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Zadie Smith

Friday, September 22, 2023
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 10/08/2023

This event appeared in the series
On Life & Literature

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Zadie Smith is known for her emotionally rich stories, superb dialogue, and unique perspective on contemporary culture. Smith wrote her widely acclaimed debut novel White Teeth during her final year at Cambridge before going on to cement her reputation as one of the most important voices of her generation with Swing Time, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW. The Fraud, her long-awaited new novel, is a kaleidoscopic work of historical fiction set against the infamous Tichborne Trial in Victorian England. Based on real historic events, it is a dazzling novel about truth and fiction, Jamaica and Britain, fraudulence, authenticity, and the mystery of “other people.”

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography and earned her recognition on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2021. She is also the author of the poetry collections Engine Empire, Dance Dance Revolution, and Translating Mo’um

Tickets include a copy of her forthcoming novel, The Fraud.

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Photo by Dominique Nabokov

Books Referenced 

Writers/Authors/Filmmakers/Artists Referenced

  • William Makepeace Thackeray 
  • Wilkie Collins 
  • Charles Dickens 
  • Rupert Murdoch
  • Rebekah Brooks
  • Boris Johnson 
  • Angela Davis
  • Frederick Douglass 
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • William Gibson
  • William Harrison Ainsworth
  • Toni Morrison
  • Alice Walker 
  • Sigmund Freud 
  • Jacqueline Rose
  • Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  • Michael Rosen

Articles Referenced 

Interviews Referenced


Cathy Park Hong: Hi! I guess I’ll start, and I’m sure you’re really tired of giving recaps of The Fraud, so I’d be happy to–

Zadie Smith: No, no, it’s fine. It’s just takes so long. It’s too much going on. 

Cathy Park Hong: I mean, I’d be happy to recap, or if you want to recap, you can recap, but I can recap. 

Zadie Smith: It’s quite enjoyable, because it is a true story. It’s about a man called Sir Roger Tichborne, who was a Catholic aristocrat. Young, tall, skinny, and he got in a boat to Jamaica and it went down, but his mother was convinced that he was alive and put adverts all around Europe and then further afield into Australia, offering huge amounts of money for anyone with information about her missing son.

And about 20 so years later, a man sailed from Australia, he was British, he was 300 pounds. He had a strong cockney accent, he didn’t speak French. Sir Roger grew up speaking French. He was uneducated. And in his company, he had a previously enslaved man from Jamaica called Andrew Bogle. And they came together. He said, “Mother, I am your son. And this is our old manservant, Andrew.” And she said, “I believe you,” and then promptly died, causing an enormous court case in England which went on for almost three years. And I guess that was the beginning of my interest in it, this idea of a man from Jamaica in the 19th century, from that background, giving testimony in a court for so long. It must be one of the longest narratives by an enslaved man that we have in Britain. 

Cathy Park Hong: There’s also a protagonist. 

Zadie Smith: There is a protagonist, yeah. So, Mrs. Touchet, who’s also a real person. The novel is a combination of two odd stories. One is about a once famous novelist from my neighborhood, who was extremely prolific. Forty three books. Not very good books, some of them truly terrible. But he was very successful and it’s a strange coincidence that round his table, he had all these wonderful writers: Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, all kinds of people, Dickens. But there was also a young poet, Irish, who gave up poetry and became a lawyer later in his life, and he was a lawyer on the Tichborne case. So these two stories kind of fascinated me for a while, and came together in this book. 

Cathy Park Hong: This novel is dazzling and I have to say, the trial is totally fascinating, but I was also especially drawn to both Eliza Touchet and the Jamaican servant, Bogle. And Eliza is the housekeeper of William Harrison Ainsworth. And also, she’s his erstwhile lover. There’s sort of this S&M thing going on, which I didn’t realize was practiced in the Victorian era. She’s also the reluctant hostess of these absolutely dull, long-winded dinner parties consisting of Ainsworth and his gang of frenemies, which is Thackeray and Dickens, and so forth. Reading these passages I realized time has not really changed, because one of the few things I regret in life is the hours I spent–wasted–listening to men talk and hold court about their lives and their writing.

Things change but also things don’t change. 

Zadie Smith: I would take it further. I actually just hate dinner parties, full stop. I hate them in principle. And they are quite a large part of literary life, then and now. England is particularly prone to them. 

Cathy Park Hong: You think? More than the U. S.? More than New York?

Zadie Smith: No, in New York, you’d say, “Let’s have brunch,” and then we’ll have lunch, and then some will have a cocktail, and then you go to a party. In England, someone will say, “Would you like to come to dinner on the 25th of March?” And you’re like, “Sure. Sure, I will do that.” But a lot goes on in English dinner parties, even in recent history, and a lot of that drama around Murdoch and the power that he has in England in those trials about listening to people and inserting yourself into the personal lives of British people–a lot of those political decisions we found out during those trials were made around dinner tables, Tory MPs, Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks. That’s a longstanding story in England, that important decisions are made in private houses in Oxfordshire. 

