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Zadie Smith offers interesting perspectives on writing

Photo courtesy of Flickr / david_shankbone

blog by The Canisius Griffin  • 

Wednesday evening the Buffalo literary crowd was charmed by British writer Zadie Smith, one of the four authors to visit Buffalo in this year’s Babel Literary series, which is in its fifth year. Smith, born to a Jamaican mother and British father, has published three novels: White Teeth (2000) The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). More recently she has published a book of essays about writing titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009). She practically became an overnight literary sensation at the age of 24 with the publication of White Teeth, which received multiple literary prizes and was included in Time Magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005. Legendary post-colonial writer Salman Rushdie called the novel “an astonishingly assured debut, funny and serious, and the voice has real writerly idiosyncrasy, I was delighted and often impressed. It has…bite.” 

The anticipation within Kleinhans grew as high school and college students, writers, literary enthusiasts and yearly Babel patrons gradually flooded the auditorium, clumsily trudging in circles in search of seats and greeting their fellow lecture attendees to pass the minutes standing between them and the beginning of the event. After a brief introduction Smith walked on stage, stylishly clad in an eccentric bright yellow dress, a red scarf covering her hair and the ubiquitous hipster-style glasses. The exotic-looking writer began to speak in her cute British accent with a subtle lisp.

From the moment she began, Zadie Smith’s wit, charm, intelligence and talent permeated the auditorium. She opened with a clever description of the experience of an audience attending a lecture by a literary writer, which was interesting and drew in the attention of the eager fans. Her description of audience members shuffling around in their uncomfortable chairs, being distracted by the contrast between the writer’s appearance and preconceived expectations and losing track of what the writer is saying from the very beginning filled the crowd with appreciative laughter. This introduction, although spoken, sounded more like prose.

The lecture she gave was entitled “Why Write?” – appropriate for the ever increasing number of writers and creative writing students. She expressed that the craft of writing has become more difficult for the writer in an age when copyright is ceasing to exist, Internet criticism is unlimited and a powerful industry of audio and visual media makes it difficult to find a large enough audience. Throughout, she referenced the lectures of many other writers, including English poet Alexander Pope, who looked at a life dedicated to writing as one of misguided energy and misery but also as something he could not help but do himself. Smith continued to reference other writers including Vladimir Nabokov, further observing that writing could serve as an attempt to find identity or one’s voice, but speculating whether or not this voice is consistent throughout a writer’s life.

Smith then discussed four great motives writers have, as outlined by George Orwell in an essay: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. She eloquently described how a new world has changed these motives. In a world where egoism is seen as a right and everyone has a need for recognition, it’s important that writers see themselves as craftsmen trying to visualize things as they are or how things could be better. She concluded by saying that all a writer can do to push through the pointlessness and absurdity of the task is to take one sentence at a time, caring about each detail and each page. Writing is empowering and allows a writer to do incredible things that his or her subjective existence may limit. 

An interesting question and answer discussion following the lecture provided more details about Smith’s personal life and her novel White Teeth. She expressed that it was accidental in many ways - that she never intended it to be read by such a large audience, and that she still strives to write a great novel. Smith also commented on a new novel she has been working on, which will be shorter and different from her other pieces of work.

The final writer of this season’s Babel series is Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith. He will be lecturing at Kleinhans at 8 p.m. April 12.

-Matthew DiStasio

Photo courtesy of Flickr / david_shankbone.

TAGGED: babel series, books, canisius college, the griffin, zadie smith

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