Novelist Zadie Smith On Historical Nostalgia And The Nature Of Talent
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Zadie Smith was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award this week for her novel "Swing Time." Last week, she had lunch with President Obama and four other writers he admires. Her novel "Swing Time," like her earlier work, is about characters who find themselves defined in part by their race and class.
Smith, like the main character in her book, is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an Irish father and grew up in a housing project in England. The title of her novel, "Swing Time," is a reference to the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical of the same name. When the narrator of the story is young, she falls in love with that film - and with dance - and thinks she'd give anything to have the talent to be a great dancer. She knows she never will but thinks her best friend might. The story alternates between the character's childhood and her adult life when she works as the personal assistant to a pop star.
Zadie Smith's other novels include "White Teeth" and "On Beauty." She now divides her time between New York and London and has been processing the surprising political turns in each country - Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. I spoke with Zadie Smith in November about a week after the election.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Zadie Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I'd like you to start with a reading from the first chapter of the book. It's a little bit into the chapter, so I'm going to ask you to set it up for us.
ZADIE SMITH: Right. So it's 1982, and this concerns two girls in a dance class together, one called Tracey and another who is unnamed, who's telling the story. And they notice each other because they have exactly the same tan-colored skin. And this is narrator.
(Reading) My mother was a feminist. She wore her hair in a half-inch afro. Her skull was perfectly shaped. She never wore makeup and dressed as both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti. She'd no need of makeup or products or jewelry or expensive clothes. And in this way, her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly, conveniently matched. Accessories only cramped her style, including - or so I felt at the time - the horse-faced 7-year-old by her side. Looking across at Tracey, I diagnose the opposite problem. Her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin, blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a Kilburn facelift. But Tracey's personal glamour was the solution. She was her own mother's most striking accessory. The family look, though not to my mother's taste, I found captivating - logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamante everything, expensive sneakers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world. Those aren't shoes.
Despite appearances, though, there was not much to choose between our two families. We were both from the projects. Neither of us received benefits - a matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey's. She had tried many times and failed to get on the disability. In my mother's view, it was exactly these superficial similarities that lent so much weight to questions of taste. She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive. That's what her plain white linen trousers were for, her blue-and-white-striped Breton T-shirt, her frayed espadrilles, her severe and beautiful African head. Everything so plain, so understated, completely out of step with the spirit at the time and with the place.
One day we would get out of here. She would complete her studies, become truly radical chic, perhaps even spoken of in the same breath as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. Straw-soled shoes were all a part of this bold vision. They pointed subtly at the higher concepts. I was an accessory only in the sense that, in my very plainness, I signified admirable maternal restraint. It being considered bad taste in the circles to which my mother aspired to dress your daughter like a little whore. But Tracey was unashamedly her mother's aspiration, an avatar, her only joy in those thrilling yellow bows and a frou-frou skirt of many ruffles, and a crop top revealing inches of childish nut-brown belly.
GROSS: That's Zadie Smith reading from her new novel, "Swing Time." Was your mother like the mother in the passage that you just read, a mother who is beautiful, a feminist and envisioned a future in which she would play an important role?
SMITH: Some parts of that are true. My mother was certainly beautiful. She's much more vivacious, wild and funny than the mother in this. The mother in this I feel is more like me, to be honest, in some of her rigidity. I guess what I was thinking - when I'm often thinking when I'm writing is casting into the future something I only notice after the fact.
But, you know, when I write "On Beauty," I had just been married. And I guess that book is about what would it be like to be married for 30 years. And when I wrote this, I had very small children. And I guess I was thinking, what would my children say about me? It's that which motivates me more than anything, a kind of hypothetical and taking, I suppose, bits of my personality and taking them to the nth degree. I hope I'm not - I should say - like this mother. But in my worst fears, I think sometimes I am.
GROSS: Well, there's so many class things going on in this book where the mother's, you know, bringing up her children in the projects and she wants to make sure that her daughter is able to get off the streets, out of the projects, that she doesn't get pregnant when she's a teenager...
GROSS: ...And that she makes something of herself unlike some of the girls in the projects who the mother thinks might as well not exist. I mean, they're just, like, invisible. And the daughter finds this very upsetting to hear. And, you know...
GROSS: ...And very condescending, although she wouldn't yet know that word. I doubt that part describes you.
