Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Mickie Meinhardt, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Zadie Smith about her book Swing Time (Penguin Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, Swing Time, is a dance of more than one kind. Kicking through ‘70s London and into present day, it follows a pair of girl friends—the unnamed narrator and her more talented, beautiful, and tragic friend Tracy—who meet in childhood ballet class, the only non-white girls in the room. Dance is their shared bond, but even when it is no longer a pastime, the push-and-pull of it remains in their tumultuous relationship. From the first pages, we know the relationship (and the narrator’s life) has gone sour, and the rest of the novel dips in and out of their lives to explore the thread of connection that seems to be nearly unbreakable in friendships of a certain age and depth, no matter how awry they go. As with many of Smith’s novels, it is also a novel about the black family and, as we watch the narrator and Tracey grow apart and into their own lives, the experience of blackness. A parable of sorts, it is not shy about putting moral questions, and questionable morals in the characters, up for consideration, and one closes the book with a feeling similar to stepping off the dance floor: Filled with the whirling, exhaustive nature of being human, never quite sure if you’ve made the right steps.
Mickie Meinhardt: These days there’s much praise for “the power of female friendships”, but there’s a terribleness in that power as well; a great capacity for harm, seen recently in the Ferrante novels. The feelings they leave behind are unshakable, and I think every woman has had a friendship like this—and like the narrator’s and Tracey’s—that’s lingered in her consciousness. Why did you decide to write a friendship of this nature, and at what point in the process of conceptualizing the book did you know it would be this type of semi-toxic friendship?
Zadie Smith: For me it was less about female friendship in itself but in the idea of ‘the one who leaves and the one who stays’. I actually think this is at the center of Ferrante’s wonderful books, too. This happens all the way back in White Teeth, too, with Magid and Millat. There is something semi-toxic about ‘escaping’ the environment from which you were born. I think of Swing Time as a sort of parable about that. It’s important that they’re women, because women, in my view, are especially gifted at the art of comparison. But I can also imagine it as a boy’s story.
MM: Many have spoken about dance as the central theme of this book, but there’s another type of dance going on: The dance of the relationship between the narrator and Tracey. They are partners, they push and pull each other—up and down. Tracey had the lead in childhood, and it eventually (seemingly) switches to the narrator; their back and forth is fraught with tension, even when their relationship is at its best. How did you sustain that between them throughout the novel?
ZS: It’s a sort of nudge I’m giving myself when I’m writing. Something like: “yes, ok, but what about x?” It’s the literary version of that annoying political habit of thought: ‘whataboutery.’ It’s my tendency to keep putting the opposite case to myself, and so the novel swings between these two girls. I feel the easiest thing in the world is to tell oneself: I did everything I could. The narrator of Swing Time is very fond of thinking that way and so perhaps Tracey is there as a kind of correction to that self-satisfied moral instinct. Though of course half the time Tracey is just a mental representation in the narrator’s mind. So much of our moral debates are just a kind of half-animated solipsism. So maybe it’s more like reading about one person divided.
MM: Your books are known for being multi-voiced; how did you face the challenge of having only one narrator for Swing Time? Did you find yourself wanting to add other narrators at any point?
ZS: No! I was delighted to be writing in a straight line. But soon enough other voices appeared, especially in the West African portions. It’s the ham in me but I like recreating voices. I feel a certain kind of novelist sneers at this as a sort of low, theatrical art – ‘character making’ – akin to playwriting. Maybe it is, but I get a lot of pleasure out of it.
MM: It’s a very female-focused book, moreso than your others—was that sparked by anything in particular? There’s a sort of new-new-wave women’s movement going on right now, so the book does feel a little prescient.
ZS: I’m sure the experience of having children made me concentrate more precisely on what the female experience is, or what makes it distinct from the male. And certainly the new wave feminist movement got me thinking of the movement I grew up in, the similarities and differences.
MM: You’re known for unlikeable characters. In Swing Time, the narrator herself isn’t the best person. Why did you choose paint her the way you did?
ZS: I really had no idea that was the case until people starting asking me about it! Are they unlikeable? They never seem half as dreadful as I am myself – I honestly try to prettify them, for the public. I never think of characters as aspirational people: I want to be just like Anna Karenina. What reader thinks that way? That seems to me such a strange idea of what a character is. Perhaps other people feel much more secure in their own goodness and ‘likeability’ and so expect characters to be as nice as they are. In Swing Time one thing I did want to counter, practically and philosophically, is this contemporary idea that one ‘has’ a personality or an identity and with this already in hand, we go out in the world to enact this ‘person’ in the world. That is not at all my experience of being alive. A quote by Salman Rushdie has it the right way round in my opinion: Our lives teach us who we are. This is the perspective from which I write. My characters discover themselves by and through actions – existence proceeds essence. And the news they tend to receive I suppose is not always pretty.
