Changes: Zadie Smith
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:04] Hello and welcome back to Changes! I am Annie Macmanus, delighted to be back here with you for series ten of this beloved podcast. I cannot believe I'm saying that, but thank you for being here as ever. I'm so excited for what we have to bring you over the coming months. Our first guest of this series is a returning guest actually, described as the voice of the 21st century by The Sunday Times. Not a bad accolade. She is a multi-award winning author of many excellent novels, White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, among others. It is, of course, the one and only Zadie Smith. Well, Zadie is back with a new and long awaited novel called The Fraud, which is out this week. Her first time on Changes was during the pandemic two years ago. That was a change which we focused on heavily in the conversation, as well as her move back to London after a decade in New York. Since then, we have become friends and with her novel out this week, in this episode, we zoom in on Zadie's personal life changes. And of course, we have to talk about The Fraud. The book is mostly based in Kilburn in Northwest London, where Zadie was born and still lives. It is her first historical novel. It's set in Britain and Jamaica in the 1800s and inspired by a real legal trial that happened at the time. It invites us to look at history in a different way, looking at the sugar trade and slavery in Jamaica and how that funded Victorian England. It's a book about truth and fiction and who gets to tell their story. The book is exquisitely written and hilarious, brutal at times and asks questions of the reader. Zadie is so incredibly wise and compelling, and this conversation will perhaps make you think about families and freedom in a whole new light. I really hope you enjoy it. Welcome back to Changes, Zadie Smith... I thought I would start with a memory of last summer, standing on a beach in West Cork. Waves lapping, children playing in the surf, beautiful sunshine, wind, Irish wind *Zadie laughs* and you told me on that beach that you had just finished. You'd finished the book.
Zadie [00:02:21] Oh yeah maybe I'd done- yeah just finished it.
Annie [00:02:23] That was a year before, and so it's kind of like a year later from that moment on the beach. What's the process you go through as an author when you allow the book to leave your brain and enter the world and other people's brains?
Zadie [00:02:33] I do think when I finished it, I felt like I would never be disappointed in it, that it was the book I wanted to write, which is a first for me really. I mean, to me, the problem with the novel is that while you're writing it- it's the same as the problem of life actually, the question is 'are you crazy?'. I'm using that word in the most broad sense, meaning is what you think is happening and what other people think is happening the same thing. So that's one of the questions you have in life all the time. Like when I went to the pub and I met all these friends and I said a load of things, did I communicate what I meant to communicate? Was I funny or was I ridiculous? So a novel is like that, you really don't know. And books are weird because of the time involved, both for the writer and the reader. Like yesterday, I watched that new Billie Eilish song for the Barbie movie. I remember the first time I listened to it I was almost bored halfway through, I was like, yeah, yeah, I get it. And then about 4 hours later, I went back, listened to it again. And the second time you can you can hear the song, you hear the architecture, and the third time you're like, oh, that's that song's a masterpiece. And then the fourth time I could play it myself on the piano and now it's stuck in my head all day and- so music gives you the opportunity-
Annie [00:03:41] Yes.
Zadie [00:03:42] To know that. A novel, when you say to someone you need to read a novel twice, they look at you like *both laugh* you're out of your mind. But a lot of novels do need to be read twice. With songs it's so obvious.
Annie [00:03:53] What's the first story you ever wrote?
Zadie [00:03:56] I didn't write stories, I copied other people's stories *laughs* and just typed them out. I did that all the way through my childhood.
Annie [00:04:03] So how do you mean by that?
Zadie [00:04:04] So, you know, I'd pick up an Agatha Christie short or sometimes a poem but usually stories- Wodehouse, a lot of P.G. Wodehouse and just type it out exactly as it is.
Annie [00:04:15] So it's the process of what? Kind of just repeating the story?
Zadie [00:04:18] I think so, or maybe pretending that- that is yours is quite powerful feeling. And when I met Michael Chabon, American writer, for the first time he said he did the same thing. I don't think it's that unusual.
Annie [00:04:30] Wow.
Zadie [00:04:31] So you just keep on repeating, repeating it until you kind of get what a sentence is. And the very first thing I wrote, which I got in enormous trouble for was a Michael Rosen poem *laughing* I wish I could find it, it's about mice, and I guess it's for like five year olds. I found it upstairs, I wrote it out by hand, I brought it down to my parents and said, 'look at this poem I wrote' and my mum was like 'you didn't write that poem' *Annie laughs*. And I lied and lied and lied and lied and my parents were like, we know you didn't write that poem.
Annie [00:05:05] Because it's a very famous poem *laughs*.
Zadie [00:05:07] Yeah, so the kind of lie broke down, and I remember like, this immense shame. Maybe that's deep in my kind of mind about writing, that it's kind of an act of plagiarism and copying but then if you do it enough, it gets into you. But I do remember my parents really coming down quite hard on me. Like it was quite a shameful thing.
Annie [00:05:26] I was interested in the change of your name when you were 14. So you were Sadie?
Zadie [00:05:31] I was Sadie.
Annie [00:05:32] What kind of a girl was Sadie? Before she changed her name.