Cathy Park Hong: I want to bring it back to the genre of the novel itself, right? In the The New Yorker, you published an article where you write about your motivations for writing The Fraud and I just want to quote you. You wrote an essay also about your return to England, and you said “Any writer who lives in England for any length of time will sooner or later find herself writing a historical novel, whether she wants to or not I retained a prejudice against the form dating back to student days, when we were inclined to think of historical novels as aesthetically and politically conservative by definition.” 

So my question is, what is it about the historical novel that struck you as conservative? And why did you come around to it?

Zadie Smith: Part of it was when I was researching it, realizing how banal our idea of the past is. Even feeling surprised that there is S&M sex in the Victorian period. First of all, there’s only a limited amount of orifices in this world. And I can assure you they have all been used regularly since the beginning of time.

Cathy Park Hong: I don’t believe they had sex back in those days!

Zadie Smith: They really do, and that’s just a small symptom of a wider problem of, kind of presentism and narcissism about ourselves. And I was very struck in the run up to writing this book, when I’d be talking to people, they have two ideas simultaneously. They’ll say, “Well we’re clearly the most progressive humans that have ever existed on the planet.” And at the same time… “The world is a burning trash fire.” So I was very struck by that logic. It seemed, like, paradoxical to me. How can we be the greatest generation who ever lived, and also, this is a disaster?

So I wanted to try and unpack it, and one of the things which kept on coming up is this idea of the Victorians as only, you know, this backward, distant collection of oppressors. And particularly when I was in London, I kept thinking, But wait a minute, is it the present Tory government or the Victorians who built the school my kids go to? The hospital that I attend? The park that I walk through? My house? Who made all of this commons land for the people of England? And it certainly wasn’t Boris Johnson.

So, I wanted to think, this must have been a radical period. And of course, if you know anything about the Victorians, you know there’s the 1834 Reform Act. The things we hold most treasured, I imagine, on the left, begin there. The idea of a commons that people can share, no matter what they have in their pocket. That is a Victorian principle, unheard of previously, so I wanted to rescue some of that radical history, because I really felt that, of course, in England they obscure the history of Jamaica and plantation slavery, but it is a double loss, because you lose that, but you also lose a hundred years worth of working class activism, solidarity, political actions, subscriptions, even the women who didn’t want sugar in their tea or the Manchester working class people who refused to receive American cotton. This is a big story, and it seems to me a tool of power not to know that. 

Cathy Park Hong: When you’re talking about this presentism, it’s hard for me to imagine, but I think with a lot of people, it’s really difficult to imagine that people hundreds of years ago, or a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, had consciousness. That they thought the way that we did. They’re just like paper cutouts or something, you know? Or just cartoons.

Zadie Smith: It’s a real problem. And it’s a shame because what you’re cutting out… It’s in the interest of your friends over in Palo Alto to make sure you don’t know anything about the past. It’s in their interest. Part of this is about, I started thinking of the historical novel as a site of resistance. Just saying, “No, things existed before 2008.” 

Things existed. People had lives. There were political movements. People did things. And you could be under the illusion that that wasn’t the case if you’re constantly living and thinking at the pace they encourage, which is just to stay in that moment permanently. 

Cathy Park Hong: See, I thought when you said that quote– that you were being resistant–was because there’s just a glut of historical novels written by British writers, and that was why you were reluctant to kind of carry on that tradition, because it was traditional.

Zadie Smith: That is part of it. But it’s also the way they look at the past. Even Dickens himself, who I love, is often represented in these novels…Even our idea of the 19th century in England, we’ve kind of completely taken the Dickens who invented Christmas, and who has his BBC specials, but there’s also the Dickens who literally changed labor law. The Dickens who fought copyright. The Dickens who kept children from working.

The Dickens who was–I know every writer on the block calls themselves an “activist,” but I mean, someone who actually acted. Like, Angela Davis levels of doing something. So that Dickens is kind of obscured, because the other version is the cozy version. And a lot of English–like the Tory government itself, quite a few members of their government–write these one volume histories of the Victorians and they’re really telling, ’cause they’re always about individual heroes. And Dickens is this kind of benign, almost Christian force. He doesn’t get too involved in politics. But there’s none of this discussion of these mass movements. The Victorian period is a time of mass movements. 

Cathy Park Hong: So, The Fraud was also just offering these counter narratives–

Zadie Smith: –I mean, they shouldn’t even be counter narratives, they’re just the truth. It’s just about actually being interested in the truth.

Cathy Park Hong: There’s Dickens, Dickens appears quite a bit in the novel, but the central character is still Eliza Touchet, who’s a historical marginal figure. In a way, she’s kind of the moral center of the novel– 

Zadie Smith: –Until she isn’t. 

Cathy Park Hong: –Until she isn’t, yes. As I said, she’s a housekeeper, she’s an erstwhile lover, she’s held hostage at a lot of these boring dinner parties. In one sense, she’s highly sympathetic, right? She is a woman born at the wrong time, in a way. A prickly, independent-minded intellectual who has forever stuck, “holding her tongue.” I noticed that quote quite a bit. In certain ways, she’s ahead of her time–she’s a feminist. She’s an abolitionist. She’s sexually fluid. She’s also one who’s constantly insisting on the compassion for the other but then there are also limitations to her sympathies as well, such as her kind of judginess, her class’s judgment of Sarah, who is Ainsworth’s new wife, who comes from the working class. And also later on, her inability to understand the real injustices that Henry and Andrew Bogle, who are the Jamaican black Jamaican servant and son, faced. And that limitation of perspective becomes maybe more glaring as the novel goes on. 

