Zadie Smith is one of our most valuable luminaries, and we’re always fascinated to hear her incisive analyses of racial identity and class. She’s mid-book tour right now, promoting her fifth novel, Swing Time. She recently spoke with NPR, and of course the interview was highly quotable. Here’s the highlight reel.
The impermanence of Stereotypes:
Certainly the kind of groupings and stereotypes are so subject to history — that really interests me. For instance, if you’d asked the kids in my school when they were all about 12 what one could expect of, say, a Pakistani-Muslim boy in our class, our go-to image of that young man would’ve been of a rather tedious math or biology student heading for one of the better universities.Part of historical writing is to remind oneself … things were different, and therefore can be different again. It’s funny, isn’t it? So these kind of racial stereotypes of groups, they have the ability to transform.
I think people of my shade all over the world will have these experiences: You might go to Morocco and people will believe you Moroccan; you might go to Egypt and be confused for an Egyptian; you might find yourself in Bangladesh and people are talking Bengali to you…whereas I suppose a white person is white wherever they go.
This is a very interesting point for me because that kind of historical nostalgia is only available to a certain kind of person. … I can’t go back to the ’50s, because life in the ’50s for me is not pretty, nor is it pretty in 1320 or 1460 or 1580 or 1820 or even 1960 in this country, very frankly. So that’s what interests me — the historical nostalgia that is available or not available to others.
The head wrap began as a way of saving time, not being bothered to do my hair in any practical way, but also as a kind of … symbol or allegiance with exactly that kind of African ancestry. After all, many, many more women in the world wear something on their heads than don’t, and I like to be part of that sisterhood.
Featured image courtesy of NYMag