In Conversation with Zadie Smith | Review

Lily Cameron
Cover image: Joyce Cheng | @frecklefury_
Photography: Prudence Upton

To read Zadie Smith’s work is to be in awe of it, and to hear her speak is to revere her. For one night only on 10th November, Smith tackled issues surrounding race, gender, class, and pop-culture to a packed Opera House audience.

Sisonke Msimang, moderator of In Conversation with Zadie Smith, has likened Smith’s conversational and writing style to that of a dance, a comparison that struck me as particularly salient at the Opera House this Sunday night. She sways among points, dips towards them, then twirls away. 

Msimang opened the night, poignantly, with a discussion of the phrase “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” following the acknowledgement of country, with Smith exploring how easy it is to manipulate language for political purposes. It was a powerful and important way of beginning the night; Smith and Msimang were not there to coddle the audience or make it easy for them. Msimang drew comparisons between white Australia and Brexit, with Smith stating: “If England could think about its history in a more honest way it wouldn’t have vainglorious fantasies—they wouldn’t be as useful in a political way.” Despite her claim that novelists have no particular privileged insight into politics, Smith managed to condense the myriad political views on Indigenous Australian sovereignty and the racially-motivated Brexit with a simple statement: “language is the easiest thing to manipulate.”

A common theme of the night was the absurdity of the current political, social, and cultural moment. Absurdity permeates a lot of Smith’s writing, with her new book of “weird little stories”, Grand Union, no different. One of the many readings of the night came from the short story The Lazy River, which was stunning in its juxtaposition between everyday nothingness and compelling complexity. It explores the absurdity of the relationship between colonised and coloniser, especially in island nations, and the fundamentally abusive nature of late stage capitalism. Smith explained that this story in particular aimed to make metaphor concrete, to recreate the feeling of 2017—the time in which the story was written—when everyone was desperate not to be guilty, so instead blamed everyone else. Similarly, Smith’s reading of Kelso Deconstructed, the reimagining of real-life racially-motivated murder of a black man, Kelso Cochrane, in 1959 explores the absurdity of modern violence on young unarmed black men. She again shows the power of language, delineating between literary subjects and objects asking the audience, “If my brother goes out, is he going to come back an object?… A symbol, an argument?”

Smith is widely considered an artist of clarity; she tells it like it is. Her conversation with Msimang about race reflect this. In Smith’s writing and speech, Blackness and the black body are specific, not homogenised as they usually are in a literary world dominated by white male writers. This was a particularly salient conversation due to the fact, as Msimang pointed out, “we’re in a room full of white people”. They discussed the fact that conversations about race generally move away from connection and towards abstraction, with their talk aiming to do the exact opposite: acknowledge the diversity within cultures, reject the essentialising of Blackness, speak on individual lived experiences. Smith deconstructed identity politics with her usual sardonic wit, dancing once again among the topic of cultural appropriation, seeming reluctant to land on any one stance, eager not to do the audience’s thinking for them. On one thing she was sure: “Identity is a constant negotiation between what you know and what others see”. Identity is not curated, but consistently and repeatedly relational. That being said, Smith isn’t asking for any approval on her identity, she believes it’s important to see and be seen on your own terms, regardless of prevailing views from the cultural hegemony. Being on the outskirts of race and gender isn’t a negative thing for Smith, as she said, “the centre isn’t better”. 

Throughout the evening, Smith continued to drop little pearls of wisdom relating to writing as craft. One of the talk’s through lines was Smith’s belief that “art that doesn’t move is pointless”, a belief that shines through in all that she does. The last half hour or so of the event focused on this mentality, applied to everything from cultural appropriation, to the relationship between books and readers, to living life on the border. For Smith, fiction writing seems as much a teaching as a learning experience; it is, she says, fundamentally confessional, while being an avenue for readers to access a deeper set of experiences. She spoke about this being what keeps her reading as well, the magic of being whisked away, immersing yourself in another world, fiction as a form of escapism. 

Zadie Smith’s talk at the Opera House promised to be a discussion of “race, class, gender, politics and all the important things in life”, and it certainly delivered. She swayed between painful, powerful, and nuanced issues without proselytising, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions. As in her writing, Smith masterfully laced the conversation with wit and humour—one of my notes from the evening reads: “death is inevitable :)”. Ultimately, what Smith wants those who listen to her to do is think, to not rely on pundits, commentators, or even writers to shape their opinions and beliefs. In today’s political and cultural climate, Smith is an incisive and inclusive voice; let’s hope there’s not another 20 years between the Opera House’s In Conversation with Zadie Smith and her next visit.