetic limbo that Smith induces in her writing.

The ideas of empathy and temporality are deeply wound in Smith’s work. She’s often lumped the two together, declaring time as the morality of writing – just take a minute to digest that one. Maybe this too, the close attention to feeling and time, had a part in the crowd falling so silent when she began to speak.

After the Q&A with Gladstone, Smith took questions from the audience, answering a whole range of queries from influence and book suggestions for writers (Baldwin and DeLillo among others), to personal struggles with identity and ways of talking about race without propagating racism. All and all, she was a superstar. A highly empathetic and intellectual superstar that I can only speak highly of!

If you weren’t able to make last night’s event, don’t worry. Zadie Smith is probably still coming to a city near you!


Featured image courtesy of BK Reader.