The Villard Room hummed with excitement on the evening of Wednesday, April 5, as hundreds of students, professors and locals crowded in to hear Zadie Smith speak. The turnout was so large that some had arrived an hour early to get a good seat, and the College had to set up a livestream for the overflow crowd shunted into the adjacent Rose Parlor. As the audience members waited, they chatted animatedly about Smith’s work.
“My dad got me ‘White Teeth’ for Christmas one year when I was looking for new things to read,” said Grace Goodwin-Boyd ’20. “I really enjoy her style of writing—she’s witty and insightful about relevant issues, and her character development is impressive.”
At 41, Zadie Smith is a celebrated British novelist, short story writer and essayist. She has penned five novels: “White Teeth,” “The Autograph Man,” “On Beauty,” “NW” and “Swing Time,” the latter of which was released last November. Her novels have been lauded by critics and her first effort, “White Teeth,” was included on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 (Time, “All-TIME 100 Novels,” 1.6.2005). She is currently a professor of creative writing at New York University.
Smith is the latest in a long line of distinguished authors to speak at Vassar as part of the annual Krieger Lecture. The lecture is sponsored by the Krieger family in memory of their son Alex Krieger ’95, who was killed in a car accident during his first year at Vassar. Past Krieger lecturers include Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, John Irving, P. J. O’Rourke, Calvin Trillin, Jules Fieffer, Oliver Sacks, Tony Kushner, David Sedaris, Michael Chabon, Sarah Vowell and Gail Collins (Vassar College, “Sponsored Programs by Campus Activities”).
After Dean of the College Chris Roellke introduced Smith and explained the history of the Krieger Lecture, Smith and Vassar Professor of English Amitava Kumar read Smith’s Proust Questionnaire, published in Vanity Fair in November 2016. The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions about one’s personality, originated as a parlor game popularized by French author Marcel Proust.
“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” Kumar asked. Smith replied, “Reading quietly, in high grass, among loved ones (who are also quietly reading). Followed by a boozy lunch.”
“Which living person do you most admire?” “I feel almost certain I don’t know them. It would be one of these types who dedicate their lives to the welfare of others, whereas the people I tend to know are people making stories out of the dramas of themselves.”
“What or who is the greatest love of your life?” “The English language.”
“What is your most marked characteristic?” “A certain amount of smarts mixed with total idiocy.”
After this witty exchange, Kumar asked Smith to read from her most recent novel, “Swing Time.” Smith chose a short section detailing one of the main character’s experiences working at a London pizza shop during her summer break from university. Smith later said that some of this section draws on her own upbringing in the British capital as the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father.
In this passage, the shop’s staff watches the June 6, 1994 Wimbledon tennis match between Bryan Shelton and Karim Alami. The narrator’s boss, Bahram, is angry that Shelton wins because he views Black players’ tennis skills as inferior. Smith read,
“Bahram walked up to me and put the evening paper in my face. He pointed to a picture of Shelton, his arm swung high in preparation for one of his forceful serves, ball in the air before him, paused at the moment of connection. I cupped the phone receiver with a hand.
“‘What? I’m working.’
“‘Look close. Not black. Brown. Like you.’
“‘Probably he is half-half, like you. So: this explains.’
“I looked not at Shelton but at Bahram, very closely. He smiled.
“‘Half-winner,’ he said. “I put the phone down, took my apron off and walked out.”
Next, Kumar questioned Smith about her work and experience as a writer. What was it like, Kumar wondered, to write “White Teeth” when she was so young? (The novel was completed during Smith’s last year at Cambridge University and published when she was just 24 years old.) Smith responded, “It does seem young. But actually, when you look at the history of English writing, I’m not unusual. I’m not unusual historically, and I wasn’t unusual in the very recent past.” Citing Charles Dickens and E. M. Forster, among others, she continued, “Almost every British writer you can think of, in fact, was about 22 or 24. I think it’s not that unusual because those first novels come out of the university experience. They’re like final theses, basically, [though] it’s not formal, there were no creative writing classes or anything.”
When Kumar asked about her reasons for being a writer, Smith replied, “For me there was a simple idea of, ‘What if 19th century novels had had brown people in them?’ It’s not a particularly fascinating project, but it’s satisfying. I think it’s something that you wanted as a child, it’s a way of going backwards and inserting yourself in everything.”
Kumar requested that Smith read a page or two from “NW” to demonstrate her remarkable skill at crafting dialogue. Smith commented that a key aspect of her dialogue is not to spell things out too much for readers. “When you listen to people talk, you don’t have dialogue tags,” she said. “You have to use your intelligence to understand if something is said sadly or happily. And it’s possible to discern this from syntax or tone, so I try and dissuade people from adding what’s unnecessary.”
Smith then took questions from the audience, many of which were about her writing process. One student asked how she revises her work. Smith answered that when revising, she reads the book from the beginning with each edit because she wants to understand how the reader experiences it. “The thing I fear the most is the ‘writer’s problem’—thinking that, because you wrote it, it’s okay. All that really matters is the reader’s perspective.” She added that she advises her students to consider what they would think of their writing if it was someone else’s and whether it’s truly good or if they just like it because it’s theirs.
The question and answer complete, the audience was invited to come to the front of the room to have their books autographed, which many eagerly did. Afterward, Goodwin-Boyd reflected, “This event helped me get a better sense of who [Zadie Smith] is as a person. It would be interesting to read more of her work with the context I gained in mind.”