MM: In this book, your usual social commentary strain feels a bit more judgmental in tone, especially around Aimee’s pseudo-charity work. It comes from the narrator’s opinions and observations, but at a point we, the readers, begin to judge her too, for her complicity and complacency. Was it conscious, making the tone more barbed than in your prior books?
ZS: It’s not my opinion, it’s the narrator’s, and IMHO the narrator is a hypocrite. For me the question the narrator never quite asks herself is: what would I do, if I thought I could get away with it? Wouldn’t she also steal that baby? If she thought she could? I can’t see how sins are magnified or lessened by the ease or difficulty with which we commit them.
MM: Where did the Aimee / Africa storyline come from? Was it something you wanted to shine a light on from the beginning, or did it come later?
ZS: It was always there. I wanted to describe different power relations in ever-widening spheres. From the smallest – two girls in a dance class – right up to the largest: the relations between the so-called ‘first’ world and the ‘third.’ My mental image was of concentric circles in a pond just after you drop a stone in it.
MM: You’ve said that you intended this to be a portrait of black life, put into one story, and it does have that feel. But the experiences that define a culture and a way of life can be so different—one could argue that this is just a portrait of one black life. I’m wondering how you chose to include the events and points of tension that you did to make that more overarching story—what felt vital to include versus what didn’t.
ZS: Parables are not all-inclusive! You have to bite the bullet and choose the details that seem most vital to you, most pertinent. I was interested in – for lack of a better the term – the existential construction of blackness. That is: what has it meant and how has it felt, historically, to be ‘black’ in the world? And the closest word I could come up with was ‘shadow.’ To be secondary, an echo, an inversion, an extra, never the-thing-in-itself. I don’t mean everybody who is black feels this of course, but that this has been the way blackness has been constructed in majority white societies. So what is it like to grow up with that consciousness? I wanted to write a parable about that.
MM: The narrator’s mother is one of the most interesting characters. Self-taught, bootstrappy, determined to be a success—all things that contemporary society, via the Lean In model, encourages women to do. But she’s also not particularly maternal or domestic, and has more interest in her own ambitions than in being a family woman—something men have been doing for centuries but that is still frowned upon for women. Often, the women in your stories are more domestic. Can you talk a little about the creation of this nuanced, smart character?
ZS: I don’t particularly admire or condemn - in men or in women - the neglect of children for the purposes of personal ambition. But everything in life has a cost. Children - vulnerable, in need of us – make an appeal directed at their parents: an appeal for protection, emotional and physical. This appeal may well be experienced by parents as a completely outrageous and uncompromising demand, but that doesn’t make it any less real. And both men and women are of course free to ignore it and often do but we shouldn’t simultaneously kid ourselves (excuse the pun) that our children want the same things we want. Children suffer because of our wants as we suffer at the hands of theirs. But they suffer more, because they are vulnerable. I like the mother in Swing Time well enough and find her in many ways admirable and in many ways awful, as I find myself.
MM: Swing Time has a parable feel to it. But at the end, do you think the narrator has really learned anything? What do you hope we, the readers, have taken from it?
ZS: I see her as being just about to start her real life, not as a shadow this time but as a person. Aged 33 or thereabouts, which seems to be a good age to get ‘woke’, as the kids say these days. I think she has some sense finally of what she is capable of, for good and for bad, and that she will proceed with a bit more care and caution. I can’t proscribe to readers. They get whatever they get. Especially with a parable or fable: each person draws their own lesson. But what I got from it myself – from the process of writing it and re-reading it – was the idea that we are very often strangers to ourselves, even late into lives, and given that this is true, we should try more often to offer others the same compassion we so enthusiastically direct at ourselves.
When I was young I used to hear news of the terrible world and think: how could anyone do that? Whatever awful thing it was. Then you get older, you look inside yourself, try to look at what you find there more honestly, with a little less self-deception, and then you realize….oh, yes…I see now, I see….
Zadie Smith was born in Northwest London in 1975. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, Changing My Mind, and NW. Her awards include Orange Prize for Fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award, among others. White Teeth was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; NW was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction. In 2003 and 2013, she was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors, and is included in on Time magazine's 100 best English-language novels published from 1923 to 2005. She teaches at NYU’s Creative Writing Program.
Mickie Meinhardt is a Creative Writing Fellow and MFA candidate in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wax, NYLON, The Seventh Wave, The Rumpus, Handwritten, General Assembly, and others. She is working on her first novel, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.