Zadie [00:05:37] Well, I changed my name, it didn't create any change in me *laughs* for a long time. I was a very- I felt myself to be and now I look back I don't think it was true, but I felt myself to be extremely ugly, which when you're a girl is the only thing that matters or only thing that mattered in the eighties in my mind. I didn't think about anything else apart from that for years. So I was pretty big. I had very, very buck teeth. *Laughing* I had extremely thick glasses under which my eyes were very tiny. I had hair that I couldn't- didn't know what to do with. And I was very obsessed with prints so I was constantly trying to get my mother to put an actual hot comb, it's what we used to use, on the actual stove, but she really didn't want to do it. My mother's a Rastafarian, not by religion but by hair.
Annie [00:06:26] Yes.
Zadie [00:06:26] And she really, really disliked doing it on principle. So I would force her to make that pompadour. So if you can imagine that all together *laughing* in a north west London secondary school, it was crazy. Yeah. I was also kind of dressed like Virginia Woolf at the same time.
Annie [00:06:44] Okay. What were you like in school? Like, where did you sit in the class groups?
Zadie [00:06:50] Despite all of that, I have to say, I don't think I was unpopular. It was an unusual school in that it was massive. It was more or less 2000 kids. There was no uniform. So it was very much like a British John Hughes movie. Everybody had a scene. And when I first walked into the school, the first thing I saw were two girls, goths, chained to each other.
Annie [00:07:14] What?!
Zadie [00:07:14] By their jeans, yeah. So they walked around *laughs* with a chain from- so it was like kind of- everybody had their vibe. But because there were so many different types of kids from so many countries-.
Annie [00:07:23] Was it co-ed?
Zadie [00:07:24] Yeah co-ed, that there was a kind of- whatever scene you're in, there was mutual respect. That's the best way I could put it. I was part of a group of, I suppose, slight misfits. We were a kind of mixed group of girls and boys interested in, I would say, music most of all, and culture yeah, I guess we thought of ourselves as like, bright-ish.
Annie [00:07:44] Yeah. And were you into the learning aspect?
Zadie [00:07:48] I don't want my children to ever hear this, but I honestly don't remember any educational aspect of my school until the first year of GCSE's *laughs*. I'm sure we learnt things, but I don't have any memory of either lessons or having any interest in that aspect. It was entirely social. But we were learning things through our social groups.
Annie [00:08:12] Of course, yeah.
Zadie [00:08:13] We were very determined in studying the history of music which you could do then because of your parents record collection. So it was always chronological, depending on whose house you'd go to. Someone's dad is obsessed with Pink Floyd. Someone else's dad is an early hip hop head. Someone's got a load of Bhangra, like you were educated that way. And also in that way you learnt a lot of history at the same time because music tells you things about, you know, when Kennedy was shot or- you found out things. So I don't- I really don't remember learning anything formally until GCSE when it was made clear to me, hopefully by the teachers, but I think by other kids that like, it's now or never. Because you were very aware that half the school was going to disappear in two years, so there'd be a smaller cohort doing A-levels so you just had to know that. And so I remember thinking, I'm going to smoke less weed and I'm going to focus. I had a friend, Maria, who was a kind of half Nigerian, half Russian girl, and I think we both thought we could easily end up out of this school and no one's going to stop us. No one's, you know, no one's dying for us to stay in this school. So we kind of made a pact between us, let's do this and very thankful to her. She helped me revise. She was better at maths and science and so we just did that for about four months and we got through.
Annie [00:09:42] So what about the changing the name? Where did that will come from?
Zadie [00:09:47] You know, when I look at my brothers and me, the ball fact of the matter is we all have pseudonyms *laughing* which is weird in one family.
Annie [00:09:52] So you are the oldest of 3?
Zadie [00:09:56] I am the oldest, my name is not my name, but mine is a very simple reason, I had a massive crush on a boy friend of mine whose name began with a Z. And he always drew on everything, you know, exercise books with this very dramatic Z and I just kind of wanted it, so I took it.
Annie [00:10:13] And did you change it by Depo? Was it like a proper name change?
Zadie [00:10:16] Ahhh, now is the government listening? Are my children listening? *both laughing* Is the government listening? No, I never did. I just put Z on everything and ended up putting it on my bank account when I got one, college application and finally passport and nobody ever said anything.
Annie [00:10:32] And what did your parents think at the time?
Zadie [00:10:33] I have to give it to my parents, like they really never really interfered in anything I did. They were incredibly laissez faire now I think about it so- and they would have had reason to be disappointed or annoyed by it. But I don't remember them saying anything about it at all.
[00:10:55] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:11:04] Have you had a think about the change in childhood, what that would have been? If you have to think about what the biggest one was?
Zadie [00:11:10] I think when my parents got divorced. I was 12 and that was the biggest change. For me and my brothers I think, if I can speak for them, it was the end of a nightmare. It was like a 12 year battle zone and the moment it was over I was just so relieved. So I think, whenever I have friends who are, like, struggling and wondering about the effect on the children if they're going to get divorced, I always say, you know, do it *laughs*. If you're screaming at each other day and night, it's better if one of you goes.
Annie [00:11:42] How did it manifest? Like when you say it ended, how did home life change? Did someone move out?