SMITH: No, that part doesn't describe me and in that sense is a kind of collective portrayal. I was thinking of the children I grew up with and all of their mothers, you know, and just what a strain it is to be a mother in that context. It's hard for me now to appreciate just how hard - I mean, people are always thinking they're saving their children from something, but a lot of the time that thought is kind of a delusion. There isn't really a danger. It's like an overprotectiveness for a danger that doesn't exist.
But in the case of a lot of the children that I grew up with, the danger was real. And I was interested in the way that people's intimate relations are deformed by these kind of concerns, you know? In an ideal world, you have a political life, I think, and an intimate life, and they don't have to be involved too much in each other. But when times are hard, there's no separation. Everything you do in your life is political and it has to be thought about in that way - this kind of moment we're in right now, for example.
So I was thinking about that version of life. It wasn't quite my own because - for many reasons, because I was a lot luckier in all kinds of departments. But it's something that I remember.
GROSS: Did you grow up in the projects?
SMITH: I started there. And then we moved into a flat around the corner. But even the one I grew up in was, you know, perfectly pleasant compared to the many, many other ways you can grow up in London. So that's another part of - I guess the comparative part of my brain because I certainly went to a school in which many different lives could be seen up close.
GROSS: So did you have class anxieties growing up with people who had low incomes like you and also friends who were more middle class?
SMITH: I don't know that you think of it as class anxieties. You're always aware that there's a long way to fall and a possibility of rising. And that's also what I wanted to write about, a situation in England which at the time was considered more or less meritocratic - no? - so that we all went to school for free. We went to university for free. So there was the possibility of movement - doesn't mean that it was, you know, paradise, but there was the possibility of movement.
So I wanted - I wanted to think about that social structure and what is happening now in England that that simple fact of a free education, for instance, is no longer true at the university level. So part of it's a nostalgic portrait of a community and with the knowledge of how it has changed.
GROSS: Was there a sense of a racial hierarchy in your school?
SMITH: That's a really interesting question. I think it ran in many different ways. Certainly, the kind of groupings and stereotypes are so subject to history - that really interests me. For instance, if you'd ask the kids in my school when they were all about 12 what one could expect of, say, a Pakistani Muslim boy in our class, our go-to image of that young man would have been a rather tedious math or biology student heading for one of the better universities. It's funny, isn't it (laughter)? So these kind of racial stereotypes of groups, they have the ability to transform. And I guess when I'm writing, part of what I'm insisting on is that whatever we're living in at the moment is not in some way fundamental. Things are constantly open to change.
And part of the - how do you say? - that the thing which I find dangerous about some of the thought right now is exactly the suggestion of eternal states so that things have always been this way, they never could be any other way. Part of historical writing is to remind oneself, no, things were different and therefore can be different again.
GROSS: But the thing is we're in the period of kind of radical change with Brexit in England and with President Trump, who is, in many ways, an unprecedented choice...
GROSS: ...For president. So - yeah.
SMITH: I would say we're in a process of radical - a radical desire for time travel, which is something different. You know, there was a survey really fascinating to me done of Republican voters in this last election. But at times, 7 out of 10 of them report wishing America could go back to how it was in the 1950s.
This is a very interesting point for me because that kind of historical nostalgia is only available to a certain kind of person.
GROSS: A white person (laughter).
SMITH: Mainly. I can't go back to the '50s because life in the '50s for me is not pretty nor is it pretty in 1320 or 1460 or 1580 or 1820 or even 1960 in this country, very frankly. So that's what interests me, the historical nostalgia that is available or not available to others. And I am also historically nostalgic, and the left is also historically nostalgic.
And I - as tempting as it would be to apply the solutions of, you know, 1970s semi-socialist England to the present problems, I don't think that's possible either. I think the idea is that you find some way to restate the things you find valuable in the past, if you find them valuable, in a way that people can live with, in a way that's livable in this contemporary moment. So that interests me, how to deal with nostalgia - which is a totally human trait, on the right and on the left - no one is above it - but how to make that nostalgia historically clear-eyed and factual.
GROSS: Tell me more about what you're nostalgic for.
SMITH: Well, I am, I suppose, in England nostalgic for my version of that life, which was, in my opinion, relatively open or at least filled with possibility so that a deal was being offered to a child like me that if I did well in these various tests, the world could be opened up to me in a certain way. But I'm not so naive as to think those tests were completely neutral, right?
