I had never heard of Zadie Smith until Sam Tezak, the Life Section editor, asked me to attend and respond to Smith’s talk at Tuesday evening’s Visiting Writer Series event. My research leading up to Tuesday night consisted of me glancing at her Wikipedia page, reading a short piece she recently wrote for The New Yorker, and listening to a phone interview of her on KRCC.
I strolled into Armstrong Theater about ten minutes before the planned start and it was already packed. Clearly, if this many people showed, she had to be “good,” I thought.
Born to a black Jamaican mother and a white British father, Smith does not fit into the traditional black and white racial binary. She grew up in the Brent borough on the outskirts of London. Her only childhood experience with creative writing is an unfinished novel with a main character named Keanu, after her Hollywood crush Keanu Reeves. Nevertheless, she was a veracious reader as a child. In college, she wrote three stories. These short stories and an unfinished novel about a childhood crush composes the entirety of Smith’s writing career – until her first novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000.
Smith’s first published work won widespread critical acclaim and became a bestseller. Since White Teeth, she has written three more novels, the most recent being NW in 2012 and numerous articles and novellas for various magazines. Throughout her writing, she challenges racial and cultural divisions. She believes firmly in the uniqueness of the individual and our inherent power to define ourselves outside of arbitrary racial and cultural titles.
Following in the British literary tradition, Smith’s writing focuses on social life. She does not wax poetic about philosophy on identity. Her poignant social commentary, about the meaning of individuality in our packaged and stratified modern world, lives in her sharp comic voice, one in which she is not afraid to be blunt and revealing.
During her talk, Smith read an essay that she “literally just finished” titled “Elegy on the Country of Seasons” and a short story called “Ms. Odell Among the Corsets.” In the essay, she addresses the problem of explaining to her future granddaughter society’s and her own inaction to combat global climate change. By the end of the essay, she has shrugged the fatalist stigma of “What have we done?” and asks herself, “What can we do?”
In this essay, she rebukes the binary dynamic of the global climate change topic and discovers a personal desire for action. Instead of immediately taking a pro-action or no-action mentality, Smith navigates her inner conflict by drawing on her world travels to decide that action is needed. Addressing her future hypothetical granddaughter makes Smith confront how her inaction jeopardizes the future of a loved one.
The short story “Ms. Odell Among the Corsets” follows a middle-age black transvestite, Ms. Odell, on an outing to buy a new corset. The simple errand turns into a small odyssey that climaxes in a verbal standoff between Ms. Odell and the store owner, an older eastern European man. The owner refuses to accept her money and wants her out of the store immediately. With all the money on the counter, Ms. Odell grabs the corsets, bursts through the stores door, runs down the street, and slips on a patch of ice and lands on her face. The ridiculousness of the simple errand gone awry shows us that a city and society’s expectations can literally knock us down.
Her nuanced social critiques make us laugh, and maybe sometimes feel sad, but they all implore us to define ourselves in accordance to our own likes and desires and not by standardized cultural norms.