Zadie [00:11:46] Well, quite comically, I mean it's melancholy for me now, there wasn't enough money for anyone to move out. So for about two years, my dad slept in the spare room and that's how it worked out. And then finally, because he was a veteran of the Second World War, at that time Ken Livingstone ran the GLC and it was giving out kind of subsidised apartments and houses to veterans. We stayed in the flat and it was just much more peaceful, like we'd have Christmases together with my father and my mother, but the terrible noise and fury was gone and so that was a big change. And also, I hope without upsetting my mother I can say at that moment, my family was over as far as I was concerned. I just didn't really think about my parents again as parents, I was interested in them as people but from 12 onwards I was in these streets and I didn't- and that was that, you know. Like my mum was working hard, it wasn't her fault, but she wasn't home in the evenings. We made our own dinner, we did everything. One of the things that amuses me now is that we would often bunk, but what we would do is agree that if we were going to bunk, we would go and do something in the city that was the equivalent of the lesson.
Annie [00:13:02] Oh my God, I love it.
Zadie [00:13:03] So instead of art class, we go to the National Gallery. We do something-
Annie [00:13:07] Thats very noble bunking.
Zadie [00:13:08] So noble, it was very noble bunking, a bit annoying but we did do a lot of that. And I'm not advising this but I have to say, in the group of kids I was in, that was a pretty educational thing to do. They were interesting people. Yeah.
Annie [00:13:23] You went to Cambridge then?
Zadie [00:13:24] Yeah, I did.
Annie [00:13:26] How did that feel after your childhood in northwest London and your education?
Zadie [00:13:33] I mean it was the most improbable thing that could have happened, like when I suggested it to the school because the kid I was at school with, a lovely young man called Paul Siegel who's parents father was at Oxford had said, you know, you might be able to get in here. Why don't you try it? And so I took that piece of information to my deputy headmistress who swore at me! *Laughs*.
Annie [00:13:55] She swore at you?
Zadie [00:13:56] Yeah, 'who did I think I was?' blah blah blah.
Annie [00:13:58] Oh my God Zadie, you've got to find that woman now.
Zadie [00:14:01] I was like, okayyyy. But I can understand, I'd given them so much attitude. I was not like a great student. So it was-.
Annie [00:14:09] But were your grades great?
Zadie [00:14:09] Again, it's really hard. Well in my GCSE's I got- full disclosure, I got six A's, a B, a D, and a U. So they were okay, but there were-.
Annie [00:14:19] That's six A's!
Zadie [00:14:19] I know but in those days you had to get 11 A's.
Annie [00:14:22] Ohh okay.
Zadie [00:14:22] You know, you had to be as good as a- So they were not bad, but they weren't that standard. So I could see what she was saying, she was like 'who do you think you are?'. But I don't know I just thought- I had this thought in my mind that until- it's such a childish idea but until you're actually in the exam room, they don't know. You could be really good. And I just always kept that in my mind like, they don't know yet. Like I could get to the point where I could get through these three exams and the exams were all gathered in my one area of expertise of reading and writing. So I was doing English, history and theatre studies, which always makes my husband laugh. So it was all in one place. I did that. My friend's dad did a kind of like pretend interview with me. That I think is key, now I think about getting disadvantaged kids into university. It's not even the grades, it's the social knowledge.
Annie [00:15:18] It's how you talk to people.
Zadie [00:15:19] You just have no idea. Like my parents didn't go to university, I had no reason to know-
Annie [00:15:23] We have to learn how to talk in their language.
Zadie [00:15:25] Right, and that's it. And I came into the room and he showed me exactly what an Oxford or Cambridge dorm does. Their quite- erm in those days, I'm sure it's different now, they don't say very much. They kinda leave you hanging.
Annie [00:15:36] Yeah.
Zadie [00:15:37] So you find yourself burbling. He kind of taught me- and the main thing was not that they- not looking for answers like a quiz. It's not university challenge. They want to see you thinking. I would never have known that, you know? So it was that kind of thing that really helped. When I got the grades, my parents took me out for a Chinese meal in Kilburn High Road and I can remember us all just sitting around the table like literally dazed. We were like, what is happening? It was really strange.
Annie [00:16:07] What did they make of of you going there?
Zadie [00:16:11] They were happy but, particularly for my father I think he was a bit- he was stunned I think, to be honest. He thought that England was fixed and that these things didn't happen.
Annie [00:16:20] I see, so systemic here.
Zadie [00:16:20] Yeah, he was out of school at 12 and he had told us, I don't know if it's true, that he passed the 11+. I mean, my father's born in 1926 and in those days you do the 11+ and then if you passed it, you went to a grammar school and that was your path out of his existence, which is absolute poverty in Croydon. His father disappeared and was a criminal anyway, and so he was completely alone with his mother and no money. But he says he passed it. And then you had to get like two and six for the uniform and they didn't have it and that was the end of that. So he spent his whole life feeling like he had missed out on something that could have changed his life. And he's one of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men of that generation who felt that way. And so he ended up in the Army aged 16 and went to war.
Annie [00:17:17] And went to Normandy, right?
Zadie [00:17:18] Exactly.
Annie [00:17:19] How old was he when he did Normandy?
Zadie [00:17:21] He was younger than you're allowed to be. He lied. I think you were meant to be 18 and he was 17.
Annie [00:17:25] Wow.
Zadie [00:17:26] Yeah.
Annie [00:17:26] But he survived.
Zadie [00:17:28] He survived, miraculous. Both my father and my grandfather survived the first and second World War. Not sure how, but anyway they both did.
Annie [00:17:35] How do you think it left its mark on him?