One of the more astonishing things to me as I get older is given that there were so many of us, this diasporic African-Caribbean community in England, how little we were taught about our history in relation to England. I had to really become an adult and in part move to America to understand, for instance, a relationship between England and Jamaica, the relationship between England and West Africa. And so even though the door was being opened in a certain meritocratic way, it was being opened on certain terms, right, that you had to join the club. So I would hope that if we were to reopen doors, they'd be offered on more honest and broader terms this time around.
GROSS: Well, your mother is Jamaican. And...
GROSS: ...The mother in the novel is Jamaican. The mother in the novel identifies more with Africa as the source of her identity than with...
GROSS: ...Jamaica. You said you had to come to the U.S. to really learn about Jamaica. What was the difference between being here and being in London in terms of understanding Jamaica? Is it geographical proximity or...
SMITH: No, but I think there is a black political consciousness here which is very engaged and partly because education in African-American history - the acknowledgement of it, even, even things which seem probably quite banal to most African-Americans, the existence of a Martin Luther King Day and of a black history month which is vigorously celebrated and considered in schools and elsewhere - these things make a difference to children, you know?
And it just seems to me obvious that when I was a kid and you were being confronted one way or another with the problematic nature of the island you came from, whether it was Jamaica or Trinidad or - and a child experiences perhaps this as a humiliation in some way, right? Why is this island I come from have these long-term economic and social issues? It would be helpful then to know as a child that these problems were not born in a vacuum and that Britain's colonial and slave relationship with Jamaica was of an almost extraordinary brutality.
I think that would have been an interesting thing to know just as if you meet a very, very disturbed child, it might be useful to know what kind of family he was raised in. So it's that kind of thing. It's a context which allows you to understand the world you're in and also to understand yourself a bit more clearly.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Zadie Smith. She has a new novel called "Swing Time." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET AND DE NOGUEIRA'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Zadie Smith. She has a new novel called "Swing Time."
In the novel, the narrator goes to West Africa with the pop star who the narrator becomes the personal assistant for.
GROSS: And she expects to find her roots in some way there. And instead, she's considered a white person. Like, she's dancing (laughter) with...
GROSS: ...A lot of Africans. And they - one woman turns to her and says, like, wow you were really good for, like, a white person. You dance like a black person...
GROSS: ...For a white person.
GROSS: And she's kind of, like, astonished because she doesn't think of herself as white.
SMITH: Well, I think people of my shade all over the world will have these experiences, right? You might go to Morocco and people will believe you Moroccan. You might go to Egypt and be confused for an Egyptian. You might find yourself in Bangladesh and people are talking Bengali to you. It's an interesting mindstate, one I've always found very enjoyable actually because it's...
GROSS: But this is just the opposite. Like, you're not...
SMITH: Yeah, it's the opposite.
GROSS: You're not one of us, yeah.
SMITH: Right. I guess the fungibility and movability of the identity is interesting, whereas I suppose a white person is white wherever they go, right? You're kind of stuck with it, whereas I find the interesting interpretive quality that my shade creates in others curious, sometimes funny, sometimes upsetting, sometimes alarming, you know, if I go into a cab and somebody starts talking Arabic to me very quickly. But it's an interesting philosophical lesson in identity and what exactly it is and how much of it is ruled by others' perception of you and so how much of it is yours as well.
These aren't questions I have an answer to, but I guess I've always been curious about them perhaps exactly because of this strange genetic heritance I have and the accident of it, right? So I have two brothers, one of whom does not look mixed race at all. Most people would consider him to be black, as they say, without any interpellation of anything else. I have another brother who looks like an Arab, and so his life is led a slightly different way than my life and my brother's life. So when you see these accidents of phenotype, it's very hard to take the concrete attitudes of identity that perhaps many white people take.
GROSS: So can I ask you - for people who haven't seen you and don't have a picture of you in front of them - to describe what it is about your face and your hair, you know, your color that confuses people?
SMITH: I don't really know (laughter).
SMITH: I'm brown, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter depending on the weather. And in a New York winter, it can go a bit yellow in the end. I have freckles. My hair is very afroey (ph), very big, but sometimes it's covered. Sometimes I wear a head wrap. And my nose is very long, not like my mother's, not like my brother's. So I guess there's a mixture of these racial messages in my face. And to live with that mixture is just endlessly curious because people want to read so much into this visual perception of you.