My question is, why did you decide to kind of frame the bulk of this novel from the perspective of this marginal historical figure? If you were interested in, say, the labor laws and the role of Dickens in it, why not from the perspective of Dickens? Or Ainsworth? Or why not the perspective of Henry or Andrew Bogle? Why this white woman?

Zadie Smith: Oh, it’s so interesting to me, the idea that characters earn centrality by being appealing to us. That’s such an odd idea. But to me, I was thinking a lot about the climate crisis as a kind of analogy. When you think about the arc of moral action, it’s a little bit the same with what happened in slavery and abolitionism–there are always heroes. There’s Frederick Douglass, or there’s incredible kids working for XR at the moment, or Just Stop Oil. Those people are at one far end. They are doing… Everything. They’re putting their bodies in the road. They’re doing everything they can for the case. Then, there are the people sitting in their armchairs–like you and I–talking about it. Then there are people who say, “I won’t get on a plane this summer,” but they do get on the plane. Then there’s all of you who say, “I’m never buying another plastic bottle.” But then you get a bit thirsty and you do buy another plastic bottle. That arc of ethics, it’s very easy to be immediately defeated. “Oh, I bought a plastic bottle and I’m not the kid laying their body in the road.” But what I found about the 19th century is that in order to stop enormous systems of capital, you need all of those people. And I was trying to draw a portrait of all of those people.

The fact that Eliza is not perfect does not stop her from being interesting. I am not perfect, I imagine most of you are not perfect, but I was interested in something much more vital to me than allyship, which to me is like an apolitical nonsense term. Solidarity. That is a political term. And all the way through this period you see imperfect acts of solidarity, I’ll give you an example. When Lincoln’s doing the blockade on cotton in this country, the people of Manchester– the working people of Manchester–decided not to accept cotton in solidarity. The people of Liverpool did take it. English history is full of these mixed realities. The future is always unevenly distributed, as William Gibson said. And that is interesting. 

Watching these kind of imperfect movements, it fascinated me that working class people in Manchester knew that their situation was not identical to enslaved people in Jamaica, but they also knew they were both working under the same system: the system of British capital. They were able to make a pragmatic analogy, and then do something. That’s the politics I grew up with, that’s socialist solidarity. And it’s actually active, and it doesn’t need perfect alignment. So Eliza does something. She doesn’t do everything. And so a reader is, I imagine, perfectly able to read this book and say, “I admire Eliza to this point, but no further. I admire Andrew to this point, but no further.” Just as adults do in the real world. You don’t need me pointing to you and saying, “This person’s a hero, have you noticed?” You’re not a child, you’re an adult reader. So adult readers can make these kinds of ethical… Choices, and political choices amongst the people they read.

So, it seems to me, Eliza is a fascinating person to me, of contradictions. A Catholic, an abolitionist, a suppressed person, a frustrated person, sexually ambivalent. There’s loads of things going on there and there are moments I admire her, and there are moments I want to cover my eyes. None of that makes me not want to write about her.

Cathy Park Hong: She’s utterly fascinating. This is why I was most captivated by her, because she’s a flawed character, in the way that we’re all flawed, and we’re all full of contradictions and and you know, she’s both highly sympathetic, but she can also be infuriating. It’s the way that we all are. Even someone like William Harrison Ainsworth, who is this kind of…he’s bumbling, he’s just prolific to a flaw, he just writes without revising and so forth, but I found him very endearing.

Zadie Smith: Yeah, but he has a different virtue: kindness. He’s kind. That’s not a small thing. To be kind, to me, is like the crown. He’s not talented, but it’s not a crime to be untalented. Plenty of people are untalented, that’s just fine. But he is kind. And it really matters. But these are all different virtues. Like, William is someone I would be glad to have as a friend. He’s a good friend. When it comes to discussing political ideas, no, William is a disaster. He has no sense. This is life.

Cathy Park Hong: I quite liked him. I was wondering, this is a book where you did much more research than your other novels. How did you alchemize all of that research about the 19th century and turn it into a fully realized world, and these characters? 

Zadie Smith: I think the hardest thing is getting out of the way. You know like when you’re watching television recently, and you’re watching the characters, but all you can hear is the writer’s room? You ever had that experience? Like, it seems like these people are doing things, but all you can hear is a load of people very stressed in a writer’s room trying to work out if this character is balanced or not. That I was trying to avoid. I was trying to avoid the sense of total manipulation.

And a lot of that instinct is about kind of…I think when you’re writing, if you have the fear, What does this novel say about me? Then you’ve already lost the game. That’s the hardest thing to do, to kind of, get out of the way. And I did find it hard, particularly writing the Jamaican sections and knowing how it would be read with a 2023 mindset, finding these things that to…If you have this flat view of the past, I mean, the example I keep giving which really made me laugh is when it was being edited, lots of–particularly people who maybe haven’t read a lot in this period, if they’re young readers or whatever, would read the sections of Andrew in court and say, “I don’t understand, why is this Black man in court giving evidence in 1873?”

