06 Jun 2018

Zadie Smith -- My generation tossed the decision to have children into the same basket as choosing a shirt or a phone

Celebrated British author Zadie Smith discusses motherhood, technology and how women have naturally furthered the development of the novel genre.

Zadie Smith -- My generation tossed the decision to have children into the same basket as choosing a shirt or a phone - NewsMavens
Zadie Smith announcing the five 2010 National Book Critics Circle finalists in fiction, Wiki Commons

--The following are fragments from Natalia Szostak and Michał Nogaś's interview with Zadie Smith which appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in October 2017.

Natalia Szostak and Michał Nogaś: The narrator of your new book, Swing Time, is trying to decide whether to become a mother.

Zadie Smith: Yes, but the book focuses on what that decision says about her. I don’t criticize her, because I was just the same, but people treat parenting as a lifestyle choice. Motherhood isn’t a personality test. It is simply a certain experience that affects you. My generation tossed the decision to have children into the same basket as chosing a shirt or a phone.

Why is the theme of motherhood so important for you?

Many writers of my generation have written in a similar tone: “I never wanted to get married or have children. I’m not that kind of woman.” We were daughters of feminist mothers, who, on the one hand, made many things possible for us -- I would never have become a writer if not for my mother -- but on the other, she passed down her own hidden misogyny. Nicole Krauss wrote not long ago in The New York Times that when she was young, she decided that if she wanted people to listen to her, she should speak in a masculine voice.

But perhaps we can agree that having children is a kind of sacrifice? It is enough to look at Tracey, the heroine of Swing Time, and the gaps in her professional life that result from her having children.

It is quite interesting that we have arrived at a time in which we can say that having children is a sacrifice -- of ourselves, of our personhood. Before the invention of the birth control pill, the release of one’s progeny upon the world did not belong in general to the sphere of decision. I’m not surprised that people wait 10-15 years to have a child. They aren’t in a position to make that decision! But before they didn’t have to decide. It just happened. I wouldn’t say that it was better or worse, but it is interesting -- we think about choice as emanating from freedom. But I don’t know if it is so essential.

Some women say, “I don’t want to have children, because I don’t want to lose everything I have now.”

Yes, but what is this “everything”? A job?

Ali Wong, an American comedienne of Chinese-Vietnamese heritage, put on a performance called “Baby Cobra” in her eighth month of pregnancy. It was an hilarious and unusually offensive performance. Wong declared that now only her husband would work, and she could stay at home. “Fantastic!” She reminds us that women today say, “I can fly to the Moon!” but she concludes with, “Our work used to be not working.”

Unemployment suddenly appears attractive, if the alternative is working day and night. Wong speaks about something that has become taboo -- that some women may simply want to be mothers and nothing more.

The labor market behaves unfairly to women. Not long ago I met a certain attorney in New York. She was getting calls every minute. She explained to me that she had to get back to her office, even though she had twins at home. I asked how old they were. “Six weeks,” she replied.

Your main character is so busy, she doesn’t realize that her mother is deathly ill.

I was thinking about that today. At 20:30 I boarded a plane in New York. I had a five-hour flight ahead of me. People should sleep, but as soon as it became apparent that phones worked on board, my fellow passengers started using them. They answered e-mail, and posted photos on Instagram. I don’t have a smartphone, so people often get angry with me when I don’t answer my e-mail until evening or even three days later.

You don’t have a smartphone?

I’ve never had one. Or rather -- in 2008, I bought one of the first models. I kept it for a month. The whole time I felt like a zombie, spending the entire day in front of the screen. Maybe I’m prone to addiction.

Not only do you not have a smartphone, but you don’t use social media.

That is surely due to the particularities of my work, that I don’t need social media. Today that is its own kind of luxury. I think that I have nothing to lose by not being present on social media. If something interesting happens on Twitter, I can read about it in the newspaper or on the internet. I’m not interested in Instagram either. I don’t even take pictures of my own children. Six or seven years ago, I tried to set up an account and post a few pictures on it from a regular camera, using a cable. I lasted a week, but then I thought, “Why am I doing this? What does it accomplish? Why do I have to pretend that my life is stress-free and wonderful?”

In Poland, many writers use these tools to publish short stories, texts, plays.

For me the cost of doing such things is a bit too high. Besides, I don’t have time for it. If I have to read and write, I can’t do that as well. It’s one extra thing to do.