GROSS: When you do wear a head wrap, is that just a question of fashion of the scarf being an accessory or...
SMITH: Sometimes it's a bad hair day. Quite often, it's a bad hair day. But quite often, it's to do with my impatience with getting dressed. You know, like I like to get dressed, but I don't want to spend a lot of time. The head wrap began as a way of saving time, not being bothered to do my hair in any practical way. But also as a kind of - it's changed like a form of symbol or allegiance with exactly that kind of African ancestry. And after all, many, many more women in the world wear something on their heads than don't. And I like to be part of that sisterhood.
GROSS: So do some people assume that you're Muslim because you're covering your hair?
SMITH: Sure, yeah. That happens, too.
GROSS: And then what happens when people make that assumption?
SMITH: I don't mind that either. I, you know - I have to - if I'm asked outright, I have to say, no, that's not true. But it might start an interesting discussion, though. I know a little bit about Islam and have read the Quran, so to me anything that provokes a conversation between me and other people given that it's my job to have such conversations, it's useful for me.
GROSS: You know, I've felt that way, too, at times. And then at other times I've sworn to myself don't ever get into a conversation with a stranger again because, like, sometimes you're with a stranger and you start up a conversation and they say something really hateful...
GROSS: ...And you go now what do I say? How do I get myself out of this?
SMITH: I know what you mean, but that, I guess, is a difference that I do have a particular attraction to hideousness in people, not that I want to have them around for dinner or - but I guess it's interesting to me. I want to know how they came to that view. And also, very quickly, people's views are not quite what they seem to be either, I find. And I - you can almost always find a human place of connection to speak to somebody in my experience.
So I like to kind of extend those conversations, and I don't feel the need to correct the person in the cab. What am I trying to correct for my own personal rectitude as if somebody's watching to make sure that the world knows that I do not agree with said views of cab driver? I'd rather just listen to said views of cab driver because to me - sorry to use the word over and over again - but it's interesting. I like to know.
GROSS: My guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel is called "Swing Time." The title is a reference to the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie of the same name. After we take a short break, Smith will talk about growing up biracial, being the mother of two biracial children and the death of her father. Here's Fred Astaire singing "The Way You Look Tonight" which he introduced in the movie "Swing Time." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT")
FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) Someday, when I'm awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight. Oh, but you're lovely with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft. There is nothing for me but to love you just the way you look tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAURENT COQ'S "LA MAGA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Zadie Smith. Her new novel, "Swing Time," alternates between the main character's childhood when she's obsessed with dance and with the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Swing Time" and her adulthood when she works as the personal assistant for a pop star. The character, like Smith, is British, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and English father. Smith now divides her time between New York and London.
So since you live part of the time in New York and part of the time in London in this very divisive period in England over Brexit and immigration, in the U.S. over Donald Trump and immigration and gay rights and racial issues, I'm wondering if you are feeling that directly in your day-to-day life, either in England or in the U.S.
SMITH: Yes, of course. I retain this idea - I've been trying to write about it recently - that citizens, individual people, are not - do not have one idea within them. I feel that they are pluralistic within them. The question of what ideas come to the fore or are suppressed at any one time in history depends a lot on who is gathering them, who is speaking to them, who is trying to provoke them one way or another.
But one of the most interesting parts of all this to me during the run-up, I had friends, writers, who went to Trump conventions or whatever you want to call them, Trump rallies, George Saunders went, Dave Eggers went. And both those men found, as they spoke to individual people, this pluralism within each person, you know? I don't believe that great swathes of the population are in some way fundamentally stupid or evil or this, that or the other. I think that different values within people can be preyed upon and brought to the fore. And the responsibility lies in large part with the ringleaders. But I kind of retain an optimism in individual people.
GROSS: In one of your essays, you mention that your in-laws live in Ireland. And you describe them as moderately conservative and Protestant. And assuming that your political views differ from theirs - why should I assume? Do your political views differ from theirs?
SMITH: Yeah, we are not - we are not on the same side politically at all, and we have large differences. But again, anyone who has in-laws like this or family - extended family like this - knows that it is possible to speak across such divides. They are not walls, not permanent walls.