And I was like, “Well , I don’t know what to tell you. Because he was. Because you could.” Or like the Times newspaper, which, everything in the court scenes is verbatim, that’s just him talking, just as he spoke. But it would be introduced by a journalist, and the introduction says something like, “Today we have the man of color, Andrew Bogle, in court, he’s in a beautiful suit, whatever.” And I remember editors saying, “But nobody said ‘man of color’ in 1873.” And I’m like, “Again, what do you want me to tell you? It’s in the paper.” 

So it’s that kind of thing, and you’re kind of tempted to change it, to flatter the ideas people have about the past. But I just thought, No, this is the truth. It’s interesting in itself. And it’s not exactly what you think. And I think the danger is, if I was in fear, I’d think, Oh, they think I’m saying that this wasn’t so bad. No, I’m saying, “This is a really interesting situation.” 

You’ve got an utter, inhuman monstrosity going on in Jamaica, and a population, half of which literally cannot see what’s going on, and can’t understand it, and have deluded themselves to a point of mania. And another half, you know, active in this movement, interested in it as a labor concern. These are all such strange ideas if you only have this very flat picture of the past. 

Cathy Park Hong: I wanna go back to what you’re saying, to get out of the way. It takes craft, though, to get out of the way. As per example, you’ve always been a wizard with dialogue, with the kind of vibrant, faltering, farcical and sincere ways that people speak.

And ironically, in The Fraud, what’s really interesting is that there’s a failure of mimicry that defrauds the fraud, you know, from like, Sarah’s working class attempt to speak high-born English to Ainsworth’s lazy thievery of cockney English. 

Your “mimicry” always feels fully embodied, which is a hard thing to do. With a lot of writers, I can speak for myself, when I’m writing for research, whether it’s true or not, how do you metabolize that research so it feels like a fully realized world where the voices, or even a character like Eliza… I was reading somewhere where you said you found her, she was mentioned in a letter, and then she came alive. How do you do that? I just want you to talk about that process.

Zadie Smith: Some people would say that my feeling of it is wrong, and that what I am doing is using people to make arguments and make ideas. And I guess that’s my worst fear about my writing, that it’s just a kind of moral philosophy forced upon a load of innocent characters.

I’m trying not to do that as much as I can. And that’s been like a twenty year process of allowing people to speak. But of course it is ridiculous, because I am writing them. I am aware of that. But I think there is a tradition, particularly maybe in African American writing, where, like, I remember when I was young hearing Toni say it, and hearing Alice Walker say it, having voices speak through you, which sounds a bit sentimental, or your ancestors speaking, but I do think when you’re in a kind of flow state writing, you should at least believe that. You know, it should feel like that. 

For me, the closest in this case is this argument at the end, which is a purely political argument between Eliza and Henry Bogle, who’s a young son of Andrew, who is what we would call now, I guess, an activist, he’s certainly a radical. And they’re arguing about how justice happens, basically. And I really remember sitting down to write that. And of course I have my private citizen’s view. But in that case, I was like, Ooh, I wonder how this is going to go. I got so far in the book that I really was interested in this argument that they were having. I understood both sides of it. 

So Eliza is saying: “Yes, you’re right, but political proceeds take time.” And that’s the bottom line. You have to do these things over a period of time. 

And Henry’s saying–calling bulls*** on it: “You can’t free me. I’m free by… Existence. You don’t have the power to free me. Everybody is free equally. F*** your political process. This is a radical existential thing that I am.”

And it was so amazing watching them. That’s how it felt, like I was watching two people debate something that really is meaningful to me, and which I personally don’t have a final view on, because I think both things are true, you know. We are radically free in our own person, at the same time, rights have to be fought for. They take time. 

Cathy Park Hong: I love that section, and I thought that dialogue was a real culminating moment in the book, when they were having that conversation. And I think there was also a section where so many people, like for instance, Andrew Bogle was always holding his tongue. He was always there. And he, I think out of everyone in the book, is the biggest cipher, where you don’t really know what he’s thinking. And I think his son is perhaps–if we’re talking about a contemporary audience reading the book–is the most relatable, in a way, because he is kind of expressing what we think: there is no time. We can’t be patient about justice.

Zadie Smith: Yeah, no more patience.

Cathy Park Hong: He is speaking the way a lot of progressives are thinking now: We can’t wait for it, we have to take it, justice. It’s not about charity and improvement and compassion. 

Zadie Smith: That’s it.

Cathy Park Hong: We want freedom, we want truth, we want justice. 

Zadie Smith: That’s what really interested me, that this period is a number of people, groups, all wanting their freedom at the same moment. And what they’re being told in England is that there is an orderly system here. So first, working class men, and then maybe we’ll get to women, and then we’ll consider the colonies. That kind of reasonable and rational arc that goes towards progress or whatever is what Henry is rejecting, in principle, because of course in that way people live and die in obscurity and horror and it goes on for hundreds of years. 