Zadie [00:17:39] Um. There's a lot I don't know about my father. Like I have half siblings who are in their sixties who want to tell me I think more about my father, which I should learn, but I will get there. I mean, I'm 47 it's about time I did learn. I think he was massively damaged by it. I think he was responsible for people dying, you know he's 17 but through carelessness. I think he was badly wounded himself. I think he saw terrible things. He went to- he saw Dresden. He saw Belsen. Yeah, I don't think it was good. But I'm like a kid in the eighties, nineties. Like, to me, it seemed like a fairy story. It was hard to even believe it had happened.
Annie [00:18:24] I wonder how like, an experience like that can bleed or drip through generations, you know, and how you have kind of-
Zadie [00:18:33] I think the melancholy is my father and the obsession with time because he had this strange double life of having a family in the fifties and then doing it all over again in the seventies with a girl a quarter of his age. I mean, it's insane. That definitely got to me but I think both my parents had come from like deeply traumatised histories and extreme poverty. So the things I used to roll my eyes at, what I thought at the time was their like snobbery and aspirational, like habitat curtains and trying to put books everywhere and in my father's case, pretend he'd read books and things that I found excruciating, of course now as an adult I think ahh why were you so judgemental? They were just trying to, you know, they were looking for a life that they'd never had and it's ridiculous at 14 you're like, trying to catch your dad out because he pretended to read. Ahh, teenagers are the worst.
Annie [00:19:37] Well, you have one now.
Zadie [00:19:38] Yeah, I have one now and I know, but I was so hard on them both and, um, I just really didn't have any idea where they came from. I didn't realise what my father had been through and I didn't realise what my mother had been through. I just knew them as strange adults married to each other.
[00:19:53] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:20:03] You came out of Cambridge. You started writing White Teeth in Cambridge. What were you, 25 when it got published? 24 or 25? Something like that.
Zadie [00:20:12] Yeah 24 I think yeah.
Annie [00:20:13] How did that like, that kind of catapulting into literary fame, being the darling, being the fucking hype writer, I don't know if you use that word in literature but you do in music. But you know what I mean? Like how did that- that must have been a real change.
Zadie [00:20:30] I felt it was a lot when I was 24, but I was always able like- The anecdote I always tell which makes me laugh is I think one year I was up for the Booker and I remember going into Singbury's, our sweet shop on the corner of the road, which I go in every day for, you know, every day, like maybe three times a day, and for the first time ever the guy looked at me and was like, 'you're in paper?'. I was like, yes, I'm in paper. He was like 'what you do?' and I was like, really dude? I've been here 3 times a day. I'm born in the neighbourhood. So literay fame is very...
Annie [00:21:03] Oh my favourite anecdotes you told me of that is when you brought The Fraud to be printed in the printing shop *laughs*.
Zadie [00:21:08] Oh yeah. When I was writing The Fraud in Kilburn, I often get manuscripts printed up so I can mock them. I'm in the same print shop, I've been doing it like- spending an enormous amount of money, shameful amount of money printing this thing up, like, once every two weeks for about 30 quid a pop but going on and on. And then the last- very last time I went in, she said 'oh you wrote this right?' and I said 'yeah' and she said, 'well good luck with it, I hope you get it published' *Annie laughs loudly* and I was like, so let me get this right, on the Kilburn High Road at a print shop-.
Annie [00:21:40] I love it!
Zadie [00:21:41] They still don't know who I am. So that's the thing with literary fame, it's very selective. Of course, there are people, readers, who you bump into in the street who are excited, but most people don't read. So it's not, you know, an oppressive thing. And also, when it happened, the internet was in baby land so I do remember being like agonised by somebody's blog, but it was a completely different universe. So I feel a bit funny that I found it so hard at the time because it's nothing compared to what young writers face now, I imagine.
Annie [00:22:16] So how did you find it hard?
Zadie [00:22:18] I think what I find hard is being the object of people's envy. I find it really oppressive because often the things that they're wanting are not things that I want. So my first experience, I think, was going into the publicity. I only did like five interviews, I think, and they followed me around for about a decade. And what I really realised when I sat down with these journalists, who of course often were young ish writers who either had been in college at same time as me or- so they were my generation, they would ask me questions like, so what's it like to be interviewed? And I realised, oh you want to be interviewed. This is your dream to sit in a room and have people come and ask for your views and- but being interviewed for me is a nightmare.
Annie [00:23:01] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Zadie [00:23:02] Like, not this kind of thing because I can speak with my own mouth, but to have things that I've said written down and put into a context that I- that I do not enjoy.
Annie [00:23:14] Yeah, there's a real lack of control.
Zadie [00:23:15] Yeah being a subject of other people's envy, I found really oppressive because all I wanted to do was sit down and write and what other people wanted, which is to go to literary festivals or to be famous or to be- if I could have given it to them, they could have taken it. I was so used to supportive teachers, both in secondary school and then in university. So when I came to journalists, I thought oh it's just another adult who's happy for me *laughs*.
Annie [00:23:41] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Zadie [00:23:43] And of course, very soon I realised, oh no these are not adults who are happy for me, these are adults who are actually quite annoyed at me and either want these things or- so it was a steep learning curve like, this is not your friend, you're not having a conversation, and I was only 24 so- and some of them, you know, it really did hurt.
Annie [00:24:04] As in the way they wrote about you or the writing?
Zadie [00:24:06] Yeah.
