Who’s Afraid of Zadie Smith?

My New Year’s Resolution is to be a More Frequent Blogger. Which will probably mean short and pretty much off-the-cuff posts. My weekly pile of library books is always a good start. But also, this week, my swanning about with authors. Last night, I had dinner with a quartet of teriffic YA, junior fiction and picture story-book writers. They were Simmone Howell, Kirsty Murray, Martine Murray (the question was asked, and no, not related) and Lee Fox. We ate Thai food al fresco and pretty cold it was too, out on Barker Street. An Age photographer was out and about snapping for yet another story on Castlemaine, and he snapped us. ‘We’re all writers!’ we called merrily, and you know what he said? ‘Who do you write for?’ and pricked up his ears. Which went back to normal when we revealed that we weren’t journos, we were only novelists.



And a sweet little story. Kirsty Murray visited my son’s school last year to give an author talk about her latest, India Dark. He was so galvanised by this that he asked me to order it for him. Waiting was impossible, so he borrowed the book from the library and read half of it before the order came in.  Yesterday, when I told him who I was dining with, he asked if I could get her to sign his book. I told her this, and she was impressed (he’s a sporty fifteen-year-old boy, after all!), touched, signed it beautifully and said how lovely it was to have that kind of response. AND IT IS! Speaking for myself now, it is abolutely heart-warming and wonderful to find that you have done what you hoped to do when you wrote the book – connected with someone.

Which takes me neatly to a well-known quote from E.M.Forster – ‘Only connect‘ (and I will admit right now that I haven’t read any Forster even though I have seen the movies of Room with a View and Howard’s End) –  to my pile from the library this week.

My pile from the library this week included a book of essays by Zadie Smith. She is a great admirer of Forster and her most recent novel, On Beauty, was written (mind you, I only know this from the reviews) around themes from Howard’s End. The book I borrowed is called Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays and the puffs below the title say ‘Stimulating, original, vibrant and witty’ and ‘Reading for Smith is a mind-changing, life-saving, soul-saving affair‘. The first of these rather put me off, because for many years now, ‘vibrant’ has been one of my least favourite words, with repulsive New Age and alternative health connotations of being endlessly energetic, glowing, fulfilled…but enough of my prejudices. However the second sounded really, really good.

But I had a problem. Reviews. Now, Zadie Smith is the famous author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty  – none of which I have read. There are reasons, and probably not good ones – they all seem quite long and I am a bit faint-hearted about the investment of time required by a long book; the adjectives used by reviewers are things like ‘dazzling’, ‘dizzying’ and ‘complex’; also ‘ambitious and hugely impressive’, which though a resounding thumbs up also sound a bit demanding, like cross between a fireworks display and an IQ test.

But these essays are wonderful! It’s like sitting with a very wise, witty, informed, intelligent friend – emphasis on friend, for they are accessible essays, no fireworks or tests – telling you about writers, books, films, places she’s been, her family. She’s made me think about things I haven’t thought about before, like what it’s like being a black girl reading English literature and what it means when I (usually unconsciously but sometimes not) calibrate my accent or my vocabulary depending on my company. She’s encouraged me to read authors I’ve never got around to like E.M. Forster and Kafka; avoided, like Nabokov; and never heard of, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I will re-read Middlemarch, and I might even try to like Katharine Hepburn a little better.

But most of all, I will stop being afraid of Zadie Smith, nip down to the library and borrow whatever there is of hers on the shelf!



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