So I had both feelings when I was writing this book, reading the history, thinking, on the one hand, it is extraordinary that a system of enslaved capital that made so much money ended. It is miraculous. And looking at these various movements, some of them radical Christian socialists, abolitionists, of course the slaves themselves–the enslaved themselves, who are revolting in Jamaica pretty much every year. And a lot of those revolutions are not just “slave revolts,” they’re about land. Slavery has finished. There are revolts going on about Whose land is this? Can I still tend that farm on this land? So it’s a continual activism on that part. 

So the more kind of positive part of me thinks, Oh look, this is how it’s done. With a mixture of radical action, parliamentary petitions, working people on the streets, people in many situations in England in solidarity. But the more cynical view is that, like any extremely extractive industry, it was dying. You know, by the 1830s, you couldn’t make money. People who were being sent to Jamaica to run these plantations were going broke, because the land was exhausted, there were no more new people coming. So the cynical view is, these things only end when they’re on their knees. And then these great waves can’t put them out completely. 

Cathy Park Hong: It’s fascinating because this book is a portrait of surprising solidarity, where there’s this collision or intersection of race, gender, and class, right? So you have the surprising affinities and sympathies between the feminist movement, the labor movement, and abolitionists, and what I forget is how there are so many white feminists who were big advocates for–

Zadie Smith: –It wouldn’t have happened without that movement, no matter how sentimental… It was central. 

Cathy Park Hong: But also what makes the book complicated and interesting is that it’s not just this blanket, kind of leveling solidarity. There’s also these differences, these conflicts and friction. That’s why I love that section. That dialogue between Henry, the more fiery character, and Eliza, because here we see the limitations of her sympathy and her limitations of being able to connect. 

Zadie Smith: But that’s okay–

Cathy Park Hong: –I’m not saying it’s wrong. 

Zadie Smith: She wants to be friends with Andrew Bogle. Andrew’s like, “Oh, well, I don’t want to be friends with you.” He has no interest in being friends with her. There’s a kind of political pragmatism going on.

But I do remember that from my childhood. We were marching every weekend, and this is maybe an experience people are beginning to have again. But when you’re, like, marching against apartheid in South Africa, in Trafalgar Square, the groups of people we were gathered with, sometimes you’d look at the banner next to you and be like, “Hmm, I don’t know about that banner. I know we’re all here, but I’m not sure about that banner.” But we were still all there. 

In my neighborhood, maybe the most kind of legendary story of my childhood is the Grunwick Strike, which, I don’t know if there’s any English people here, but in my neighborhood, McVitie’s, which is a biscuit, it was mostly South Asian women working in that factory, Indian and Pakistani women. And they went on strike when I was about five or six years old, and in solidarity with them came the white postal workers. And then the Black dinner ladies. They worked together, and they won. The pay was risen. That’s the kind of politics I grew up in. And the fact that those three groups are not likely to sit down to dinner and have maybe a gay old time, is not really important. They came together to do something. Recognizing that they were all ill paid and that this was, you know, you come for me, I’ll come for you. And you see it again a few years later with the miners coming down from the north and getting support from dinner ladies in my school and schools all over London. These things were possible. 

Cathy Park Hong: Related to that, there’s a bit of history in the book that I didn’t know about where, again, it’s like this intersection of the slave trade and, the working class in Britain where there was an embargo, or they were refused to buy American cotton.

Zadie Smith: And eat sugar as well, for a period of time. 

Cathy Park Hong: And so there’s this dialogue between William Ainsworth and Eliza, where William says, “Eliza, in this country, we have abolished the trade, the practice, the business itself. Our debt to Africa is surely paid in full.”

And then Eliza asks, and “Who does that accounting exactly?” And there are other couple moments, especially towards the end where the question of debt comes into focus in the book. And I was just wondering if you could talk about debt and what that means in this book.

Zadie Smith: The work that was most useful to me were Caribbean academics, one of whom I thank particularly at the back of the book, who write about this whole period, going back to the 1600s, as fundamentally a land question. It’s about land. 

So Jamaica is basically given to a series of Cromwellian soldiers as reward for good action. And it goes from there. And I found that a really materialist and useful way of thinking about it. And watching the way the money from that land plows into English life, builds all these great houses, builds half of England, in fact, the money from these plantations. And then, as the plantations go broke, these houses go broke, you can–like the big house in this book, which is called Stowe House–you can trace English history through that house. It’s slave money, then it’s one of the richest houses in Europe, then it goes broke, then it sells everything it has to various museums in England, and then how does it end up? A private school. Because that’s how England works. 

First you put your sons in Jamaica to run plantations because you don’t know what else to do with them. Then you put them in big houses. And finally, when the commons has been slightly established and there’s no more space for the aristocrats, they’ve hived off this final thing. “Well, at least our kids won’t have to go to school with these people.” That’s how England has always been. So it was fascinating watching that progress. And the debt is…the debt is incredible. There is no straight accounting. But to me, practical reparations are about the establishment of the commons: money for schools, money for hospitals, money for everything that is public. Because that’s what this argument was about. Who does the land belong to? Can people live their own lives, not as indentured or enslaved people? Where can they do that? The Victorian period is about trying to create that space. And I am very aware right now of literally living in the ruins of that action.

