Zadie Smith: Dead White Authors and Political Identity
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In this interview from the 2006 PEN World Voices Festival, Zadie Smith speaks about the tally of dead white male authors she cites as influences, and about what it means to be identified as a “postcolonial” writer.
Interviewer: When I try to tally the various writers you’ve mentioned in various interviews and various times in your writing that have been your heroes literarily or influences, you mention C.S. Lewis, Forster, Nabokov, Dickens, Raymond Carver, Updike. Updike is alive, but the rest are dead white males, and I wonder if you draw conclusions from that?
Zadie Smith: I don’t have that thing—I was thinking about this recently, I was reading this essay and writing about this, the three qualities of persuasion that Aristotle talks about, logos, and I was thinking about ethos particularly, and the idea of being the right person to speak, having the right to speak. I noticed that with a lot of young American white males that they feel very guilty about those kind of interests, those writers being their interests, or they feel they need to defend it, and I never felt the need to defend the books that I liked—it didn’t even occur to me. But now people do say “dead white males,” that kind of thing, and it seems strange to have a lot of interest in those writers. I don’t think that I’m—you know, whatever is the best writing, as far as I can tell or feel, that’s what I’m interested in. And it stretches to lots of other writers too, but I had a very traditional education so those writers came up more often than others.
But now, particularly when it comes to women’s writing, I seek it out a lot more and read it a lot more actively, because it does become a matter of survival. You do need to know that there are women who wrote really well, and one way or another, even though I suppose [inaudible] is a very silly idea, it can’t help but make you feel better. When I first read Virginia Woolf I felt pleasured that she was a genius, but also great relief that she was a genius, because she was a woman.
Interviewer: Speaking of the realm of identity politics as a template put over literature, when I googled “Zadie Smith and postcolonial,” I got 23,000 returns. And I’m wondering what you think of that phrase and the concept as applied to you and as a general academic rubric?
Zadie Smith: I think it’s a factual description for a great deal of writing. I mean, you’re really pushing it with me, I’m born and bred in England, and I’m about as post-post-postcolonial as it is possible to be, I should think. But, you know, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but part of it is just convenience, and I kind of apologize to the rest of postcolonial authors because they have a right to be there, it just happens that White Teeth was published in the last year of the century and it’s very neat. You read Rushdie and you read [inaudible] and I’m just top ten as the last minute goes on the clock.
Interviewer: Oh, she has a Jamaican mother, she makes it.
Zadie Smith: That’s the reason, though, and that’s nice, but I feel slightly disingenuous to be there, and I do notice quite often when I’m touring and meeting students and they read White Teeth, and then I have to worry about the autograph, and it doesn’t really fit into the whole postcolonial thing, and it all gets lost. But no writers complain about books that are bought by students, that’s the thing that makes books survive, so anyway that I’m in colleges is extraordinary for me.