Chicago Reads: Zadie Smith

On November 30th, I went to a Zadie Smith event put on by The Seminary Co-op. Zadie packed the DuSable Museum auditorium and an overflow room to share her latest book, Swing Time.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one,51hi92m66bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_ Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revi
sited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

While I loved hearing Zadie read from Swing Time (which I cannot wait to read), her Q&A session with Vu Tran was my favorite part of the event. She is so eloquent and her answers were so intelligent.

I especially loved her answer to a question about writing outside of your experience. The attendee wanted to know how to write “with honor” and how we could decide what experiences were meant for us to write. Misrepresentation is harmful and any writer risks criticism when they venture too far from their own experiences and without proper research. Yet…who are the “experts” who get to decide when someone has crossed over? And if no one ever wrote outside their experience, our books would be very limited. Where is the line?

I thought Zadie answered this well. She commented (and please note I am paraphrasing) that it is impossible to judge fictional characters. She has a Trinidadian professor in one of her novels, and as she said, he does not represent all Trinidadian professors. And is there a better portrayal of Trinidadian professors out there? Maybe, but who’s to say there is only one “correct” way to portray Trinidadian professors? This is a conversation, in her opinion, to be had between reader and author. Readers will always have different interpretations of a novel, and it’s their right to decide what is realistic to them and what is done poorly. However, in her opinion, if an author constantly worries about upsetting a potential reader, she will never write a single word.

Misrepresentation is a problem, but it’s a complex problem with no easy solution. Not only did I admire Zadie’s answer, but I’m glad important writers in the world are thinking about and discussing these issues.

Some other fun facts from the event:

  • The protagonist in Swing Time is never named. Zadie said she wanted to write a distant narrator (in first person) and purposely did not reveal her name.
  • The way Zadie described the beauty of dance and rhythm captured what I have always felt about dance but had difficulty conveying.
  • Zadie visited West Africa for research for this book.

HeadshotGoriaChao 200x200 Author Photo


This post is brought to you by Gloria Chao at ChiYAwriters.com.

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