Writer Zadie Smith Reflects On Pandemic, Black Lives Matter Movement In 'Intimations'

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Intimations by Zadie Smith. (Courtesy)
Intimations by Zadie Smith. (Courtesy)

In her new collection of essays, Zadie Smith captures this moment like a watercolor painting.

The first scene of “Intimations” finds Smith with her fingers curled around an iron New York City fence, her face poking through to look at a tulip in the enclosed garden.

It was “a few days before the global humbling began,” she writes, “when we would all be looking through barred windows, yearning for tulips.”

“Tulips are not the thing encaged,” she writes. “We are.”

The New York Times called “Intimations” “ultra-timely” with a spirit both “searching and brilliant.” The proceeds from the book will go to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.

While there will likely be many books written about 2020 — historical, analytical, political — Smith says this collection is none of those things. She says writing this book was her “way of doing something.”

Zadie Smith. (Dominique Nabokov)
Zadie Smith. (Dominique Nabokov)

“Almost instantly, I was aware of my uselessness. I mean, I guess novelists always feel to some degree useless, but I think it's compounded, particularly in revolutionary times,” she says. “So I was stuck with the only thing I can do, which is write. And I suddenly thought of it as a way of participating, of raising money, of being active.”

When the lockdown in New York City began, Smith says she assumed, as many writers do, that she would be more productive. But she found it just as difficult to focus as others.

“I was just as destabilized by a complete revolution in time and space, and I guess for the first time in my life, I realized what I use writing for — to control what's going on around me,” she says. “It's not something I'm particularly proud of as a personality trait, but I thought as that is the way I respond, maybe the most useful thing I can do is make the situation clear to myself.”

Smith says she was “in awe” watching the racial justice protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Even though she writes about race and racism, Smith says she does not consider herself an activist.

“I'm not one. I'm a writer,” she says. “My only role as I saw — it's not a very large one — was how can I perhaps create structures of thought that will help the kind of people who act, that will help them do what they have to do?”

In her essays, Smith draws a parallel between the coronavirus pandemic and racism, writing that racism is a virus infecting so many white Americans. Some may be symptomatic, or filled with hate and racism, while others may be asymptomatic but still shedding the virus.

Smith writes that she used to think that one day there would be a vaccine against the virus of racism — that if enough people became aware of the racism in their everyday lives that we would develop some kind of herd immunity.

But structural racism, she says, is overcoming human nature. Getting rid of statues and symbols isn’t enough to defeat the virus, she says.

“Whatever faith I had in personal morality is long gone,” she says.

More From The Interview 

On the questions she wanted to answer in writing these essays 

“Questions that I know came to everyone: What is it to suffer? What is it to know that other people suffer more than you? What is it to know you're in a transformative moment in history? I wanted to make those things clear for myself. And I've been reading Marcus Aurelius, and what struck me about that book 'Meditations,' though it's thousands of years in the distance, it was actively helpful to me. It was about structures of thought, how to think, and I could use it to apply to lots of different contemporary situations.”

On the nature of suffering revealed by racism and the pandemic

“There can be difference and equality at the same time. You can be having a different experience from someone else, and yet the extremity of it, for you, can feel equally extreme. But those are two hard thoughts to contain simultaneously, and I guess I noticed, especially with the speed of communication online, that it's hard to express those two things simultaneously. But I guess I think of my writing as a form of resistance against exactly that speed, resistance against 140 characters, a resistance against the idea that my thoughts should be given to me each day by massive capitalist conglomerates of social media companies. Just, I wanted to try and give readers the thing I try to fight for myself, which is a space to think your own thoughts, whatever they might be.”

On the notion of racism being a virus 

“I guess the difference I feel from a lot of American thought on this topic is that I'm not actually particularly interested in personal morality. I'm interested in structures that are strong enough to keep us from behaving the way we tend to behave. And I was very struck when I got to England, I went to my little brother's birthday barbecue, and I was standing in this very small garden with about 40 people all standing separately two meters from each other, trying to, and they were of many different races, religions, classes. And I saw that my family was struck by this, and what I noted about it is it's not that England is such a multicultural, happy-go-lucky post-racial society. It's none of those things. But that garden represented structures that have been put in place that allow people to live near each other, to go to school together, to expect the same health care at the same point for free, that allowed full relations of equity. Not perfect. There is no such thing as perfect equity in England, in Europe or in America. But that was a deep foundation of that barbecue. No one in the barbecue would have thought that way, but that's the truth. That's why they're all the same. It's not an accident. Structures allow them to live in such a way that a party like that was far more likely than I'd ever experienced in New York, for example.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 27, 2020.


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