Zadie Smith @ Manchester Literature Festival


There is little I can write that can express the brilliance of Zadie Smith. The writer of White Teeth, North West, and my personal favourite On Beauty sat on stage opposite Katie Popperwell with a copy of her new novel Swing Time in her lap. Also discussed in a recent Guardian article, Swing Time partially deals with her fascination in the similarities between dancing and writing, but its scope reaches further than just swinging dance moves. It is an exploration of inequality, friendship, and survival in changing contexts and environments.

Just like Smith’s other works, Swing Time asks the reader many profound questions, the most prominent of which involves the ideas of inequality and relativity in the world. One character’s success might be another’s misfortune. Similarly, someone whom the reader may see as being disadvantaged may seem privileged to other characters in the book. In other words, everything is subjective, relative to different experiences and contexts. In this sense, ‘the good life’ looks different depending where you are. Smith told us that society’s obsession with happiness is a little perverse, and it would be more appropriate to question the meaning in our lives. “What about sadness, pain, loss, and even the old idea of melancholy?” she said.

Her very human response to the world’s relativity was incredibly warming in the current political situation, especially when she spoke about human progress and the importance of action. It reminded me of Sartre’s idea that ‘existence precedes essence’, by which he meant that the only thing that should distinguish humans is our actions – not race, gender, class or anything else, but solely our individual actions. A black woman who has grown up in a very white world, Zadie Smith remarked that race is far from our true essence, and should never be taken as such. The importance of understanding others and the old idiom ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ are now more vital than ever in the face of Trump’s election and the rise of nationalism all over the world.

The compassionate way in which Smith spoke about these matters showed me that she is not just a writer and an academic, but a real person to whom we can all relate. This is what makes her writing so special: her ability to connect the reader to how she sees and experiences the world. The dialogue in Swing Time shows this clearly, as Smith pays great attention to detail and comments that are made around her in the real world, and carefully weaves them into the text to make it even more life-like.

It was clear when listening to her that she finds value in everything in her life, from taking walks down the road to more life-changing experiences such as having children. One point that has stuck in my mind was how much value she placed on engaging with the present. Her hope that this generation will realise social media can be a curse felt so genuine, as she exclaimed she wants us all one day to think “Fuck it! Fuck this stupid iPhone!”, and take the time to appreciate newly blossoming trees instead of walking with our eyes down and fixed on screens.