Our family relations let us know that all the time. It's possible to still love and respect people whose opinions differ from yours. It's also possible to talk them around and to be talked around. So I - not being a politician, not being somebody who has a general idea of people, I can only go from my intimate experiences. And my intimate experience is that there is some flexibility if it's allowed to flourish.
GROSS: Has it been helpful to you in some way to have family who are politically on the other side than the side you're on and to know them and to know them well and to trust them and to love them?
SMITH: It's more about realizing the absolute localness of all politics, you know, the deep, profound locality of it. So when the character in "Swing Time" finds herself white in a corner of West Africa, it's a reminder that your version of the world is your version. It's restricted to your area, and people live and experience things quite differently in different places.
Islam, as it's practiced in many places in West Africa, bears no resemblance to Islam as is depicted here in the West in our ideas about it. It's so fundamentally local. And so I guess when I first went to North Ireland and I met my in-laws - you know, I come from '80s England where the battle was between Thatcher and us. From a Northern Irish Protestant point of view where British electoral politics - there's only one issue, which is united Ireland or not that. Thatcher was in some way the champion, you know? But they didn't care or know anything about her local politics in England because that was not their concern. Their only concern was a single issue on which she was supposedly on their side. So the devil of my childhood was to them some kind of a protector.
These kind of local contexts, they don't change my view of how I felt about Margaret Thatcher. But it was a kind of lesson in the centrality of my ideas and the distance that they have in many other people's lives.
GROSS: In your new novel, there's two girls who start off as childhood friends. There's the narrator and her best friend, Tracey. They're both passionate about dance. But the difference between them is that Tracey is a kind of natural. She's just a...
GROSS: ...Naturally good dancer whereas the narrator is - just isn't a great dancer and she's never going to be. But that doesn't decrease her passion for it. But it does give her a certain sense of envy, and she thinks that if she could have the talent that Tracey has that she'd be happy, that that's all...
GROSS: ...That she'd want. But of course, it doesn't make Tracey happy, that talent. And...
SMITH: I guess I'm always thinking about duties, rights and gifts. To me, that's how social worlds and our intimate lives are structured, right? What is your duty? What accrues to you? What is your right? And what are your gifts? The wildcard is gifts because what rights accrue to you because of certain gifts?
Like, the first gap between people and perhaps the most unfair because it's unavoidable is this gift of talent. I don't just mean you're a good dancer, you're a good singer, you're a good writer, but you have a mind for schoolwork, for example, and some people just don't - never will, never could. So the question is what does that gap mean? And different societies decide differently about this. Some say, well, you have this gift and everything accrues to you because of it. And if you don't have this gift, bad luck, dude. You've failed the life game.
There are others that see that maybe that's a bit brutal and there needs to be a safety net exactly for this gap. And then there, of course, is the other gift, which is a little more ambiguous and hard to pinpoint, which is the gift of being born in a certain condition with a certain amount of money in a certain state with a certain skin color and certain gender. And what rights accrue to you because of that and what duties accrue to you because of that?
When I'm writing, it's a constant question. I'm really just asking the question how those three things work and how we think they should work, what we do consider to be rightful. Obviously, Americans have a different answer from Europeans, for example.
GROSS: What's the difference between the two?
SMITH: Americans have historically, I think, believed that you get what you deserve - right? - and that if you were born with a lot, well, good for you. And you should continue and keep it. You should be able to retain it. You do not owe anybody anything because of it. It's the luck of the draw. You won, and you should continue along your way. There have been more progressive and less progressive arguments around that, but it's fundamental in the American character that you're born with certain gifts, you should pursue them to the ninth degree. If you have any gumption, you'll get there and you'll be rewarded. And if you waste your gifts, well, it's on you.
So the more progressive part of American life considers, well, wait a minute. Did this kid who was born in Queens in this moment with this skin color, is he really starting at the same place as this kid born in Boston with a different skin color, a different family? But you can kind of track the rise and fall of progressive politics in America by how people feel about those questions, how generous they're willing to be at the idea of weakness, vulnerability, failure, the accident of birth, the luck, right?
I consider being born in 1975 in England winning the human life lottery. I could have been born in 1320 in Holland or in 1760 in West Africa just as the Dutch were coming to take me. To - just to be born in London in 1975 is luck beyond measure. So then my question is what duties fall from that?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Zadie Smith. She has a new novel called "Swing Time." Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "THINKING OF YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Zadie Smith. She has a new novel called "Swing Time." The main character, the narrator of your novel, is biracial - like you - a mother from Jamaica, a father who is British. And she describes in the novel the prurient curiosity of strangers who ask, but won't you be confused? How will you choose between your cultures? And she says to the point that I sometimes felt the whole purpose of my childhood was to demonstrate to the less enlightened that I was not confused and had no trouble choosing. Does that describe how you felt sometimes?
