Where to begin? This writer needs no introduction. To hear the White Teeth author speak on her latest novel Swing Time, on documenting modes of thought, on time, on motherhood, on identity and lack of, on coming from London, then moving to New York, and the different ways in which the two places deal with racism, on what an odd vocation fiction writing is… on all the subjects that her novels explore, and more, was a rich experience. Here’s Part I of my round up of the woman with the voice of our time and space and generation, brought to the Southbank Centre as part of their ‘Era-defining women’ programme. She’s certainly that.
Disclaimer 1: There are a few Swing Time spoilers, but they are far between, and only ever because they were absolutely necessary to support the point she was making.
Disclaimer 2: It’s long because barely anything she said could go, so apologies.
Technology works like a metaphor – you’re not always aware of it. Some of the film I was really fascinated by when I was younger like Back To The Future comes out of that idea that you can have a second chance, that you can rewind, that you can play it again. So the vision of your life starts to be tempered by technology. And the other strange effect of the forward and rewinding was that there could be a moment in which everything changed. Like on talent shows they always say “this is my moment!”
I guess it’s a vision of life that I find a bit worrying; that there’s this key moment in which everything is transformed. Technology gives you a glimpse of a way to view your life – because you need a model. People need models and structures to think about what is an incredible amorphous mass of feeling of sensation and sound and taste, so when I think about technology it’s not that I’m against it but I always want to think about what it means and what it’s doing to me.
The first thought I had (for Swing Time) was really sentimental. If I have a sentimental idea I always want to interrogate it and think ‘is that true? Is it really true?’ The thought I had was about a trip I took to Liberia years ago and I was in a group of women who were selling things in the market. I was there as a journalist to talk about micro finance, I suppose, and afterwards, as a celebration, they gathered to in dance all around me. It was an unbelievably spectacular dance.
I was trying to look at it and be objective but it was the same dance I could see in a Beyonce video; the same dance I do in my kitchen; the same dance as we see all over the world. I was fascinated by the continuity. It’s almost magical, right? Because historically of course it’s impossible for people to have a mode of dance the same all over the world without access to the same media. So I was moved by it. It’s that feeling you have when you think of people as a community. As a kind of trans-global community. In this case, the black diaspora. These are my people, look how they dance, look how we dance. So I was interested in that idea – how sentimental it was and how real it could be. Is it true, for instance? When you think of racial tribes and religious groups, is there something essential in them that can pass across the board?
So there was that, which I think of as neither a positive or negative idea. It’s a deep thing that runs up in people – a feeling that they have of intuition. Blackness, whiteness, whatever it is.
Then I was thinking more historically, but to me, the two things don’t need to be in conflict. Like I was very struck by this idea that the slaves from West Africa when they came to the decks of the boats had their dancers, and the Irish navvys working on these boats had their jigs, and the mix of these two things creates tap dancing basically. It’s this kind of incredible historical explosion. And even if it’s not historically accurate, I loved it as a story, you know? I loved it as an idea.
And then, something a white American tap dancer said to me, was when you’re moved like that, you have all your possessions taken from you, your home, all ideas, you have only your body. So there is this sentimental idea of dance, in that it’s the only art form for which you use literally the only thing you have left. You haven’t got any secondary instrument.
I don’t think of people as solid entities, or even as having identities, but at the same time I’m aware that in order to make political action happen. it’s not very useful standing up on the barricade and saying ‘well, I’m kind of this strange amorphous collection of feelings.’ So I’m not naive in that sense; I understand that politically you have to express yourselves as a collective. Forcefully. Particularly in times like these. But I also feel we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it isn’t the entire truth of our existence. That’s the part that I want to pull back – this sense of the existential.
I was very influenced as a teenager by existentialist books I found hanging around my mum’s house. And that principal that existence precedes essence. Meaning just that you’re thrown into the world, and you have to act all the time…act, act, act, act, act… and that, in the end, is what forms you. What makes you. I don’t feel that we’re born into the world with a certain essence of personality and then precede with this set personality. So that’s the perspective I write from, and it can be awkward, precisely because people feel the need to express themselves the other way round. I’m this person, I do this, I represent this, now: here I go. My honest view of the world is the inverse.
“What can I do with all this history?”
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
It’s overwhelming, I think, when you come from, or you think of yourself as coming from, a subjugated peoples. It’s always present to me. If you’re Armenian, Armenian history is your everyday concern, you’ll never stop thinking about it and it’s present to you everyday.
I think there are moments when you find yourself in that community and you chafe against it… you resent it… and you think of this other, white, neutral citizen that doesn’t have this weight of history. First of all, I don’t think that citizen really exists, and second of all, I guess I think of the weight of history as not only a tragedy or punishment, but also an excitement. There were certainly moments when I was a kid when I didn’t know if I could bear to hear more about the misery of my people. It’s hard sometimes, for everybody who has experienced history that way. But it’s also, of course, a delight, a fascination. Out of the misery of people comes extraordinary things.
As a kid I was very preoccupied in American culture and history. Even the smallest glimpses of things felt extraordinary to me like jazz, hip hop… I found it a chafing legacy because you always want to be existentially free, or imagine yourself to be free, but what would freedom look like? To have no community, no people, no history, no idea…I don’t think I’d want that, either.