The people who made those public spaces for me are now dead 200 years, and those spaces are crumbling. And there is no effort in England to renew those spaces. So I feel a kind of debt going both ways: a debt of gratitude in one direction, and then this kind of other debt that is still unpaid. People still living in a poverty that was created a long time ago. 

Cathy Park Hong: This is also particular to San Francisco because there’s this support for Black reparations now. But they don’t know how to give that money, in terms of how to distribute that money, that is. That’s still up for debate. 

Zadie Smith: I’m sure everyone has different opinions about it, but for me, it would be about investing in the commons, in the public state, which is, in my country at least, where most Black people live.

Cathy Park Hong: What you’re saying reminds me of this quote in the book where you said, “England was not a real place at all. England was an elaborate alibi. Nothing really happened in England. Only dinner parties and boarding schools and bankruptcies. Everything else, everything the English really did and really wanted, everything they desired and took and used and discarded, of that they did elsewhere.”

Zadie Smith: Yeah, there’s a lot of offshore logic in England, but again, when I was writing this book, it wasn’t just to look back and say, “Oh, look how awful they were, look how amazing.” It seems to me offshore logic is how this whole system works right now, where your clothes come from, where those plastic bottles end up, this kind of fantasy of frictionless tech, like…Have you seen what a lithium lake looks like? Do you know where this cobalt comes from? Offshore logic is an everyday reality for people now. 

Cathy Park Hong: To change the subject a little bit, the novel is about the writing of the novel, too. I’m curious about this, I was really fascinated by this. The extraction of resources is not just colonial for capital gain, but it’s also authorial, too. So, Dickens is a complicated figure in The Fraud, but there are just a lot of moments where Eliza pokes fun at Dickens, but is also critical of Dickens and Ainsworth, poaching the lives of the poor to entertain the masses.

And the question is, who is a fraud that pops up in the book? The fraud is England, you could say, as a nation. 

Zadie Smith: That’s the biggest fraud, yeah. For sure.  

Cathy Park Hong: That’s the biggest fraud, right, is England. The fraud is obviously the claimant. I would say there’s also some… the novelist, too, is implicated in a way, in relation to Dickens and Thackeray and Ainsworth. The novelist too is a fraud. Can you talk about that?

Zadie Smith: I think I always have questions like, “What was the novel? What is it for? Has it been a force for good generally?” I don’t think any novelist can get rid of the accusation of being a voyeur. I mean, that’s just so deep in my personality that I can’t…That’s just what I am.

But I think a more benign version, there’s a scene, for example, where Mrs. Touchet is walking down the street with Andrew and Henry for the first time and a lot of people are staring. Partly because they’re in the center of town, whereas it wouldn’t be so strange to see two Black men and a white woman by the docks, but they’re right in the center.

And so she’s thinking, “Do they think we’re a family of some kind? They’re looking at us because the boy is mixed race.” And after I wrote it, I thought, well of course, Freudian-ly…Freudian-ly? I’m not walking around in the 19th century, but of course I remember walking down the street with a white man and a Black woman and mixed race children and people staring in, you know, 1978 or ‘79 or whatever.

So, to me, that’s the more benign version of writing. It’s that, like, my brother’s an actor. You’re basically doing exactly the same thing. Like, if you’re playing Oedipus, you don’t need to have sex with your mother and kill your father. But you do need to know what feelings of shame are like, what fury is like. And that’s kind of what I’m doing. I know the feeling. Of course, I am not personally walking down a street in the 19th century with these two men, but I know the feeling of being stared at. So you use your emotions as raw material. And then they just go everywhere. So I don’t know if that’s an unpleasant process for people to consider. But that’s what actors do. That’s what writers do. 

Cathy Park Hong: At one point Eliza talks about Ainsworth and she says, “Everything has been used before or was lifted from life.” This is about his novels. “From such worn cloth and stolen truths are novels made. More and more, the whole practice waried her, even to the point of disgust.” So you don’t believe that? 

Zadie Smith: No, I don’t feel that way. I love novels. But I can understand the feeling. But I just think it’s so interesting the way you utilize things, there’s another scene where Eliza, who’s always considered herself poor, because she is basically poor, is walking out with Sarah, the second wife of William, and she mentions this thought of herself as poor, and Sarah starts laughing, like, “You think you’re poor?” And goes to show her where she came from.

After I wrote that, I thought, yeah, that’s, again, something I remember. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m poor when I was a kid.” And then you go around to somebody else’s place and you’d be like, “Oh no, I’m not poor. This person is poor.” And that emotion, it can be 30 years later and you find yourself using it for two Victorian ladies in 1856. That’s how it works. It’s quite subconscious, at a level. 

Cathy Park Hong: I really appreciated that passage where we’re seeing Sarah through Eliza’s perspective, where she’s clearly judging her and it’s very classist, but then she’s like, “Okay, let me show you my life.” And Eliza is humbled by that. And we see the other side of these people who are initially satirized, but then you also see them as these vulnerable characters. 

Zadie Smith: I mean, what’s Sarah’s poverty next to Andrew’s, who doesn’t even own his own person? There’s always somebody further along that line. 

Cathy Park Hong: But Bogle is also the ultimate cipher in my mind. And I think it’s just because Eliza is fascinated by Bogle. She really wants to get to know him. And it is to her that he tells his story.

