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Passing through, a novelist stops to talk of many things
On the first day of April, students had filled a classroom in Stokes Hall and were settling into light chatter when, a little after noon, English professor Elizabeth Graver came briskly into the room, accompanied by a svelte woman dressed in black and wearing a deep-red head wrap. Graver told the class that her guest—British novelist, essayist, and short story writer Zadie Smith—had just arrived from New York, where she is on the faculty of the creative writing program at New York University. Graver added unceremoniously, “Take it away, guys.”
So began a one-hour-and-15-minute exchange between the 34 students and Smith, who in 2000 at the age of 24, came to prominence with her first novel, White Teeth, which she wrote as a Cambridge University undergraduate. A story of two ethnically mixed families in London, the book won numerous awards including the Whitbread Book Award for best first novel and was on Time magazine’s list of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”
With an occasional thoughtful silence, the students in EN 235 (“Second Voices: Immigrant Fiction”) queried Smith on a range of topics including how, as the daughter of a Jamaican Rastafarian mother and a working-class white Englishman, she “reconciles” different parts of her identity. “It’s very hard as an individual to think of yourself as exotic,” she said. “I don’t walk down the street thinking of myself as some multicultural, strange being. I think of myself as me.” One young man asked about the “evaporating” color lines in contemporary society; Smith politely upended the premise, referring to the disproportionate incarceration of African-American men in the United States. In response to a female student’s question, “What’s the most important part about having a voice” as a writer, Smith replied, “I don’t really believe that a writer’s voice should have more weight than a citizen’s voice.” She said she has a “smaller idea” of writing, that it is an “intimate conversation between the writer and the reader.”
The class was the first stop during a two-day artist-in-residency organized by Graver and funded by the University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. During her stay, Smith also met for tea with 25 creative writing and African and African Diaspora Studies students; delivered an evening Lowell Lecture (reading, with a mix of American accents, her latest short story, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets”); led a two-hour advanced fiction workshop for 15 undergraduates (a class taught by Graver); and joined an interdisciplinary faculty seminar exploring the theme of diaspora (for more on that seminar, see page 20).
Graver’s class on immigrant writers was offered for the first time this spring. It stems in part from the professor’s current writing project, a novel based on her family history, beginning with Sephardic Jews who migrated over centuries from Spain through Turkey to farther passages including, eventually, Queens, New York. Students in the course read works by contemporary authors who migrated to the United States as children or young adults, including Dublin-born Colum McCann and Dominican-American Junot Díaz, as well as Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American fiction writer. Smith, though she lives in Manhattan much of the year, is London-born and considers herself very much an Englishwoman.
Graver says the class also reflects the increasingly international perspective and population of Boston College.
Class member Samuel Ko ’14 was born in Chicago but moved to Bolivia with his South Korean parents at age 13. He is trilingual. Ko says he has gleaned from the class readings that being an immigrant is “an art, a form of creating dangerously,” of crafting identity in an uncertain environment. New Jersey native Vanessa Maramba ’14 took the course partly as a way to gain insight into the experiences of her mother and father—immigrants from Portugal and the Philippines, respectively. She says, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about people crossing borders, voices silenced, getting voices back.”
Smith sat by herself behind a table at the front of the room, one leg tucked under the other, with Graver moderating from a chair off to the left. The visitor spoke in a low voice, almost a monotone, but swiftly and with conviction. She nodded encouragingly as students pressed their questions.
The conversation turned toward a writer’s choices of perspective and voice. A female student with an indeterminate European accent observed that Smith seems to eschew first-person narratives, and asked why. “I don’t think there’s a lot you can do with it,” Smith replied. “It bores me, I guess,” adding that with the first person, “I’m stuck” in one place. “I can’t be anywhere else.”
The student had referred to Smith’s short story, “The Embassy of Cambodia,” published in the February 11, 2013, issue of the New Yorker. Its narrator, who speaks sometimes as “we,” is an innominate, somewhat omniscient resident of Willesden, the northwest London neighborhood surrounding the Cambodian embassy. Explaining her choice of narrator, Smith said, “I wanted a collective voice, a voice of the whole community.”
Another young woman sitting at the back of the room followed with a quote from the story: “Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, ‘Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!'”
“Is that how you feel as a writer?” the student asked, without elaboration. “Yes,” Smith answered unhesitatingly. “All you have is your imagination and your feeling,” she continued. “And if you can’t make that leap, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.”
As the class wound down, the discussion shifted to globalization—in its culture-leveling sense—and to the “superrich,” for whom geographic mobility is a lifestyle. A female student, observing that Smith gives the word “globalization” a “negative connotation,” asked if she draws a distinction between “global” and “multicultural.”
Smith talked about how an influx of the mobile rich can turn neighborhoods into “shells, with people who have no connection with each other.” She described the neighborhood in which she grew up: “Suddenly . . . the schools got better . . . the parks look better, the streets are cleaner. . . . It’s an annoyance,” she said with a serving of her dry humor, “to feel that your neighborhood is now existing because there’s a cupcake shop there.”
Read more by William Bole