Annie [00:24:06] Yeah.
Zadie [00:24:08] It was really a crazy scene. I'd had enough of it almost immediately, it's fair to say, but it was really hard to keep the noise out and I yeah, I was just like, I'm not, I'm not going to do this.
Annie [00:24:21] So you just opt out of going to the events, of the dinners, all of that.
Zadie [00:24:24] Yeah, and then I left the country *laughs*.
Annie [00:24:25] And then you left the country.
Zadie [00:24:28] Yeah, I think the thing which got me it was- the Evening Standard printed like this gossipy story about my college life, like that I'd had this, like, elaborate sexual life and I was like, if you're writing this about a 24 year old novelist, not that I'm in any way ashamed of my college life or my romances or anything, but I thought this is kind of out of control. So I just left and it was much better after that.
Annie [00:24:54] You went to Rome first?
Zadie [00:24:55] I went to Rome. It was great to be in Italy, I learned Italian and I just, you know, it was my entire life in Wilsden so just to see anything else was really great.
[00:25:09] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:25:19] What would you cite the biggest change in adulthood then?
Zadie [00:25:23] The biggest change in adulthood is also banal, is just having children, which is the obvious one but I can't think of anything more-
Annie [00:25:29] I mean, it's-
Zadie [00:25:30] Yeah, it's *laughs*.
Annie [00:25:31] Pretty, pretty earth shattering.
Zadie [00:25:32] It's pretty big. To the point that you can't remember, I can't remember anymore... The other life.
Annie [00:25:39] So you were in New York when you had your eldest child?
Zadie [00:25:44] No, we got pregnant with our eldest child in New York, but we came home to have her because Nick's mother was ill and we spent maybe six months or a year here. So she's English, but then our son was born in New York.
Annie [00:25:56] Right, okay. And how did it change you?
Zadie [00:26:00] I feel like when I was younger, sometimes I would wake up at 11.
Annie [00:26:05] *Chokes on laugh*
Zadie [00:26:06] I remember that!
Annie [00:26:07] I had my mouth full of water there. Nearly spat it out.
Zadie [00:26:09] That did sometimes happen and I do- I was remembering recently, actually reading your book, that I did spend a lot of weekends going back into Soho or Dalston to pick up a credit card that I had left before or some sunglasses or a phone and life is just this endless rolling chaos. I had no domestic existence, like I didn't know how to cook. I was not clean. It was just that kind of life. There was no order to it, no structure at all. And then kids changed all that and also made time so valuable to me. So that's the main thing. When I first had my first child, I didn't really realise I'd had a child for a long time. I think it was three or four years before-
Annie [00:26:56] Well, they're babies, they're not children.
Zadie [00:26:58] Yeah, yeah, they're not children.
Annie [00:26:59] The baby phase is easier.
Zadie [00:26:59] It's still something you think you can manage. Like it's a part of your lifestyle, as horrific as that sounds. And so it took a while to realise that this isn't just a matter of managing a being, this is like an enormous relational thing that will last your entire life.
Annie [00:27:21] So how did you adapt to the domestic? I mean, I know that's a very long, slow process. You don't immediately start, you know- but it is.
Zadie [00:27:33] With great resistance originally and, you know, my mind is completely transformed on these things. I realised that, you know, I never wanted children when I was a child. I never wanted children as a young woman. I never wanted to be married. I never wanted to be domesticated. I never wanted to have a house-
Annie [00:27:46] You never wanted to be married?
Zadie [00:27:47] Don't want any of it. I just wanted to live in a one bedroom flat in a big city, write books, and be left alone *Annie laughs*. It was my only plan in life. Didn't want any of it. And then what I really realised about some of my ideas of freedom is that they were completely, like neoliberal fantasies. Like basically it's like, let me choose everything. Leave me alone all the time. Don't put any demands on me. Only I will make demands. It's a dark vision. And it really took me a long time to understand that things that I've been taught by the eighties, basically by the capitalist eighties to believe were unfreedom, are freedom.
Annie [00:28:27] Yeah.
Zadie [00:28:28] Like having people who mean something to you, who you have duties towards is not unfreedom. It is freedom. It's actual existence. It really took me- like Nick is a completely different person who understood that from birth, probably. It took me a really long time. To be free of meaning is not freedom. Like now my life is full of meanings. Sometimes they're difficult, sometimes they're painful, sometimes their- but it's absolutely full. I don't think children are the only route to that kind of meaning, but I absolutely think you have to find something other than yourself to focus on.
Annie [00:29:05] How did Nick, meeting your husband to change you?
Zadie [00:29:10] I mean, he probably is the biggest change, really. Maybe even because without him, there would be none of the rest of it. I just hadn't met someone before who was able to think of other people so consistently. *Laughs* that's the best way I can put it. I've met a lot of charismatic, fascinating, interesting personalities, and he he's that too but he literally is able to consider other people, their feelings, what they need and do something about it, even sometimes to his own detriment. In my family, like I love my family, but we were all trying to survive. So it's a kind of- everyone's holding onto their selves very tightly because they felt unloved or unprotected and narcissism can be, you know, a consequence of being unmothered or un- both my parents had no parents, really, so they really were clinging to themselves for dear life. And it passed down to the children, I think. When I met Nick and his family I was like, oh there's another- you can also like, think *laughs* --- people in a group or in like a relational group. So I learnt a lot from watching that and, and realising that it wasn't a trap. But I think when I meet a lot of other lady writers, I know when we first had children, we spent our whole time, you know, talking about how we were somehow trapped or imprisoned or but that's the most superficial idea of what a relation with other people is like, you know, now I consider all my relations, my friends, my dog, my husband, my family as things that liberate me from myself. Like they are absolute freedom to me and without them I would just be completely lost. But I see it in, you know, a dog can do this for you, a cat can do this for you, going down to the larder and volunteering can do this for you. You just need to be among other people at some point because otherwise it really is- it's hard. It's hard to find in yourself, or for me anyway, a reason to go on.
