Celebrated author and essayist Zadie Smith recently spoke to a packed auditorium of college students, faculty, fans, supporters and readers at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. The writer and working mother gave a reading of her fable titled, “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” and shared her perspectives on the writing craft, global exploitation, sexual assault, race and community.
“People need to feel free when they write,” Smith said. “My [writing] block was that I couldn’t see what a woman writer could be.” Smith credited the writings of Zora Neale Hurston with helping her to see that for herself. Since that realization, this British novelist has several impressive literary accomplishments, including an award-winning first novel, “White Teeth,” and three subsequent novels, “The Autograph Man,” “On Beauty” and “NW.” Her next published work, “Swing Time,” hits bookstores next month.
Smith, after a recent stay in Gambia, spoke about her perception of globalization. “What is happening all over the world is deeply connected,” she said. “As a writer you have to see it.” On the one hand, she admits that she loves “cheap clothes.” On the other hand, she pointed out that “poor people in America are preying on poor people in Indonesia.”
“To me it is a matter of structural change that enables us to behave better to others,” she said. “You have American companies in Liberia who are worth more than the country.”
Smith’s mother is Jamaican and her father is a white Englishman. She says that others like to see her father as the source of her literary talent. However, Smith pays homage to her mother, who is a social worker. “My mother was a great reader,” she stated. “My father wasn’t.”
She noted how her parents’ life was harsher than hers. “In the case of my parents, their childhood was devastating,” she said. “My mother was literally half my age with three children.” In contrast to her parents lives, she feels “lucky.” Now, passed age 40, she is a working mother, a widely acclaimed author and a tenured professor at New York University.
Speaking of her experiences as a child of an interracial couple in England, she said, “You are always trying to prove you’re British.” But of living in the United States, she said, “I felt a kind of freedom here … I found it a great relief, that it wasn’t a test.”
To writers she warned, “If you are writing and trying to make a character represent a whole group of people you, will go wrong very quickly.” She added that race is not a biological trait, but “a matter or experience and love.”
On sexual assault, Smith told a stark fable that described the subtle progression from the entrance of two male strangers into a village to the unexpected rape of a young village girl. Smith noted that these stories have parallels in world history. “People who don’t know their history,” she said, “are fundamentally lost.”
The Medgar Evers College English Department sponsored the program. Dr. Brenda Greene, chair of the department, gave the opening remarks recognizing the large number of students from Medgar Evers College and welcoming visitors from the New School and New York University. At the end of program students stood in lines to have their copies of Smith’s books autographed by the acclaimed author.
Medgar Evers College, located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is one of the senior colleges of the City University of New York. It is also home of the Center for Black Literature, which recently hosted an evening with Jacqueline Woodson, who also has a new book titled, “Another Brooklyn.”