Zadie Smith Lectures on Ethics of Writing


Courtesy of Dominique Nabokov

Novelist, essayist and short story writer Zadie Smith gave a convocation speech titled “Why Write: Creativity and Refusal” at Finney Chapel last Tuesday. The talk focused on how creative writers should refuse to think of their work as a product of a capitalist economy, and should question the status quo.

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

Renowned novelist, essayist and author of short stories Zadie Smith met with loud applause from an audience in Finney Chapel at the beginning of her convocation Tuesday evening. “You don’t know what I’m going to say yet. You might hate it,” Smith responded. Yet clearly many audience members had read her work, and that was proof enough that Smith’s talk would be interesting.

Theater and Africana Studies Professor Caroline Jackson Smith said that she first encountered Smith’s work when she worked with a student on a private study. “I was excited to read the work myself, partly because she’s writing from the Black British perspective,” Jackson Smith said. “But because she has a conception of the world as a complex set of interactions between people from a lot of different locations and backgrounds.”

College junior and Africana Studies major Natalia Viveros, who wrote a paper on Smith’s book On Beauty for a class, said she was drawn to Smith’s work because of its exploration of beauty standards and identity formation. “That she was younger and contemporary was really exciting to me,” Viveros said. “I felt like her racial identity definitely affected the themes that she covered in her books.”

Smith’s talk, titled “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal,” focused on how writing can be used both to enforce status quo and to reject normal patterns. She noted that the word “creative” is often co-opted by the marketing departments of companies to describe an employee who is good at selling products. She cautioned that writers should not fall into the trap of becoming a “creative brand” and write novels solely to please an audience and gain profit from books. Instead, Smith thinks that creative writers should follow the advice of Ezra Pound and “make it new,” even if that means their writing elicits reactions of confusion, shock or anger.

Viveros found Smith’s advice relevant to pursuits outside the sphere of writing. “I think the advice that she gave was very applicable to anyone who wants to become successful in something they have a passion about,” Viveros said. “She encouraged people to look for the right reasons to pursue something as opposed to pursuing something for superficial reasons. She encouraged people to be true to who they are.”

Smith also emphasized that writing is for everyone, despite sometimes being perceived as an elitist art form. “In New York, often the answer to ‘Why write?’ is ‘Because I can afford it,’” she said. In refutation, Smith highlighted art forms such as jazz and hip-hop, which were founded primarily by members of African-American communities of low socio-economic status. She emphasized that these art forms spawned even more creative genres such as beat boxing, funk, rap and spoken word. Smith praised creators of such art forms for their originality yet lamented that contemporary artists working within these same genres have turned their sights on profits rather than personal fulfillment. For example, she noted how Kanye West is a “restless, radical and forward-thinking” artist who allows his image to be a commercial one. She also bemoaned that one of West’s biggest hero’s is Steve Jobs — someone who sought to use his creativity with a goal of earning money. “Books are sold as products, but we can refuse the form of identifying them as productions,” Smith said. “The most radical thing to do is to refuse — the refusal of business as usual.”

Smith emphasized how writers should refuse to see their work as part of capitalist systems of production. Jackson Smith continued in this vein, highlighting how African-American creative writing has historically been used to refuse and fight back against oppressive systems. “As a child of the Black arts movement and the Black Power movement, literature was at the center of everything, as it has been for African Americans since the beginning of time on this continent,” she said. “In the face of violence of the enslavement period, Africans in the diaspora utilized writing as a liberating tool. …And in the 1960s there were never any political meetings without poetry and music, and most of the writers who arose from that period clearly foregrounded ideas of resistance. … Creative writing is life blood and an actual extension of both the aesthetics and political realities of Black experiences.”

Smith’s work follows in this tradition of radical thought in a global setting. “I think we don’t have enough writing yet about how complex our communities are becoming through various forms of immigration and emigration,” Jackson Smith said. “I think it’s important [that] Zadie Smith has a sense of not just bicultural but multicultural influences on contemporary British culture.” Similarly, Viveros noticed that Smith highlights characters of diverse backgrounds who claim allegiance to many countries. “A lot of the characters in the novel White Teeth have dual nationalities, and they weren’t sure how to navigate that,” she said. “I think it’s important in that, there’s a lot of discussion and debate: Can a person be of two nationalities, be proud of both, still be American and also embrace another culture? Does that make them less American or more loyal to another country over their natal country? I think it’s important to bring light to [that], because I think people don’t realize people who have two nationalities have those own conflicts.”

Jackson Smith said that Smith’s work, which deals with multicultural and multinational individuals and communities, reminds her of Professor of Creative Writing Sylvia Watanabe’s forthcoming short story cycle. “Her new work is a story cycle about a young woman growing up in Hawaii with a Japanese father, a European mother and a traditional Japanese grandmother who’s trying to introduce the long history of Japanese dress and manners and customs in a world where that reality is already remote for this young woman,” Jackson Smith said. “Her work, in a similar way, is looking at what [it means] to have a single individual or a community of people who has to synthesize what are sometimes warring realities.”