Friday, February 16, 2007

Writing from the African Diaspora--Zadie Smith

I love Zadie Smith's work. Her first novel, White Teeth, is set in her native England and explores the rich, complicated, tragic, and hysterical lives of Englishmen and the West Indian and East Indian immigrants who live among them. Like Toure, Smith doesn't shy away from the flaws of her characters, which, as it turns out, makes them much more endearing. Also, like Toure, she writes about race without apology or defense or romance. Her third novel, On Beauty, despite its flaws (she writes about American universities and it's clear she doesn't quite get how they work) is spilling over with Big Ideas and Quirky Characters. And normally that sort of things grates my nerves, but I literally couldn't put this book down. I needed to know how everything turned out for the characters, even the ones who annoyed me. She made me invest emotionally and intellectually in her world. That's exactly what good fiction should do.

I especially love her, though, for this. Zadie Smith on reading:

"But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, 'I should sit here and I should be entertained.' And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true."

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