So already, even when we’re reading the novel, he’s not really telling everything. He’s only telling her the version that she wants to hear and she’s presenting it as such. So in that way, he’s a cipher, but he’s also a cipher in that we never really know what his true motivations are, exactly. Really, we don’t know why he chooses to defend the claimant, and why he sticks by him, and this is what Eliza is constantly confused by. She’s like, out of everyone, he seems to have the most integrity. And yet… Even though he imbues truthfulness–and truth is a huge subject in the book–he’s lying. So why did you make him an un noble character? Why him?

Zadie Smith: An obvious guess is that he’s looking for reparations directly out of the British state by lying in their court and hopefully winning this case and taking some part of Tichborne’s money. That’s the obvious answer. But partly it’s because I actually really believe in the privacy of characters. A lot of these people in the novel are rapacious for wanting to know what’s inside everybody. And Andrew is the one person they can’t get inside, and he was like that in court. He told this elaborate, sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing story, but it was impersonal.

He wasn’t going to bleed all over the courtroom for the public. And I quite admire people like that. He kept his counsel. And I think probably fundamentally he didn’t trust the people he was around. Which would be a fair result of 20 years on a plantation. And also of course there’s the privilege of speaking freely, which he doesn’t have.

His son is bold, and can be bold, could certainly be bolder. Andrew has learned by experience to keep his counsel. So I like that privacy about him. And I kind of like protecting him from the reader, too. And finally, it’s a lovely thing I saw Jacqueline Rose say, the writer and philosopher, that why is it that the one thing we take from the oppressed, we divest them from, is the right to be morally questionable?

It’s so strange, you’re trying to help, but the one thing they can’t…They have to be heroic as well? You’ve got to suffer and also be a hero? What a strange logic. So I just was very resistant to Andrew being that person, just because you’re put under incredible oppression, it doesn’t mean you have to be a pure soul. Why add that to the labor of the oppressed?

Cathy Park Hong: I’m gonna ask one more question. I’m gonna actually just depart from the book. I was just reading through some of your older interviews and there was an interview that you had with Jeffrey Eugenides, where you said–and it is related to the Eliza character, too and her being the lone woman among a gang of male writers–

“It did seem to be when I was a kid and also now that I’m a grown up writer that a lot of male writers have a certainty that I’ve never been able to have. I kept on thinking that I would grow into it. But I’m never sure I’m doing the right thing.” 

Do you still feel that way? 

Zadie Smith: I feel sorry that I said it because I feel like I get a lot of grown male critics who think I need some kind of encouragement from the sidelines. But I really don’t, and in my own way–

Cathy Park Hong: –But do you think also that uncertainty could be a good thing? 

Zadie Smith: I think it’s easily mistaken for middlingness or some kind of apolitical sense. That’s really not what I mean. Life, to me, is certainly comic and tragic both, and so there is an ambivalence in there. And when I’m thinking politically, I am always factoring in the limits of human beings. I can’t help that. But I also think the thing I felt more and more strongly about and less unsure about is that if there’s any service you can provide as a fiction writer, it’s really more about the kind of people who do–are throwing their bodies in the street, who are active and that–they’re doing it for people, right? So they have an idea of the human subject. 

So one of the things I think novels can do, and artists of all kinds can do, is complicate the human subject for them. Because I really remember, particularly as a kid, in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, around the kind of people I grew up with, in these socialist environs, you quite often meet upper middle class intellectuals that come to lecture you, and they come to find the proletariat. And we were the proletariat, but not quite the kind they hoped for. It was always that. 

We were always something a little bit wrong, or our Marxism wasn’t quite right, or we didn’t say…And I got very used to that perspective. They came and then they were disappointed because we weren’t starting the revolution in exactly the way they wanted.

So I think one of the things you can give to people who theorize is a slightly more full idea of this subject they’re concerned with. The Black man, the white woman–whatever they’re concerned with–these subjects deserve a bigger portrait than these flat pictures, which is actually very hard to do politics with these cartoon versions of human beings.

Cathy Park Hong: We can open this up to questions. 

Audience Member 1: Hi Zadie. I love you so much. Completely fangirling. I want to say how I’ve been listening to you speak. It affirms, for me at least, how memory is an intensely visual idea. I’m curious about your process researching historical memory.

You also mentioned the privacy of characters. You mentioned how parts of a character you admire and other parts you want to look away. You also mentioned the right to be morally questionable. So through your voice, I’m listening to many eyes, and the activity of those eyes. And so my question comes, what are the ethics of looking? And how or to what extent does that ethics become writing? 

Zadie Smith: That’s a good question. On this tour, I’ve been asked things slightly similar. I was thinking that, at the core of my uneasiness…When I was a kid, I had this good friend, a Nigerian British girl, and we would get the bus together. When we did that, we’d sit at the bus stop, and as people went by, we’d play this game of like, guessing the newspaper they read, the kind of sex they had, what clothes they like, and we’d make ourselves laugh a lot. And it was comic, right? 

So you see someone, it takes five seconds, and you have their whole biography. And that is a comic novelist instinct, like, “I got you.” I love that about comic novels, and I know I’m partly a comic novelist, but I wouldn’t want to be guessed at in 30 seconds.

