“A profound, irresponsible and possibly immoral curiosity about other people’s lives”

Zadie Smith, British author, spoke to a packed theatre in Cartagena on Friday evening, speaking about her childhood, collective identity, and her relationship with writing. 

“I find writing very difficult in the sense that I have a lot of self-loathing as I write: I guess what’s unusual is that I write through it. I always intend to write a perfect '110 existential novels' and I end up writing '450 heavily populated' piece of comic fiction – it’s never what I plan.”

Literary influences and interests are set in childhood, she said, remembering her distinctly British early influences – Charles Dickens in particular. “I’d be a very different writer if I grew up in Paris – it’s hard to be influenced when you’re 35.”

The novel On Beauty was influenced by that childhood reading- a desire to place a black character in a Victorian novel. 

“I read Middlemarch and I loved it, but I wished one of the characters had an afro. When I was 28 – I wanted to do it myself. I was writing to kids like me – that book would have meant something to me as a child.”

Smith spoke of her upbringing in Willesden, and her joy in the local, which is too often derided in modern life. In her early career, she bought a flat opposite the estate on which she had grown up, and said she took pleasure in the closeness to her friends, family, and community there. 

Both her parents come from a line of ‘servants, in one way or another: profoundly dispossessed people’ – and Smith grew up with a sense of profound historical luck and gratitude not to have been born in any other time. 

Servitude and even slavery, she said have gone nowhere: it has stopped being in your home, but has taken on a global and invisible character. 

 “The perfectly obvious idea that when you sit down to dinner or get dressed, there’s an invisible army – even the cobalt in your phone mined by children on slave ‘wages’ – that which we hold as our great symbol of technocracy and progress represent literal servitude.”

 In Smith’s view, realism is an accusation: if what we imagine to be the real world is an ideological construction, then the realist novelist is unthinkingly recreating ideology. 

“Reality is contained by a consciousness, and therefore not to be trusted at a profound level.”

Zadie Smith writes across genres, and spoke of her excitement about short stories, though the novel remains her great love, despite its flaws: “I’m not a purist – I believe in the mixed nature of the novel – the crank-turning, the familiar, the second-hand - but also creating something genuinely new within the form. I’ll take it: I don’t need perfection.”

The novel is a great form to explore other identities, to satisfy curiosity about other lives, of which Smith confesses to a huge amount: curiosity is fueled by a loose sense of self, which many writers have, she said.

 “A profound, irresponsible and possibly immoral curiosity about other people’s lives – I am stuck in my fleshcage, I can only know my life in life – explicitly the reason I write fiction is so that I don’t have to be trapped in my fleshcage.”

Though she feels that politics is overly focused on identity, that people are asked to be consistent over huge swathes of time: “I don’t recognise that vision of what a person is: authenticity is not consistency.”

The sense of not having an ‘identity’ has been a component of white privilege forever, and now all identities are being discussed and explored, which is a positive thing. This is not, however, the essence of freedom or personhood, said Smith, quoting Montaigne and Heidegger.  

“We have collectivities in moments, but the person exists too. I don’t agree identity is the root to freedom: the only thing with consequence is action. We are thrown into the world and we act and act and act.”

HAY PLAYER: Listen to Zadie Smith in conversation with Carolina Sanín.