UCSB brings renowned British author to Santa Barbara
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UCSB’s Arts and Lectures Series hosted author Zadie Smith this past Wednesday. Rather than a standard lecture format, Smith spoke conversationally with author and physician Pico Iyer about her books, her life, and her writing process. With humor, intelligence, and class, Smith and Iyer essentially invited the audience into their living room to observe their discussions on literature, race, and learning to briefly live life through a character’s eyes.
Born to an English father and a Jamaican mother in London, Smith currently lives in New York with her husband and children. Smith has written six full length novels (most recently Swing Time) as well as essays and short stories.
When introducing Smith, Iyer shared that when she released White Teeth at the age of 21, famous British Indian author Salman Rushdie called her on the phone and told her that her book “changed the course of British literature.”
Smith talked a lot about how she really enjoys the “voyeurism” involved in writing or reading a novel. Her definition of voyeurism seemed to be focused on the experience of living through another person’s eyes. She said that when writing about a white male in his 60’s or a young Chinese boy, “it is of course appropriation,” but she would rather think about it “from a sense of voyeurism.” Smith writes from perspectives different than her own because she wants to try and see (as much as one can) what life is like from another’s eyes.
Smith continued by sharing that by writing books with non-white protagonists, she is inviting white readers to enter into the story as a way to see life through the characters’ lives.
Smith also touched on the power that good fiction has to make us forget that what we are reading is actually all a complete lie. She finds that even in the fake lives and fake stories, truths can still be found that make reading worthwhile.
Smith did bemoan the state of racial tensions, especially in London. She has grown tired of the argument over what qualifies one to be “British,” but also feels that it does not affect her as much anymore living in New York. Smith shared that in her three years of studying at King’s College in Cambridge, she did not read a single book by a person of color at any point from anywhere in the commonwealth, which she finds “disheartening.” She hopes that the British canon can begin to be opened.
Part of what Smith feels has made her a stronger writer is the differences in American publishing from British publishing. In Britain, manuscripts are submitted with little feedback from the editor, a practice Smith laughingly attributed “back to Pope” (1688-1744). Smith finds that the detailed feedback from her American editors has helped her to “crystalize” her writing and learn how to begin to edit her own work before it heads to the publisher.
WCSA sponsored 30 grateful students to attend this event. Senior Ilana Baer said “she seemed very down to earth and eloquent at the same time” and was “glad she went” even though she has so far only read Swing Time. Senior Emily Backman “appreciates the way in which Smith speaks about flaws in writing, not as something which inherently make a work of fiction less valuable, but as something which all works have, to some degree.”
Senior Olivia Stowell raved “I found her to be so witty, compassionate, genuine, and intelligent in a way that wasn’t self-edifying, but rather approachable and thoughtful. My favorite comment of hers was when she said that we write to comfort the child within ourselves. . . I want to read everything she’s ever written.”
Smith believes that she puts “the best of herself” into her novels. Her favorite work she has written is the short story “Embassy of Cambodia.”