SMITH: I wrote that passage very late in the novel. It's one of the last things I added and (laughter) I actually - I cried when I wrote it. I was very surprised. I never cry ever when I write anything or even have any emotional reaction really as I'm writing. So I think it must have been how I felt. I never would have expressed that. I was doing the edit, and I added that line in the middle of a paragraph, so it must have been quite a subconscious addition. I think I did feel that way. It's a strange feeling. It must have been a strange feeling.
But I guess when I was a kid I was very much committed to the idea of getting on with things. I'm not a kind of wallowing person or whatever that means - or that's how I thought of myself anyway. So I just got on with things. But yes, I did - I think I did feel that, otherwise I can't account for why I added those lines. It seemed to be a personal thing.
GROSS: Did you know many other biracial families when you were growing up?
SMITH: We knew loads. I mean, it was a - I lived in Kilburn, so it's a Jamaican and Irish nexus and those people, at least in the '70s and '80s, fell in love with each other a lot (laughter). Even in my own family, I had an aunt who was also married to an Irishman. And then when my parents divorced, my mother had a relationship with an Irishman at one point as well. So that kind of mixing was the most normal thing in the world to me. I was in no way isolated. But yes, it wasn't really in our neighborhood that I felt it. But sometimes if you went outside where we used to go on these holidays to Cornwall and Devon in the very, very south of the British Isles - beautiful country, really gorgeous but also entirely, at that time, you know, homogenous and white. So when you would turn up, you would be kind of a sensation, you know, this (laughter) family walking on the beach or through the tiny little village. People would stare at you. So it's that kind of self-consciousness I think. I've kept that all my life, that feeling of being observed. But yeah, it was odd. That part was odd.
GROSS: Your character thinks that there's a deep expectation of sameness between parent and child. And she says (reading) I think I was strange to my mother and to my father, a changeling belonging to neither one of them.
SMITH: That - that last edit, I think it really is more than anything a response to my own experience of being a mother that I subconsciously expected my children to look like me. And then you realize that everybody thinks that, right? That's just the most natural assumption in the world. So when my children did not look anything like me, I had a kind of retrospective understanding of how both my parents must have felt because I didn't look like either of them (laughter). So it must have been an odd thing.
GROSS: Yeah, racially you didn't look like either of them. Your mother was Jamaican...
GROSS: ...And your father English.
GROSS: In what way do your children not resemble you?
SMITH: Well, they look white for the most part with lightish eyes and straight hair, so they look like their father. But in my case, you know, if I was out with my father alone, people would say, who are you with, little girl? And if I was out with my mother alone, they would say, who are you with, little girl? So it's that kind of strange double sense of alienation.
Another strange thing that happened to me as an adult is that my very best friend in the world, who is white called Sarah, had a daughter who is entirely black - looks entirely black. So when we go out together - and it's happened so many times - people, when they - if we part, you know, at the end of a day - it happened recently in a train station. I took my children. She took her child and the - one of the train guards said, excuse me, ma'am, your children are following her.
SMITH: And I was like, no, these are my children. And they looked - you could see no matter how many times they looked at us and they thought we were - it was a joke, you know, this is the black woman with the white children and the white woman with the black child. It was unsolvable for them, even though - of course, anyone takes a minute could figure it out, but they just couldn't figure it out. It's been a funny thing for us.
GROSS: You say funny, but does it cause you distress sometimes?
SMITH: No. I think my life has been a continual lesson in intimate bonds and the kind of - I find comedy in it. Like, when my children were born and I was forcing them to eat akee and saltfish and listen to Bob Marley and learn about Marcus Garvey (laughter) and all the rest of it, I could see that probably something absurd about that from the outside, this black woman trying to ensure that her visually white children know all this stuff. But don't all parents do that? You desperately want your child to know where you came from, your family.
And my husband, meanwhile, is playing them Irish jigs and telling them about Easter Rising. You know, that's what we do. That's what people do. To me, that's the history of my family, and it's always changing. My mother's long-term partner now is a Jamaican man. You know, my children might marry back in if that is the phrase we want to use. My grandchildren might look different again. To us, that's life. That's our family.
