In 'The Fraud,' Zadie Smith seeks to 'do absolute justice to the truth'
Zadie Smith says she would rather write a 400-page novel than sit and think about death for five minutes. "I find writing a kind of absolute avoidance, she says. "It's what I do so that I don't have to do things I can hardly tolerate."
Lucky for her readers, Smith's avoidance has yielded 400+ more pages from the award-wining author. The Fraud is a work of historical fiction centering on the real-life Victorian Era Tichborne trial – and one of the trial's witnesses, a formerly enslaved man from Jamaica.
Growing up in England, Smith says she learned about the history of plantation slavery in America — but not about the institution in Jamaica.
"Looking back at my childhood visits to Jamaica and my experience in English schools, those were two places of absolute silence on the topic, to the point which I find really embarrassing now, but also somewhat enraging," she says.
Writing this novel helped Smith understand more about her mother's side of the family — Smith's mother is Black and emigrated to England from Jamaica; her late father was British and white.
But Smith adds that this was about more than her own personal history: "Of course, my interest in it comes from the fact that my ancestry is from Jamaica. But to me it is a human interest. And when I'm writing those pages, I want to do absolute justice to the truth."
"People lived and died in pain and obscurity and under total oppression — the very least you can do is want to know it," she says. "And that's not a Black issue. That's not a white issue. I don't think in those terms. That is a human issue."
On imagining the Victorian era as a time of less freedom
There's something about that argument which is very flattering to us, right? It always assumes that there is an era that arcs towards progress, and we are the final and most perfected result of that system. And I don't feel that. ... Freedom works both ways, you know what I mean? You gain freedoms, but you also lose things that might also have been of value. ...
I have a young daughter, and when I hear people speak of, "We've gone through so many waves of feminism, and so it should be that we're in some kind of ideal state where a 13-year-old girl is happier than she's ever been" — but anyone listening to this who has a 13-year-old girl: Do you find that to be true?
I'm just not convinced that all liberating arcs create existential personal happiness the way we might hope them to. ... New problems arise. So that, again, makes you question this, to me, kind of neoliberal idea of continual progress. I don't see human life like that. I think it's a continued struggle. And every generation throws up new repressions, new forces of oppression, new things that are hard for women. ... I don't feel that I look back on the Victorian period with a sense of superiority.
On the fight over critical race theory in U.S. schools
It's like a prepackaged binary that has nothing to do with the way I think about history. I don't believe in witchcraft. So when I'm thinking about history, I'm not thinking that the students in front of me are in any way the magical carriers of the arguments [or] ideas of 300 years ago. I don't think of history that way. It's not a thing in conflict in that way.
So if I were teaching, for example, Pride and Prejudice, nothing could be more natural or normal to me to hold multiple ideas simultaneously. I adore that book. I can teach it at a level of rhetoric, a level of character, as a history of the middle classes in England. I know exactly where Darcy's money comes from: It comes from the Caribbean. I can speak in that class about plantations in Jamaica, about the class struggle in England, about the characters themselves, about what a good sentence is, about Jane Austen. To me, that is all part of the same class, same lesson. And nobody in my classroom in that lesson needs to feel particularly weighted or freighted with some intimate personal guilt.
What we're here to do is to interrogate history together. That is not a complicated idea, in my mind. What's going on in America is a long-term consequence of a kind of binary argument that happens online, and that is the opposite of thought, in my view. The opposite of history, the opposite of understanding. It's like a childish football game. You win, I lose. You did this, you did that.
What we're here to do is to interrogate history together. That is not a complicated idea, in my mind. What's going on in America is a long-term consequence of a kind of binary argument that happens online, and that is the opposite of thought, in my view. The opposite of history, the opposite of understanding. It's like a childish football game. You win, I lose. You did this, you did that. History is something we participate in together. We are all involved in history, and all have something to gain from understanding what happened – exactly what happened. ...
I live in a place of mixed feelings. They don't agonize me. I just experience them as fact. ... Adults can have two thoughts at the same time. Children can't. Children find it very hard. They need one idea. But we're adults and we can contain more than one idea.
On money and the ways it does and doesn't change us
I'm not working class anymore. It's not some identity that I carry around forever because I was born into it and I can't wave it like a flag whenever I want to. It's just not true. I don't find these things like personal identities. To me, the structural situations and my situations change. I think, as anyone will tell you, when it changes, there's a long afterlife.
For years and years, every time I went to a cash machine, I'd still have the anxiety of thinking, is it going to be there? And in the shopping queue still thinking, is there enough to pay for the groceries? It lingered a long time. But it does go. ... It is impossible to always keep it in mind because poverty is not a cosplay thing. It's something that happens to you and it gets deep into your bones. And when it's over, it's over. And when you're in it, you're really in it.
So it's ridiculous to claim that you can stay in the same mental space. I can't. But it is always on my mind. ... I'm always trying to remind myself of my biases. That's the best way I can put it.
On how she feels in between writing projects
For the first 10 days, it's glorious. I'm feeling very smug and happy and I have more free time. But very soon I become extremely anxious. And I think my children now say to me, because they have the language of mental health, they would say to me, "You're manic depressive or you're bipolar," and I resist. I don't think that's true. I've never been diagnosed. But they're absolutely correct that I get sad without a book and I get energized with a book.
So as I get older, I try to work on an even keel a bit more, to recognize, Oh, when there's not a book, I might be in some emotional trouble, I might feel anxious. And to really enter the world and make up for the things I'm perhaps not doing when I'm writing, to really be involved with people, both people close to me and in the wider world. So I just try and bring it to mind. It's much better than when I was young, where I think I just really didn't realize and people would have to point out to me, "When you don't write, you can be a pain in the ass."
Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
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