Annie [00:31:28] I'm thinking of one of the very last scenes in The Fraud, when Eliza Tucci, the main character from the book is confronted with the death of another main character. We won't spoil it for people. And she has internal kind of dialogue about her life and her freedom. It's really beautiful. It just talks about how all she wants to do is be free. And it's interesting, I guess your-
Zadie [00:32:00] It's a question of what does that freedon involve?
Annie [00:32:00] What is the freedom? Yeah.
Zadie [00:32:02] Like I really notice it with- with the children thing is that at least in my own case, you spend so long battling to try and retain your own space and getting babies and then sometimes when you look at what you've battled for, it isn't very much. And the these children are about to grow and disappear so quickly that you're going to get what you want sooner than you can imagine. So all of these things are so out of sync with the discourse, our capitalist discourse which is about you do you, get what you want, and so when it comes into conflict with this other thing, I guess we have in our heads this thing like, have I become some kind of, you know, a Victorian or some old fashioned person who is domesticated and a traditional woman and then we fight against that as if there's no liberating version of being connected to other people. And that is the triumph of capitalism. It convinces you that it's just you and the shops, it's just you and the phone, and that's all that there is. Whereas there is an older vision of like solidarity between people, within families, between children, between men and men, women and women, men and women. Like a community that is freeing, it's not a trap. It's like the only thing that brings joy.
Annie [00:33:23] I have been over the last few years very- well since I started working from home, very conscious of being domestic. Fucking walking around, picking up smelly socks and dirty pants-
Zadie [00:33:33] *Laughs* It's humiliating, yeah I know.
Annie [00:33:34] But this is my, this is a lot of my life and it's changed and I think of my youth and even ten years ago and how wild and unpredictable it was and how I travelled and how, you know, everything you're describing there about when you were younger as well. And part of me there's like, there's a feeling of frustration that again, reading The Fraud which we'll get to in a second, one of her things that Eliza says is like, I just wanted to live. So it's like, what is living? And a part of me felt like this wasn't living. And I actually read Deborah Levy and one of the things she said struck me so hard, which was about just living well and the art of living. And it doesn't have to be complicated, it could be just eating a really fucking nice apple. It could be drinking a gorg- it could be swimming in a lake. Like these little things are living.
Zadie [00:34:20] That's it. And I think that's also one of the tricks of the patriarchy, is it makes you feel that all the traditional, supposedly feminine arts are humiliating.
Annie [00:34:30] Right!
Zadie [00:34:30] But why are they humiliating? And in my house, it was the other way around and my dad was the cook, my dad- my mum was working a lot, my dad did a lot of those things. And they're not humiliating when the man does them apparently like-.
Annie [00:34:44] They're noble.
Zadie [00:34:45] Yeah, and he's been dead a long time and sometimes I can think of a meal he used to cook me and it'll like, bring me to tears. Like it was an art. And it was nourishing and it was beautiful-.
Annie [00:34:57] An act of love.
Zadie [00:35:00] It was an act of love, and I can't cook like that. My children will never have those memories of me *laughs* but it's not nothing. It's like the art of living. And if it was a supposedly traditional male art, you'd be getting awards for it, there'd be Oscars for it. So I really resent the idea that these things are humiliating, even when I am picking up pants off the stairs, I think I'm doing something for somebody else. And there is something noble in that, I hope. But of course the frustration is real. I think men suffer it just as much as women, and I think to the credit of many contemporary men, they are doing absolutely the same amount of work in my household. It is absolute. There's no doubt that we do the same amount, Nick often does more.
Annie [00:35:42] I'm in awe of Nick, like I come round your house and he's up fucking putting up the pigeon stoppers on the gutters, I'm like oh my God, wow.
Zadie [00:35:48] Yeah. So the frustration is no longer purely female, which might be one of the triumphs of feminism. It's now something that lots of people have to experience, men and women. It's not that it's not real, but I have come to realise that it's not entirely debilitating and also when it comes to artmaking frustration can be really useful. Not being able to write, having your hands tied for part of every day, when I get down to my desk, I can't wait.
Annie [00:36:21] It's like a coiled spring.
Zadie [00:36:22] When I was 27, I do remember embarrassingly moping around saying, oh I've got writer's block or I've got ennui and that to me is now like a comic-
Annie [00:36:32] Yeah.
Zadie [00:36:33] Thing, a ridiculous person who can't be taken seriously.
[00:36:36] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:36:46] When do you know that you're ready to write a book?
Zadie [00:36:50] One of the advantages and privileges of White Teeth is I am not writing books because I want to be in the papers or I really need the money. White teeth, it has made my life possible so I'm very grateful for the kid who wrote that book. But what it does mean is that if I'm going to write a novel, I'm going to write it because I have a real urge to write it, like it has to happen.