GROSS: So there's something about the relationship of mothers and children I want to ask you about, and it comes from this reading that I'm going to ask you to do. This is a reading about how the narrator sees her mother, and she's actually looking back on how she saw her mother when she was a child. So this is on page 18. Would you read it?
SMITH: (Reading) What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it's very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs and so on. That's what I've always demanded myself, but as a child, no. The truth is it's a war of attrition. Rationality doesn't come into it, not one bit. What you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother and that battle with the rest of life is over.
GROSS: I'm thinking this is about your internal dialogue about (laughter) being a mother and how to divide your time between your children and the other part of your own life, your writing life...
GROSS: ...For example.
SMITH: You know, it's - the difficulty of speaking about it, which is why I love to do it in a novel way where you get to cast the whole ambivalent thing at length and take it from every angle, is it so quickly devolves in conversation to either women can't have it all kind of angry conservative argument or a kind of liberal defense which says anything you want you can have. Anyone who tells you different - well, you know, it becomes so childish, the argument. And I'm so bored of hearing it.
When I'm trying to speak to a reader, I'm trying to talk so intimately and say I have - there are these feelings that I have, maybe you have. Maybe we can have them together. Maybe we can exercise them for a moment without falling into one of these camps. So it's that - I guess I'm thinking always about limits. And the problem with talking about this argument in terms of women is that women immediately become antagonized by the idea that you're setting limits on them. But to me, human life is defined by limits - not just female life, all life. And being aware of them and recognizing them is important because otherwise you can easily go crazy.
So I think with my children, you know, that kind of argument where you say, you know, children just like mothers when they're happy so just it's better if you're happy. So you should definitely go and have that four-hour massage and go to Turks and Caicos for a month because if you're happy, your children will be happy. Now, who wouldn't want - I want to believe that. That sounds awesome. But I guess I'm suspicious of arguments which are in essence self-serving, OK? No matter what context in your life, it is certainly true that a happy mother is better than an unhappy mother. But it is also true that children's happiness does not always align with my happiness. They want things I don't want. But - and another adult part perhaps of parenting is recognizing that you cannot always please your children as well. You can't always be their friend, their hero. Sometimes you'll have to say to them things they don't want to hear. But for me, it's a constant daily, almost hourly lesson in personal humiliation and (laughter) adult...
GROSS: Not humility but humiliation?
SMITH: Humiliation because we have so many ideas about ourselves and children are here to destroy all of them one by one. And it's also about being seen. Like, if we - even if we don't have children, we are very aware of this because we've all been children to somebody else if we're alive. And we saw the people who brought us up, our parents or our carers (ph). We saw them, right? And we saw all their sins and we saw them very, very early on. By the time we're 10, we could tell you every hypocrisy of our parents.
To then realize that that is happening to you the other way around is shocking. You are no longer judge and jury. You are being judged, and you're - and the worst part of it is you're being correctly judged. You can ask that the judgment will be not too heavy, as Kafka says, but it's going to happen.
And they won't be wrong, just as you're not wrong about your mother. They'll be right. So it's about accepting that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Zadie Smith. She has a new novel called "Swing Time." We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel is called "Swing Time." Continuing the theme with your family, you wrote an essay about your father and his death. And you write about how much we - about how much we the living ask of the dying, how we beg them to make it easy on us. Can you explain what you meant there?
SMITH: I don't think everybody is like that. Like, I - I had a scene at the end of "Swing Time" where I was thinking of Amy, this international star, who has a completely different attitude to the dying, who is brave and noble in the face of death and sits by somebody's bedside and listens to them as they speak and to all the unpleasant parts - the pain and the sadness and the fear. I think people who do that are heroic. And I know that they exist. I don't think I'm one of them, but I know they exist.
My experience with the dying is that I'm the kind of person - I don't think I'm alone - who the thing you can't bear to hear that the person is afraid. You want them to be resolved towards it. I think that's what it is, right? And it's a total projection. You don't want to hear their fear because you don't want to think about your fear. And - but it's so selfish not to allow somebody to express their fear when they're feeling it. I think it's terrible.