I think what interests me about sub-cultures is the choice. We’re born into families but subcultures you can choose to attach yourself to and to love. They create a different idea of authenticity because to me, authenticity can only be expressed by love and intensity. I guess I place authenticity in the act of love, and in the act of interest and concern. My brother went through a phase of being obsessed with Indonesia – he wanted to speak the language, be a Muslim, eat the food, live there. What would you call that now – perhaps appropriation, but to him it was adoration. I don’t find that offensive, I find that fascinating, when people find something perhaps quite distant from them by birthright, but they’re compelled towards it. I consider that a kind of love affair, and to me it’s part of the warmth of life.
“Can you love something without taking from it?”
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
There is a fascination in love, but love can also do damage, you know that yourself from any love affair, and relationship. I don’t have a hard and fast rule in these matters. I do always think of that first medical rule, generally, as a principal: do no harm. I’m always concerned with that. Including in those ‘borrowings’, because borrowings can be painful, they can be abusive, and they can also be done with love an affection, and when they are, it’s obvious, to the person that’s being borrowed from.
The temptation is always to condemn people at a personal level. You just want to say: ‘this woman is an idiotic, neo-colonial neo-liberal.’ But the way I think of “sins”, to use such an old fashioned word, is that they are not particularly varied. You just have larger or smaller areas in which to operate. They are expressed differently depending on your arena. The sins that Amy commits (in Swing Time) are vanity, hubris… her sins are quite sensible even, there aren’t that many of them… she’s not a particularly bad character, she just has a lot of power.
The thing which is most shocking to me in Amy is not the things she does in the book, it’s structural. It’s the fact that a single person should have more money than a country. That’s the shocking part. Personalities… people are shit heads. We’ve always been shit heads. That’s not really interesting, but what is is protecting, structurally, through laws, the amount of shit headery you can do. That concerns me much more than people’s supposed flaws.
“People are shit heads. We’ve always been shit heads. That’s not really interesting. But what is interesting is protecting through laws the amount of shit headery you can do.”
There were religious thinkers who were important to me, particularly C. S. Lewis. Firstly just The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, and I was very struck by the morality of that novel. I used to joke with a professor about the difference between Tolkien readers and Lewis readers. Tolkien readers are all about structures, really, but Lewis readers are all about personal morality. That moment when Edmund betrays Lucy was so shocking to me as a child, I could never get over it. He knows the truth and he lies, in front of all his siblings. Then I grew up and started reading Lewis’s genuine Christian writing.
The thing I find very convincing is the idea that people are evidently mixed beings. He was a very rational man, he believed in the physicality of people of course… But said they are evidentially spiritual beings. And i don’t mean that in the metaphysical sense of there being a higher being than you, but just that they experience their lives spiritually. Everyone does! Trying to pretend that that isn’t the case is quite exhausting. People operate in their personal lives, in their family lives, in their work lives, on the basis that they are not just meat and blood. They are something other, and given that that’s their general assumption, I try and write from that place.
I definitely have higher Anglican flirtations and certain things make sense to me, like platonic ideas of the existence of good in the world as a theme. That the best you can try and do is connect yourself to the good, and another word for good for many people is God. To me, though, the ‘good’ is the thing. The idea that people can aspire towards it I guess is my faith, and my novels are lots of people, usually failing, to get somewhere near that awareness of the good. Lewis would call ‘grace.’
It does seem to me that people are really eagerly humiliating each other all the time. I know it from personal experience that everyone wants to feel in the right. It’s the most attractive feeling in the world to be self-righteous and be in the right. And it becomes harder and harder in a complex world to find some one that you are definitively better than. There are certain categories – pedophiles, for instance, are a very popular one. You can say I am definitely better than a pedophile. And that accounts for the amazing amount of stories about pedophiles in the British press and elsewhere. This desire to sit in a place of moral goodness, or at least to feel on a Tuesday afternoon that someone is a bigger shit head than you. There are these cycles of humiliation and abuse online of people gathering together to say ‘ah! I’m not that person who is so clearly an arsehole!’
I guess when I’m writing essays I’m trying to evince the opposite. I’m not trying to be anybody, I’m not making any claims, I’m not authentic, I’m completely a mess, whatever you think… I’m all of those things. I think a certain amount of humiliation is a good thing, to accept it, and accept you can’t ever be in this role of righteousness. I understand the desire to aspire towards it but I don’t claim that place.
I also see in history different people and different identities have had that role. Being a black woman has never really been considered righteous but maybe there are glimpses of it now. So the temptation to grab it with both hands is very strong. But I resist that urge and think it’s best resisted in everybody. As soon as you get on your pedestal, because you are a human… and this is where those Catholic and high Anglican ideas come through… the assumption from that perspective is you’re always in sin, really. You’re always making some terrible mistake, you’re always hurting someone, you’re always being a dick head to someone at some point. So I would be wary of the position of superiority, because I would fall from it very swiftly.
“Bitch, be humble!”
Part II next week <3