I like to have real relationships with people. They are a great rarity. How many people can you really have them with? Two? Three?

Life is too short to build anything significant even with those three, let alone with the thousands of people who incessantly follow your life on the net.

In Swing Time, you write about how our times influence the choices that people make. In Gambia, the narrator, an assistant to a pop star, befriends Hawa, an educated girl from a village where the narrator is establishing a school. Hawa seems to be a very liberated person, dreaming about escaping from a hopeless environment. Yet in the end, she becomes a devout Muslim.

The question is whether this is a step backwards. When I was in Gambia, I was fascinated by how very different Muslims from around the world could be from each other. We all hear a single narrative constantly repeated, that Muslims are terrorists, bombers, and that they are all the same.

It was also very interesting to observe the collision of local communities, where life resembles ancient times in many respects, with how modern technology,  smartphones and the internet have penetrated their villages.  I just met a few people there who had heard at some point about 9/11, and none of them could possibly believe that Muslims were behind it. This kind of behavior has nothing in common with their understanding of a religion, which is supposed to bring peace. But on the other hand, it was interesting to watch how the “modernization” of Islam is progressing, through the proclamation by some people of the necessity of destroying the Western world.

When were you in Gambia?

There were basically three trips to Ghana, Gambia, and Liberia. The stay in Gambia was an extreme experience. They lacked things that are natural for us -- electricity and water. And here this is connected to what some would call postcolonial thinking. I started to wonder about how we would manage in such a situation. I nervously calculated how much longer my cell phone would last. But then I calmly looked around and I became aware of many elements that fascinated me. In African villages I never heard a child crying. Fifteen women are constantly busy with them, each one giving the child to the next, no one getting stressed out, because they don’t keep the child for longer than twenty minutes. This is pure joy. I couldn’t compare this with the situation in my home, where the children are crying constantly and the parents can’t manage.

Would it be better if children were raised here, as they once were, by the whole village?

It would be neither better nor worse, but very different. We decide to have a child and sit in an apartment for five years expecting that it will bring us joy. Isn’t it surreal? Why do we think that being tied to a screaming child will be good? When the grandparents come over, we try to get rid of them as quickly as possible. We would rather sit alone, unhappy with our child.

At the same time, villages in Gambia are half empty. Young men have fled, the majority dying en route. They were not driven away by poverty, hunger, or climate change. They were driven away by the impossibility of expressing themselves. In this village there are no jobs for anyone to work at -- no one who wants to feel like a whole person.

When you were writing Swing Time, were you inspired by Elena Ferrante? The plot somewhat resembles her Neapolitan Novels. Both two girls -- one very talented, but only the other manages to break free of her surroundings.

This book is a tribute to Ferrante. Her books were pivotal for me. They changed me as a writer.

I’ll tell you a story. The New York Times review of Swing Time appeared somewhat late and appeared rather rushed to me. I asked them what happened, and they told me that they were waiting for a response from Ferrante, who was supposed to have reviewed the book. Unfortunately, that was when the controversy about her supposedly real identity started, and Ferrante decided to disappear. Too bad! Even if she had written that it was a hopeless book, I would have been delighted that she had read it. I am not ashamed of the influence of other writers on my books; I am proud of them -- of other writers whom I adore like Elizabeth Strout. I’m happy that from among the various celebrity writers of recent years, it was Ferrante who influenced me and not Knausgaard.

Ferrante is often criticized, mainly by men who call her books trashy novels.

Of course, that’s typical. Yes, this book is about relationships between people, about having children and so forth. This is a book about life. Novels as a genre belong to women. This is something we should be proud of. Macho literature represented by Hemingway and others is relatively young. The great masters of the novel from the beginning were women concerned with “domestic affairs,” like Jane Austin. I don’t feel collective pride too often, but I am sincerely proud of the influence of women on the development of the novel.

I sometimes tell the young men attending my classes who react like this, “If you don’t like people, their conversations and relationships, that means that you don’t like novels. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are also essays, philosophy, films, whatever. Leave novels alone, because that’s just what they are. If you consider them to be women’s affairs -- fine, leave them to women.”


Zadie Smith, is the author of White Teeth and On Beauty, among other works. Swing Time, her fifth novel, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

--Translated from the Polish by David Goldfarb

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