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Expressing the Tenor of the Times

“Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle,” Zadie Smith writes in her short story “The Embassy of Cambodia.” “But how large should that circle be?” A reading and discussion with Smith this fall, hosted by the Barnard International Artists Series, would draw that circle very broadly. The program invites filmmakers, dancers, and other artists from around the world to introduce their work to the College community.

English professor Hisham Matar, a prizewinning novelist from Libya, founded and directs the series. “One way to think of the Barnard International Artists Series is as a modest attempt to learn about the world through its artists,” he said in his introduction to Smith’s talk. “Artists have demonstrated throughout the ages a profound ability to express the tenor of their times.”

For Smith, the “tenor of the times” has required negotiating multiple identities. Matar described her as a “writer of distances,” straddling the spaces between the United States and Britain, black and white, the lofty university town of Cambridge and the middle-class precincts of London’s Willesden

Green neighborhood. Smith traced that quality partly to her background at a “big, rowdy” school where she made friends with different types of people. Visiting friends at their homes, she went to government housing as well as to mansions. “If you were only going to big houses in Hampstead you’d have to be only one way,” she says; her diverse friend group helped make her—and her fiction—fluid.

Since the 2000 publication of her debut novel, White Teeth, Smith has become an internationally acclaimed novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. She has won several prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Book Prize, and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In White Teeth, as well as in her other novels The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and the latest, NW, she explores issues of race and identity, often against the backdrop of Willesden Green.

At the packed Diana Center Event Oval talk, Smith read from “The Embassy of Cambodia” and then participated in a discussion with Matar. The conversation ranged from Smith’s literary practices to her views on culture and gender. As for how, exactly, she gets into the heads of people of various cultures, Smith emphasized emotional identification, comparing herself to an actor who seeks a piece of his character in his own experience: “You have to check it inside yourself,” she said.

Correspondingly, Smith warned against identifying too strongly with people of one’s own background. A student asked whether she feels that, as a black woman, she is writing within a tradition marked by the essence of black womanhood. Smith replied that she does not believe in an “eternal essence in any group of people. It’s tempting to think as a black woman that I’m connected to all other black women, but it’s not true.” In her view, such essentialism can lead to prejudice.

Smith told the audience how she herself has faced prejudice as a woman: a piece in La Repubblica, an Italian daily, claimed she was too beautiful to be a good writer. “It reveals the thought that if a woman is beautiful she needn’t do anything else,” Smith said. “Why would she bother? She could be part of the sexual exchange, which is where her real worth is.”

At another point in the discussion, Smith delved into her feelings about nonfiction as well as fiction. “I feel what everybody feels,” Smith said, “but I have the small gift of being able to express it clearly. With essays, I’m trying to find us a way to express things together.”

At Smith’s talk, Matar credited his students for inspiring the Barnard International Artists Series, which functions as a response to their “curiosity, their enthusiasm to learn about what people in faraway countries are thinking about, caring about, worried about—it’s a sincere and passionate curiosity I want to build on and encourage. Although the students are the inspiration behind this forum, the series is open to any member of the public.”

—By Abigail Deutsch
—Photograph by Samuel Stuart