Zadie Smith on Writing: “It’s a Performance!”

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Yesterday was the official start of our annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) happening between Oct 30 and Nov 6. As with most events this year, practically everything in SWF would be conducted online.

Now the kick-off event last evening threw up a name that I had heard of but whose work I had never explored before.

Zadie Smith, currently a tenured professor of fiction and creative writing in New York University, is also an acclaimed novelist. Her books include White Teeth (written 20 years ago), The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time.

Intimations, published in July this year, is her latest offering. It’s a short collection of six personal essays in which Zadie ponders the realities of living in this time of the Covid pandemic. Curious, I decided to buy a Festival e-ticket and also her latest book on my Kindle, literally during the first ten minutes of her webinar!

Part of the hour-long livestream session included a segment of Zadie reading the first essay in that book – “Peonies”. It was a thrill for me to read along with the very person who wrote the words! Sort of like having a private one-to-one aural massage as the almost hypnotic quality of Zadie’s voice flowed through my Apple Air Pod Pro right into my ears.

It was also a chance for me to see and hear the writer reveal hidden truths within and even between each of her well-crafted lines, complete with the rising and falling intonations; the sound of her voice revealing what she meant and wanted almost desperately for her readers to know.

It felt like a performance in ways that went beyond mere words on paper, or in my case last night, texts on screen. Yes indeed, the spoken word is undoubtedly an artistic expression worthy of a stage performance.

“Writing isn’t Creative; it’s Control”

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Something she wrote in that essay, however, struck me.

Even though writing is “routinely described as creative”, to Zadie it’s actually more accurate to describe writing as “control”. Hmmm…never thought of it that way before.

According to her, writers take what’s largely “shapeless bewilderment”, and pours it into a mould of their own devising.

Come to think of it, it’s kinda like what I do with each blog post.

I devise where I want an idea to go by forcing it into a format and form that makes it presentable, and hopefully attractive, to the world. Then, I use pictures and headings to round out the edges and give it what she refers to in the webinar as “a serviceable frame”. One that makes sense of our feelings and inner lives.

So yeah, I agree with Zadie.

However, there are also many times I find myself uncertain where my writing is going as I struggle to make sense of an idea. Like trying to pin down a capricious flying carpet. In those moments, it feels more like the writing is controlling me, “kidnapping” and keeping me in blindfolds until it’s reached the destination it wants me to go.

Sometimes I get to see the piece’s final resting place, and I can sit back and marvel. Other times, the blindfold stays and I’m none the wiser, even after the writing’s taken me to its rendezvous point and released its stranglehold on me.

Either way, to use “control” as a descriptor of what writing is, sounds right.

The only question each time though is: who’s controlling who?

Writing’s about how “things could be otherwise”

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Towards the end of the session, when asked by host and moderator Joel Tan what she feels is the role of writers in society, Zadie gave the above sage line.

Unpacking it, she explains that writers have the social responsibility, even duty, to take a step back and observe the world. They must clear spaces for themselves to silently contemplate, even meditate, about what’s going on around them.

Then, with enlightened insight, present what things could be otherwise, rather than what it is currently. In short, a different (and hopefully), more nuanced and layered perspective. One that helps further illumine what seems for now a mystery.

I like that.

So many things in life could certainly “be otherwise”.

Like how we wish this Covid pandemic could be resolved yesterday and our normal lives restored. Yet, what if we stayed in this pain longer? Might we not perhaps find nuggets of meaning that can reshape our inner struggles and conflicts, beliefs and bewilderments, into something more transcendent, more transforming?

Cos as words form and writing is born, the person reading it is “swiftly disappearing”, as Zadie declared last night. For as a person reads, he/she changes into someone else; someone with new knowledge, insights and ideas.

Granted she did declare that in the context of how ever-advancing algorithmic technology has robbed modern folks like you and me of our autonomy with words (think how Gmail’s getting so good at completing our sentences).

I however choose instead to appropriate it for the transfiguring reader.

“Language is cultural appropriation”

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Speaking of appropriating, Zadie shared that “language isn’t oxygen; it can be manipulated.” And so it appropriates our understanding of this world through pre-designed and fixed “lenses”.

How we interpret the world we live in is at the complete and utter mercy of the tools of culture and language that’s available at our disposal.

Like an outsider trying unsuccessfully to untangle the web of history, philosophy and politics that’s now engulfing the US in the run-up to the Presidential elections on Nov 3. We just don’t have the lens and language to unravel this conundrum! Even those within struggle valiantly to make sense of these senseless times in their country’s long and convoluted history.

But that shouldn’t in any way stop us from writing, from (as Zadie calls it) “performing”. In fact, it should propel us further into our writings to gain perspectives we all desperately need in these dark times; to shine a light and maybe forge a path that’s right.

So all in all, a great start to SWF!

Can’t wait to hear what great wisdom the next acclaimed writer’s going to say. (Looking at you Margaret Atwood!)

2 thoughts on “Zadie Smith on Writing: “It’s a Performance!”

  1. Wait, you’re based in Singapore? Cool! I used to work in 313 Somerset like a decade ago. I thought you were from the US or something lol. You really have some great content going on here, so keep it going, Kelvin!

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