Zadie Smith on feminism, young black men and communities


What was most notable about Zadie Smith’s interview at Kings Place for the Guardian Review Book Club was the audience. I’ve been to other author talks at the same venue and the crowd has been almost entirely middle aged, middle class and white. It was refreshing to see a really mixed crowd – age, race, gender, class (the class diversity became clear during the Q&A) for a change.

She was discussing her latest book NW – a stylistically experimental novel charting the lives of three young people growing up in north west London.

NW opens with Leah, a 35 year old charity worker who’s quite happily married but is suffering an existential crisis. Her husband’s desperate to have children but she’s not keen – so secretly takes the contraceptive pill. Smith discussed this during the interview, suggesting that there were probably a fair few women in the audience, in their 30s, who felt pressure to have children but flitted between wanting them and not wanting them.

I was probably one of the women in the audience she was talking to / about but, whilst I endure the pressure she was referring to, I didn’t identify with Leah as a character. Interestingly, Smith revealed that her inspiration for Leah was a Grazia ‘real life’ story. She said that the editors must have been sitting around, trying to come up with a story that would ring true with its readers and this is the one they chose (a 30-something woman, secretly taking the pill). Perhaps there are more women than I realised out there sneakily swallowing the pill, unbeknownst to their beaus. Except I don’t think there are – and maybe that’s why I couldn’t relate to Leah’s character.

Next up is Natalie (née Keisha) – Leah’s best friend from childhood, who grew up on an estate but discovered a love of reading and studying and was determined to make a life for herself as far from her own childhood experience as possible. She manages to achieve this (qualified lawyer, rich handsome husband, lovely family home) but feels dissatisfied. Smith explained that Natalie’s idealistic notion of how living like a middle class family will feel doesn’t match the reality. The idea that money and status, and being completely different to the people she grew up with (family / neighbours on the estate), will bring happiness is warped.

Middle class people, Smith said, strive for solitude – fenced gardens, private houses, an escape from the ‘riffraff’ – but then, as soon as they move to a London suburb, call it a ‘village’. And, of course, villages are about community. So the same way of life they’re attempting to distance themselves from – they end up seeking because we all, inherently, need company and community.

Another interesting point she made on communities was the fact that people often refer to Muslim – and other minority – communities as being insular, ‘keeping themselves to themselves’. Look at you, she said, you all exist within your own community – not integrating with people who are different to you, either.

The last main character, Felix, is – said Smith – “just a really nice guy.” He was inspired by Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, in which the central character – Felicité – falls in love with a parrot. But her most endearing, and important, trait is the ability to love anyone – even if it’s not requited. Smith wanted to create a similarly pure, ‘good’ character, who has no ulterior motive, who’s just nice. And she said this was difficult to write, as a writer always wants to create drama. But it was also important that this character was a young, black male; as young, black males receive bad press and are so rarely positioned as loving, kind, lead characters.

Felix is definitely lovable. But Annie, with whom he has an affair: an older, v. wealthy (family money) woman, who lives in Soho – is somewhat less lovable. Smith introduced Annie to show the potential detriment of great wealth. She said there are only a few ways to deal with that kind of inheritance – share it, give it away, spend it on drugs. Annie does the latter. There are some quite grotesque sequences during the Felix / Annie episode.

But back to Leah and Natalie. When Smith was asked why they both have such – seemingly – perfect husbands, and yet deceive them, she explained that the female characters are central, whilst the husbands are on the periphery and making them neutral was her way of placing them in the background. Most novels have central male characters (also films, TV shows) and she wanted to invert this, to position (to steal Simone de Beauvoir’s words) women as subject, men as ‘other’.

And this is what I liked about the novel, and what I liked about Zadie Smith. Women are important in the book and are important to the author. She described herself as a “serious feminist”. But it’s not only her feminism – it’s her decision to have black lead characters, too. And in the Q&A it became clear that this is one of the reasons for her broad readership. People of African and Jamaican descent in the audience said that Smith’s novels showed them that black people can lead, can be intellectual, can be important – got them reading, studying, setting their aims high.

This is why she’s amazing. She’s writes brilliant, inclusive novels – for everyone. Young, old, black, white, rich, poor, male, female – you can read her books. And enjoy them.

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