Annie [00:37:15] And how did you know you needed to write The Fraud? Tell me the story at the heart of it that made you know that you had to write it.
Zadie [00:37:22] It's probably from childhood, like I really wanted to know what the true relationship between England and Jamaica was. I think that's really it and it's something that like, maybe the child of parents from those two places- you want you want the answer. I'd never really investigated it. I have the kind of, simple version, the old cartoon version that we get, you know, it really isn't taught in school. So a lot of what I've written over the past 20 years is filled in holes in my education, you know, because you really- so much history that's taught in British schools is completely partial and just- it's not even that it's partial, it's that it's silent. I mean, I don't have anything against Black History Month, but to me, it's it's not a question of black history, it's a question of history. It really isn't like- like you can tell me about the black R.A.F. guy and the black footballer and that's cool, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the history of this country, which as far as I can tell, is as involved with the lives of diaspora people, Africa and Jamaica, as it's possible to be. It's very hard to understand how you teach the Victorian period without mentioning Jamaica. I don't really understand how you would do that. And I guess once I started reading I felt this retrospective anger and I know my husband feels it too, from the Irish perspective. But when you're in an English school or an English university and you're reading about 19th century, it slightly blows your mind. It's not like these were small matters, Ireland and Jamaica. These were absolutely central daily matters in Victorian England. They were in the papers every single day. It funds the entire enterprise. It's not a separate area called Irish History or Black history. It is the history of this country. So I think for both of us, we've always felt like, why is this a marginal concern? Like it doesn't need a separate name. It just, all I need is for history to be taught in full. Everywhere. And so reading it, I was slightly, my mind was slightly blown because I, I do think when I thought about my childhood schooling, I experienced my school as benign and my teachers as generous and kind. So researching this book, I really felt that something very wrong was going on with the curriculum in the eighties and nineties and I would really like to see it remedied.
Annie [00:39:57] And so that was a kind of motivation to writing the book?
Zadie [00:40:00] Yeah, I think it was because it's the truth. Like, it's a fiction novel as the Americans call it, but what happens in it is the truth.
Annie [00:40:09] It's based on real life.
Zadie [00:40:10] Yeah, it's based on real life and I really never understood the idea- I don't think I'm being obtuse that if you taught this history, you would create division in the classroom as if the white kids and the black kids would be lined up against- If you read the history, it's not possible to even think of the history as a division between two peoples. It's the history of a peoples. To me, it's not a culture war or a battlefield. It's just fascinating.
Annie [00:40:39] So what did you learn that surprised you, I suppose, in your research?
Zadie [00:40:42] I didn't think I knew at all what a plantation in Jamaica was like, and I don't think most British people have any idea.
Annie [00:40:49] You only know from movies.
Zadie [00:40:50] You know from American movies and that is not an accurate description of the British situation. So it's much more useful to think of a sugar plantation as a factory, like the kind you could get in Manchester or Liverpool, in a field. It is an industrial thing. And you also have to imagine, everyone is a slave but that's many different kinds of jobs as well as the ones you have in your mind. There's a medical tent which is run by the slaves themselves, so people using, you know, homemade cures basically, which worked. You have to understand that slavery is in and of itself a crime against humanity. This does not mean that people are absolutely without agency on plantations. That's not true. Both things are true. There are people with agency and to be enslaved in any role on a plantation is a crime against humanity. Both things are true. So I didn't know that there was a day off. On the day off, Jamaican slaves had their grounds where they planted their own food. They took that food and sold it in the market. So they always had bits of money that they kept that they hid. All of this was interesting to me. And I guess the most disruptive thing when you actually read the history is that in the movies you see white overseers and black slaves. But because of the incredible rate of sexual crime on plantations, mainly people on plantations would have looked as white as you, number one. A huge amount of what would appear to us white people, light skinned people, mixed race people, enslaved everywhere. And then as it is in concentration camps and in extreme places, people in roles of power are sometimes also black. And trying to understand that is one of the most complicated parts of the book for me. I was given this wonderful essay by a friend of mine, by Primo Levi, called The Grey Zone, which is about concentration camps and the fact of Jews in various roles, both in the ghetto, bringing other Jews to concentration camps and his argument in the essay is, it is not for you who have never been in concentration camps to judge what people had to do to survive a living hell. And that to me is an important moral point. And the same thing is true of plantations. People did all kinds of things to survive. Unless you've been in that kind of role, it is it is not for you to judge, but it is also worth knowing. And the other thing Pema Levy said which complicates it is, it is not for you to judge, but also I, as a person in a concentration camp, can tell you that there is a moral difference between the person who throws themselves on the fence to kill themselves rather than take that role and the person- there are differences. But it is still not for you to judge. So it's a really complicated concept that of course there are degrees of action in any extreme situation, but the extremity of it means that if you are outside of that zone, you can't judge the actions people make in hell. So that was the kind of novel I wanted to write, one which was both about the facts and had a kind of moral realism, right? That people do all kinds of things to survive. They are forced to. It doesn't make them evil. There are also people who are heroic. Those people are always very few. We should celebrate them, but they're not the general rule. And all of those things interested me and the more I read, the thought that these people really were my ancestors and it's not that far back. Like you're talking six generations, not even that most of the time, on these plantations. It really gave me a knowledge that I wish I'd had in school, that when I looked at Jamaica itself, my family in particular or any Jamaicans I know that- things in our families that seem to me upsetting or complex or traumatic are really not very surprising given this unbelievable history.
