Zadie Smith Interview: On Shame, Rage and Writing

Zadie Smith Interview: On Shame, Rage and Writing

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00:00
what is shame right well I dream gets a bad rap these days I think it's quite a youthful emotion corrective on certain kinds of behavior but that kind of shame is it's sad because about being caught in a mindset and feeling isolated within it I think and I think in England in that kind of stratified clast system there's a lot of shame at all levels the middle classes are full of shame and
00:33
it's self hating shame the working class is lower middle class particularly because they kind of stuck between to a rock and a hard place yeah the shame of not being understood or not being able to make yourself understood is a kind of corrosive type of shame I think there's the shame of being how do you say vulnerable loser like people don't speak about it very often in its connectivity but for instance if I was when I was a kid
01:05
speaking to my Jewish friends and coming from my position we would often think you have a secret thought of why why did my people submit to this treatment that's the question you're not meant to ask in history class why did six million died why why were there six million slaves but I think in a small child there is a kind of reflexive shame because you can't understand it and I think when I was a child particularly when I looked at situation of Jamaica
01:38
and Jamaica and migrants you feel some shame in the sense of you know what is wrong with my family that's what you would say in a simple sense but but the historical knowledge understanding what had occurred in Jamaica the history of Jamaica removes that shame because it gives you information context historical depth you know the way I was educated I didn't know anything about Jamaica I didn't even really understand that Jamaicans were not native to Jamaica for example
02:10
British education in the 70s and 80s was quite concerned with the inequalities of American culture but kind of pulled the veil over what happened in Britain so I found that even writing this book and doing all the research incredibly freeing it kind of you replace shame with this kind of empowering knowledge pride I don't find pride very useful emotion though I understand for a lot of people it is important and I just come
02:42
from a different perspective I I assume people are including myself just deeply deeply flawed as the shame is usually quite appropriate on a day-to-day level but I don't know that might just be my issue the question is how can you function practically I don't there's any point in self flagellation and feeling sorry for yourself and thinking how terrible you are but shame is a kind of productive thing to create change I
03:13
guess I do believe in that yeah so what I'm hearing is that you are saying that there's a very positive element to the word shame I've never ever considered this could you to be shameless is to be very very dangerous I think in America a president at the moment it's a shameless person and I don't know maybe it's um I know it's definitely a Christian emotion no and that's why it's so so out of
03:48
fashion but I always thought it quite quite productive in the Gospels the idea that you assume that you are entirely in sin I always assume that because all this noise true there's so many so many kind of small vanities and I don't know we're always boasting or trying to put something over on somebody or that that seems to be our daily practice so I think to have in your mind the idea that
04:20
you're probably not as great as you think you are is useful thought I find it useful anyway writing is all shame I I was that would live right is yes then everybody feels a shame when they write it's a shameful practice like who are you who are you to write 400 pages about anything why should anybody have to read them it's everything it's shameful also the exposure if it is if you write intimately which all writing there might even if it's the distant historical novel is from your brain it's your ideas so it's like being exposed in front of
04:51
people and it's often quite shy people who write so there's a strange conflict there you see in comedians to stand up comedians my brother's one where they did not extrovert people you know if you submit them in a pub they're kind of quiet and and cautious and scared of life but then they go onstage and say all these outrageous things I think it's a strange psychological quirk in which shame is used to kind of propel you on to something to say things that you don't really want to say in public but
05:21
yes I mean writing is mostly shame and I guess the thing I have against pride is that it's all usually so inaccurate like I can say like in my sentimental moment I'm so proud of my people meaning the kind of black diaspora look at all the amazing things we do look at Stevie Wonder and Usain Bolt and Neil deGrasse Tyson and all these extreme Michelle Obama and both the blood but the bottom line is I am NOT any of those people and I have no responsibility for them you
05:52
know it's a sentimental idea night and I'm moved by it but it's also not true I can't take these people are individuals who achieved by themselves you have a collective sense of pride bits usually it can run so quickly into something that is dangerous and unhealthy nationalism or all kinds of collective thoughts so I've rather talk in those in those situations of love to say I love these people I love what they've done I appreciate and love it but pride in it I
06:24
don't I don't see why that's useful I sometimes older writers will tell you you know you're in your study and you take down an earlier book and just on a whim you start reading it and then them you can have a feeling like oh it's not bad but always feels quite distant partly because when you're writing it's such an obsessive thing and then when you're done it's very um it's like pushing something out of your body you don't want to be involved with it anymore but I have that sometimes like I'll pick up
06:55
a novel and read a chapter or something but a very I kind of merge of reading any of them from beginning to end the only thing I read with some pride occasionally is an essay because it's shortened yes okay for those painful to do yeah but but I think you can't deny the satisfaction of I think marty name is sort of having written that I think is very strong it's not very active emotion but um it's nice to know that
07:25
you have written some things that's nice when you started out writing you might have been a singer or a dancer perhaps not right but this is a quite wonderful palette to have to choose from I think we're talking about it last night and it's a mother writers around the table who have these other talents there's a theory that I think it's Foster Wallace had that every writer someone who could do something else very well but not quite well enough and that I found to be
07:57
true got a lot of ex portsmen actors dancers singers people who had some skill in a different area but but not quite enough to do what they wanted to do I think writing gives the most possibility of improvement I was never gonna be Stevie Wonder no matter how hard I tried but with writing you can get better and you might even get to meet Steve yeah you can get better and and I think for a lot of writers the problem is performance think of Wallace
08:29
playing tennis for it even that it's they like the act but they don't want to do it in front of people writing is wonderfully solitary and I'm reading I read those crazy right wing websites kind of interested in the psychology of those people and I think you have to imagine that for eight years they were covered in shame it might seem impossible to imagine but they hated the country they were in they were ashamed of their president they felt like strangers in their land they were completely alienated that's the only way I can really comprehend it
