Today is the 43rd birthday of Zadie Smith— a literary powerhouse whose first novel, White Teeth,was published when she was twenty-five. Biracial and the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, Smith uses recurring motifs of personal, familial, and cultural histories— three things which are occasionally the exact same thing and just as occasionally contradictory to each other. Now a tenured professor at NYU, Smith continues to explore race, class, and the reaches of fate in a way that makes them less of topics to discuss and more of worlds to climb into. To celebrate, here are seventeen quotes on life, writing, and perception from Smith’s full body of novels and essay collections.
“We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”
“Ridding oneself of faith is like boiling seawater to retrieve the salt— something is gained but something is lost.”
“The more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.”
“People don’t settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and agree to stand in it and believe in it.”
“He wanted to be in the world and take what came with it, endings local and universal, full stops, periods, looks of injured disappointment and the everyday war. He liked the everyday war. He was taking that with fries. To go.”
“And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.”
“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone.”
When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology).
White novelists are not white novelists but simply “novelists,” and white characters are not white characters but simply “human,” and criticism of both is not partial or personal but a matter of aesthetics. Such critics will always sound like the neutral universal, and the black women who have championed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the past, and the one doing so now, will seem like black women talking about a black book.
“Not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I’m not afraid.”
“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.”
“There’s always somebody who wants to be the Big Man, and take everything for themselves, and tell everybody how to think and what to do. When, actually, it’s he who is weak. But if the Big Men see that yousee that they are weak they have no choice but to destroy you. That is the real tragedy.”
“If we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which… to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures… Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”
“I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.”
English novelist, essayist, and short story writer Zadie Smith has written an essay called “Under the Banner of New York” about the tragic event that grieved the city last week.
Image Via CNN
Smith shares her thoughts on how New Yorkers, in our “elastic social arrangement,” respond to such events, and how we faintheartedly carry on with our week unsure of what to do or how to help. In the moment, however, we do all come together and assist in any way we can.
Like many a New Yorker right now I talk a good game but my mind is scattered, disordered. To me, the city itself feels scattered, out of sorts; certainly carrying on like London, like Paris, but also, like those places, newly fearful, continuing with its routines while simultaneously wondering whether it still wants to, considering decamping to the countryside while being repulsed by that same thought—oh, and a ragbag of other random thoughts and anecdotes.
Despite the subject matter, Smith maintains a hopeful tone, essentially musing on New Yorkers as first responders. Alluding to two anecdotal stories of accidents that happened at the same curb on the same street corner in the same week, Smith recounts an old lady tripping and a stroller breaking apart. Common to both memories was a “community of strangers” gathering to help in any way they could, then swiftly vanishing afterwards. New Yorkers always need to be urgently elsewhere. Smith then gives thought to the victims 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov’s act of terror.
None of us deserve to be killed in the street. We are a multiplicity of humans in an elastic social arrangement that can be stretched in many directions. It’s not broken yet. I have no idea if it will break soon – but its not broken yet. And here comes the rain, clearing the streets, for an hour maybe, even for a whole afternoon. We’ll be back out tomorrow.
Winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, among other high profile accolades, author extraordinaire Zadie Smith steers clear of social media.
Speaking to New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, Smith said, ‘because I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Instagram, I’m not on the internet, I never hear people shouting at me.’
Zadie Smith: does not tweet / Image Via The Telegraph
The Huffington Postquoted Smith as going on to say:
I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9am quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate. I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it.
Referring to her much discussed essay on the film Get Out (2017) and the painting Open Casket, Smith said “I understand it’s important to be appropriate in public life, in social life, in political life. But in your soul? No, this is a different thing.”
We “should be able to retain the right to be wrong,” the novelist said, adding: “I’m wrong almost all the time. It’s OK to be wrong. It really is OK, you just have to sit in the feeling and deal with it. I never feel that certain in the first place, so this kind of succession of mistakes is just what I call my novels.’
Smith’s newest novel Swing Time / Image Via Amazon
While Smith feels she couldn’t write were she constantly witnessing and engaging with the public’s reaction to her work, other authors feel differently. J. K. Rowling is, at this stage, almost as famous for her tweets as for her books (okay, not quite but they’re pretty famous), while Philip Pullman, Bret Easton Ellis, and John Green are all notable for their social media presence.