Annie [00:45:15] And a lot of the book is based in Kilburn, and you've spoken to me about how you can walk around there and see the entire area in a different light now knowing-
Zadie [00:45:23] Yeah.
Annie [00:45:24] The history of the buildings and the, you know, all of that as well. So it's kind of, it's not just lives and relationships and families, it's also place. It's kind of knowing what a place has been through.
Zadie [00:45:35] Yeah. I always as a kid had this feeling that this neighbourhood was beautiful and pastoral. And I remember when I met Nick, he just thought I was out of my mind. 'But what are you talking about? This is an urban suburb, and it's pretty urban. And the Kilburn High Road is not, you know, a pleasure parade'. But to me, I always had this feeling- even walking down Kilburn High Road that I was *laughsa* I can't describe it, walking in the countryside. I know it seems crazy, but when I was researching this book I realised, oh that's because I am. Like it only disappeared about 110 years ago. This was the countryside. Those little churches, the hills that we struggle upon in our middle aged mum way on our bikes, were beautiful rolling hills. Like it's still there. The pavement is covered up, but the trees are still there, the chestnuts are still there, it's still Middlesex, still this beautiful spot. So I felt very vindicated that it was what I always thought it was.
Annie [00:46:44] There's another bit in the book where Eliza Tucci comes back to the area, having moved out, comes back to Kilburn, walks up from erm, all the way up the Edgware Road to Kilburn and sees it for what it is now and, you know, she talks about the houses comically close together and there's a very affecting line where she talks about erm, I can't remember the exact line, but it's basically 'this place has changed so much but I'm still Eliza Tucci'. I wondered about you coming back to Kilburn after being away for 12 years and how that must have felt like, as a change arriving back to this place that you grew up. What that must have been like?
Zadie [00:47:24] I mean, the history of this place, the change- it's the history of England, and one conservative response to it is always 'but I liked it before'. I like the five big houses and the rolling hills or I like the Victorias Streets or- but these things are corrections of injustices that we have performed elsewhere. These ways of immigration are the absolute consequence of our journeys out into these places over the past 200 years. This is it. So I always try to celebrate and deal with every change because I know it's an experiment in living. What happened previously was that a very small amount of people could live and the rest of us were like nose pressing up against the glass. Now more and more people are given a chance to live some kind of a life. And the further back you go in history, you realise how unusual that is, what an unusual experiment that is. And in our neighbourhood, it's always an intense pitch, right? Like the waves of newness come and come and come and it's very easy to become the model of the, *laughs* in my business, the grumpy English novelist who loved change up to a point and now doesn't want anymore change. That's the most English thing in the world. But I am on the side of change and the bits I find difficult, I guess the opposite bits, I find the gentrification difficult. I bitch about it a lot. Part of it is just melancholy because my friends don't live around here anymore. They can't stay here. Their parents sold their houses. It's just not possible. When the gap between the houses and the flats becomes existential, you create conflicts that are dangerous for everybody, in fact. And that part really breaks my heart.
[00:49:24] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:49:34] Before I let you go, change that you would still like to make?
Zadie [00:49:41] There are noble things, but I thought one of the most shameful things is that I still, nineties girl that I am, think there is some magical 10 pounds that I could lose that would make my life happier. And I thought, how can that be true? I'm 47 years old. What on earth difference would it make if I lost 10 pounds *laughs*. But still it sticks in my mind. And so then it is connected to another wish that I would be less narcissistic. So the two things are the same thing. If I could think about myself less in all departments, 10 pounds and everything else and just be outwardly focused towards others, that is the change I would like to see. I would just like to get over myself once and for all *Annie laughs* and forever. I would love that.
Annie [00:50:27] You can only blame the decade, babe. Like the 90s, it was very bad.
Zadie [00:50:30] The 90s was bad for it but I think my nightmare is, no offence to New York, maybe a little bit of offence but every now and then a writer dies and they have these beautiful, beautiful funerals in the big churches in New York. But they're not so much funerals as they're like, almost like literary parties. And there are speeches and everybody- and I don't want to die like that. I want a funeral in which the people at the funeral knew me and loved me and I actually did something for them that does not involve writing, and that I actually made some kind of difference to their actual lives. And I want to have lost 10 pounds for the open coffin *both laugh*. I look good in whatever it is that I'm wearing.
Annie [00:51:17] Give me an open coffin, I love it.
Zadie [00:51:18] *Laughing* Yeah.
Annie [00:51:19] Zadie, thank you so much.
Zadie [00:51:20] Thank you.
Annie [00:51:24] The Fraud by Zadie Smith is out on Thursday, make sure you get a copy. So that's it. We're up and running. Please subscribe to Changes if you want to get your new episodes every Monday and also rate and review us where you can, it's always appreciated. And while I have you, if you love Changes, today and tomorrow are your last days to vote for us in the British Podcast Awards. The category is the Listeners Choice Award. We've put a link in the show notes, if you could just go in, you type Changes, you click vote, it literally takes 2 seconds. It would be so appreciated. Thank you, thank you, thank you if you can be bothered to do that. And thank you for listening today. Changes is produced by Louise Mason for DIN Productions. We'll see you next week for more!