I’m here to report a scandal on our campus. No, not one related to administration, construction, or even copulation.
The scandal is this: Trinity is not doing enough to promote the upcoming appearance of author Zadie Smith, a Great Author with a capital G and a capital A who is giving a reading on our campus.
Oh yes, we’ve hung up the customary little posters and such, but when the best European novelist of the new millennium is coming to call, we should be doing more. Hiring a plane to do some skywriting would be a start.
Now, a learned, skeptical Trinity student like yourself is right to ask: OK, what makes her so great? Why is this “Mrs. Smith Comes To Trinity” thing such a big deal?
Well, the first thing to know is that, all hoity-toity literary hullaboo aside, the lady’s just a damn good storyteller. Yes, you’ll laugh. Yes, you’ll cry. Yes, you’ll feel your heart expand to make room for a new world.
The singular voice in which Smith tells those stories is also key to her genius. Born to a Jamaican mother and English father, she spent her formative decades grooving to Aretha Franklin and Billie Holliday while also studying the classics of English literature.
That blend of classical literary refinement and raw, rhythmic feeling shows up beautifully in Smith’s prose style. Just look at this:
“It is never really very cold in England. It is drizzly, and the wind will blow; hail happens, and there is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full of water and nobody really loves anybody, but still a decent jumper and a waxen jacket lined with wool is sufficient for every weather England’s got to give.”
Now, there’s a description with the deceptively simple soulfulness of a good pop song (“Nobody really loves anybody”) and the ornately insightful vocabulary of a Jane Austen novel (“a waxen jacket lined with wool is sufficient”). You’ll find more examples of her well-blended wisdom further down the page.
And now, with the remaining words allotted me, I’ll turn to that which seals Smith’s reputation as not just a good author, but a Great One. According to Matthew Arnold, our best authors are those that have “risen to the comprehension of their age” —that is, the ones who can, in addition to entertaining us, give us essential insights about the time we’re living in.
Zadie Smith certainly qualifies. She often depict characters of radically difference races, religions or sexual identities who criss-cross in unexpected ways as they navigate the color and chaos of 21st century Britain—the Bangladeshi Iqbals and Cambridge-bred Chalfens in “White Teeth,” the fiercely secularized Howard Belsey and the devout Monty Kipps in my personal favorite, “On Beauty.”
It’s not just that Smith makes these characters sing in dialects both totally authentic and completely distinct from her own.
It’s that she brings them together in ways that show us something about how to make room for diversity in a civilization that has often been diametrically opposed to it.
Better yet, she does it without any dishonest preaching about how “we’re all in this together.” Smith knows that some gaps aren’t made for filling, and some bridges aren’t ready for building.
But, like her literary E.M. Forster, Smith shows us how, amidst all our differences, there is the possibility for tenuous yet beautiful connection.
With that in mind, you’d do very well to connect yourself to Zadie Smith, and to her work. If you have the time, try to get through one of her big, rich novels before she comes later this month. For a shorter introduction, check out one of her essays, such as “Generation Why” or “Smith Family Christmas.”
Or just open one of her books to a page—any page. That’ll give you a taste of her voice, and of why it’s so damn exciting to have that voice speaking in the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall at 8 pm on October 13th.