09:01
because I think that there are many people who felt that way and I think not being able to see that will not help the left you have to try and conceive of it as unpleasant is it doesn't mean you have to agree with it or submit to it but you have to be able to see that for what it is that all these sometimes occasionally unthinking pleasure I took in Obama pleasures I don't mean politically but pleasures of personal identification which I think was very strong for a lot of liberals he likes my
09:31
music he reads my kind of books he's my kind of person he talks like me all of that which such--such seems such a pleasure quite aside from what actually went on politically in that administration was equally infuriating to many people who found him to be alien entirely to their sensibility to their taste to their ideas to the way they talked I think you have to conceive of that and how much rage builds up over eight years and and then feeling the full force of it now I think you have to
10:02
think of emotions as real even when they're extremely alien to you I think that's the first step in them having some form of communication is that actually a writer's thing I mean you you slip into the skin of others yeah it's part you know but I also think you know I I meet people with fairly extreme views when I'm on the road or when you're in a taxi or it is possible to talk to people but you need to talk to them and you need to
10:33
listen to them as well first the feeling of not being even listened to is it's very difficult I think to stand I'm amazed how much of it comes down to language I think that's the one thing that really strikes me about the right-wing sites is that when you get down to the core complaints the things that really upset them are linguistic like black lives matter has driven them literally up the wall they find that those three words so provocative then
11:04
it's deranging people I find that fascinating part you know the my gut instinct is rage ful I feel like are you saying to me that after two hundred and fifty years of this twisted racial history I can't even say these three words without you feeling hurt and mortified and raged like I feel the rage but my rage matching their rate is pointless I think it's more interesting to think about what it is about white people that find
11:37
the idea of any collectivity that excludes them so upsetting I've always thought that's very interesting even when I was in school on a bus and I'd see group of white people getting angry because for Bengalis were talking Bengali what is I was voice fascinating what is the Aang what is making you so angry and I think part of it is like if you've ever been in a marriage or any relationship it's insecurity jealousy and a kind of vanity that you should
12:09
always be included in all things so I think trying to understand the motivations behind it is interesting why is it so why'd you turn that moment of mystery where you're not sure what's going on immediately into rage why does it have to be transformed into range could it be transformed into something else like curiosity concern interest acknowledgement that maybe this particular thing isn't to do with you it's okay sometimes for things not to be to do with you of course minorities are so used to things not being to do with them that they don't tend to get rageful
12:40
at that you know now there's just push back the idea of representation about being seen here on TV shows and magazines when I was a kid the idea that I wasn't present in anything was just the way it was you know but do you think actually when you are a writer and and keep evolving that you are in a sense erasing what you did to go on to something else but you bring something along from what you already did that's how I feel like I'm always trying to destroy what came before you know just
13:12
in order that you have somewhere to go but I I think writing is more conservative when I think of people like Lori Anson for example real artists it's the only word for them there is a kind of truly destructive urge in artists like that they're just constantly making and tearing down writing is a little more linear it's more like building on something but I'm always hoping for a kind of revolution
13:42
in the sentence something new to happen yeah also perhaps because writing is a bit old-fashioned it is very old-fashioned right but I really don't mind that when I write I'm really thinking primarily of my generation and I guess the people older than me and that I'm writing for them and taking this little thing to the grave and when I think about younger people I'm always delighted if they read me but always quite surprised as well I don't I don't expect it and I also don't
14:12
expect the novel in this form to go on infinitely I think there are many more interesting and immediate mediums that that generation are going to use you know and almost I'm saying this that's tough I I just think there are other ways of doing it I think you can do an incredible mixture of visual aural text I just can't imagine people continuing to write these tomes I'd be surprised we'll see but as
14:46
long as I can write my until I go I'll be I'll be happy enough for that but do you feel that the young people have now from Twitter and and texting and a different language no I I mean I'm reading a book by someone who was 22 when she wrote it's absolutely fantastic the form is different um there were little clues like even if I didn't know her age and I didn't I would know she was obvious generation like my husband pointed out we were reading a
15:17
lot of books by young people young women how many times in these books the character usually the first person will say something emotional what happened and instead of responding either in the narrative or vocally as you would in a traditional novel the character will pinch a bit of their skin until it bleeds or do this or hold their draw as so straight as if the body was a dissociated thing you know he said that to me and I put my two fingernails into my hand until it bled though I keep on finding these lines over and over again that's very
15:47
fascinating to me you know they don't have they don't the idea of verbalizing an emotion is quite distant and the body is treated like this strange thing you have to drag around after you've finished your text messages and emails and your virtual life why why have I got this flesh bucket that I'm carrying around I'm very struck by that perspective when I keep on finding it I think that's very different from the way we wrote though so that's really interesting to me it's it's not a particularly sad thing and the arc of
16:18
these novels quite often seems to be the character starts out very arch and and completely embedded in ideology argument internet argument and by the end of the book realizes simple things like I have a body I might actually want to Baby Love is complicated you can't just love anyone in any direction they learn these very things which would have been for us first principles they learn at the end but I don't think that means they're slower it's just that they're saying
16:49
here are these things we've been given they don't seem to have any relevance to our lives oh wait actually I I do have this flesh packet and it has these various irrational desires and needs so I find I find that all really interesting but I I'm very engaged by it by the way their writing so disassociated from themselves that's cool you

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