So I hope maybe being with the dying and also of course dying oneself is something that you improve at by practice, by being around it, by understanding what's going on. The battle it is to get to death, which is something maybe when we're very young we don't understand but once you've seen people die, you realize it's a struggle to die. It's like a race you have to get across the line. And palliative care or people like Amy in the book or anybody who is willing to be with you and help you along, they're blessed people for me. So, obviously, I hope to be surrounded by such people, but it might be even a bolder hope to hope that you could be one of these people yourself.
GROSS: Did your father express fears to you that you didn't want to hear?
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. I mean, with my father's case, I think the hard thing was to hear somebody say my whole life has been a disappointment and a failure. That's very hard. Particularly I think my generation and maybe the entirety of the American population feels that that's terribly defeatist. You don't want to hear that about life. There's lots of things you could hear about life, but not that, that the whole thing has not really worked out. That was very hard to hear...
GROSS: Isn't it almost your duty as a daughter to say to him that's not true?
SMITH: He did see that. It's not that he didn't think that the children hadn't been worth it - all his children. And he had five. So he understood that, but he was speaking personally. And his feeling was that he had failed, so that's hard. I think that's a very hard emotion to express and to hear. Yeah.
GROSS: I think we have to acknowledge it's hard for a daughter or son to hear that and deal with it because what - I mean, what are you going to say?
SMITH: It's true. But I don't think children can redeem their parents' lives entirely. I don't suppose I ever thought that...
GROSS: I don't even mean that, but...
SMITH: ...I understood that he was a man with...
GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you.
SMITH: Just a man with certain talents, you know, I think he did have.
GROSS: That went unfulfilled?
SMITH: Absolutely right. He had absolutely no way to express. And it's just something that's become clearer to me as I've got older that all his children - my half siblings, my full siblings - every single one of them became an artist of one kind or another. That's five. That's a lot of kids to all come out of one person who - so I think there must have been something going on with him, you know. And...
GROSS: Well, you said that he wanted to be a photographer and never became that.
SMITH: Yeah. He wanted - I think he had a good eye, so I feel sad that he didn't get to express that.
GROSS: Were you thinking of your father when you created the main character in your novel who so much when she's young wants to be a dancer but just doesn't have the talent and knows that she'll never be that?
SMITH: I mean, a novelist's material is personal, right? But it's always along lines which aren't particularly obvious, so it's the emotions you're trying to recreate, exactly that. Like, the father in this book isn't really much like my father, but that emotion of having an ability that is in some way thwarted, that's something that I'm familiar with, yeah. But also, it's the way we live now. Like, maybe it sounds patronizing, but it does occur to me, you know, 150 years ago, 200 years ago, our creative capacities were more fulfilled. It doesn't - not that everybody was painting, but people were, for instance, making their own clothes, cooking, making their own food, the domestic arts which so much contempt was piled when I was a kid by a certain form of feminism of which I was totally a member.
But as an adult, I now understand that those arts are examples of our capacity to make things. And for thousands of years, they were the only evidence of women's capacity to make things given that everything else was blocked to us, the professional arts, and that they are of serious worth and value. Like, I am 41, and I learned to cook this year. And the satisfaction I get from it is really tremendous. I had no idea that there was any satisfaction in being in a kitchen.
My father, by the way, was an extraordinary cook, and I'm quite often when I was making my terrible meals for my children these past six years, I would sit down to another awful meal and have a memory of my father's pizza or my father's fish or my father's curry. And it was the kind of memory that would bring you to tears. And then you realize, well, that's a kind of creative act. It's also a gift that you give to your children, which I completely failed to give them because I just couldn't do it or couldn't be bothered to do it or had contempt for it. So those things, I guess, in my middle age - maybe I'm just saying I like to bake now. Is that what I'm saying? (Laughter) But I like - I have more respect and interest in things that I just never concerned myself with when I was young.
GROSS: Well, Zadie Smith, thanks so much for talking with us.
SMITH: Thank you.
GROSS: Zadie Smith's new novel is called "Swing Time," a reference to the title of the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie of the same name. "Swing Time" has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award. The winners will be announced in March. Monday on FRESH AIR, how the CIA became militarized. We'll talk with Joshua Kurlantzick, author of the new book "A Great Place To Have A War" about the CIA's clandestine operations in the small Southeast Asian country Laos in the '60s and '70s. More recently, the CIA has been carrying out drone strikes. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld.
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GROSS: Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.