Do you know what I mean? I wouldn’t want someone to just say, “Give me a label and just be done with it.” And that part I have a problem with, yeah. I want to see a bit more deeply with a bit more time, and some of the ways politics is done right now–which I totally understand, if you’ve been given a label your entire life, the temptation to turn that label around and place exactly a similar label on your opposite force must be overwhelming, but I don’t think real politics can ever be done that way. I really don’t believe in trash people or flat people or people who can just be discarded. So it matters to me that politics is with full people. So it’s a seeing that has to be complicated. Even when I’m feeling rageful and I really do want to dismiss someone, I have to take a moment. I can dismiss their politics, you can have an argument, but not the human being themselves. That’s not something that I’m willing to do.

Audience Member 2: Hi Zadie. I heard you speak earlier about being in a flow state, and you’re trying to let the character sort of talk through you, maybe? Writing a historical fiction novel, I’m wondering, did you ever have to catch yourself saying, “Well, would this person actually have done that?” Or after having that flow state, maybe reading what you had written and being like, “Hmm, maybe not?”

Zadie Smith: Part of the job was reading so much about the period that you felt you were there a lot of the time. And that was helped by living in Northwest London where, a lot of it, almost all of it, my neighborhood, went up between 1860 and 1899. So, you could kind of fool yourself a lot that I was there and it was happening. That question happens with all novels: Would someone say such a thing? And a lot of the arguments around them, like I was always struck by people saying things like, “A Black woman would never say such a thing,” and I would always be like, “Well, how could you possibly know that? Under what criteria have you decided that speech belongs in a certain way to certain people?” 

So, apart from obvious anachronisms, which of course you try and avoid, I really don’t believe in completely altered human consciousness. I think you’d have to go quite far back, more like the medieval period, to meet people who were genuinely strange.

The Victorian period is very, very close. Our ideas are very, very similar, actually. And we live in the same mental universe. It’s not that strange. That’s why you can still read Victorian novels with a lot of ease, actually. It’s not that far away. 

Audience Member 3: Thank you so much for coming and speaking to us. We really appreciate it. My question was, I was listening to other interviews that you’ve given, and you often talk about how we are so presumptuous to think that we’re doing something new or different for the first time, whether it be sex or otherwise. Do you think there is something new that’s happening in this generation this time and how should we think about that?

Zadie Smith: I mean, things do repeat, but surely the point of progress is that some things don’t repeat. So I–never say never–but I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll have full scale plantation slavery again. So you go into this revolution and some things become unthinkable and are encased in law.

But, as you’ve seen with your abortion rights, not everything works that way. And you can very easily loop back. So, I absolutely believe in progress. I believe in creating these categories of the unrepeatable and the unthinkable. That’s part of the point of politics. I can’t preach to the young. The thing which I think is fundamentally different is the removal of the concept of the future. I’ve never known any generation who’s had to deal with that. So to my mind, they deserve our absolute empathy and support because it’s just unheard of to not have a concept of the future, to really think it’s possible that the whole thing is going to end, and then that’s not a fairy story and apocalyptic book in the Bible. It’s actual reality. That is an unprecedented existential situation. So I just try and keep that in mind.

Audience Member 4: Hello. Can you tell us about the first time you got published? What was it? How did it happen? How did it change your life? 

Zadie Smith: The very first time is a slightly shameful story, to be honest. I was, I think 10 years old and I’d written a little book, which itself was an act of plagiarism. It was about skeletons, and it was stolen from these brilliant British, children’s book writers called the Ahlbergs.

I had stolen this idea wholesale with my friend Polly. And we won a literary competition. Michael Rosen was the judge. But they said we could only have one winner, and so I quietly got Polly out of it and went to accept my prize. So, that’s not good. A shameful beginning in the world of literature.

Audience Member 5: Thank you so much for being here. Kind of building off of a previous question, the debate around reparations for the Caribbean and former British colonies is really accelerating right now in England. I’m wondering if there are any interesting observations that you might have on the current debate based on the research that you did into the period. 

Zadie Smith: I don’t know enough about the mechanics of it, but it seems to me the best reparations Jamaica could have would be to be allowed out of the clutches of the World Bank. That would seem the most direct and obvious, because that is one of the most ruinous relationships. So it’s things like that which I think matter to me, rather than–what is it going to be, 50 bucks to each human? No. I think it needs to be structural. And permanent. So, that would be the biggest change I could imagine.

Audience Member 6: Hi Zadie, thank you so much for coming and for this opportunity. I’m wondering, when you create fully embodied characters with full lives and hopes and dreams, do you ever find yourself in conflict, balancing the roles of being a writer and being a medium for these characters where, for example, you might have a story that you want to tell and these characters have a different idea in mind and if so, how do you resolve that conflict?

Zadie Smith: In the first case, this book, it was not meant to be about Eliza Touchet, so that was just a case of somebody muscling in and taking over the entire novel. And in the second case, Andrew Bogle, I felt this heavy thing. When I finished the book, I really felt it. When I was writing it, I had to kind of hold to one side the idea that… My people are from St. Elizabeth, this is happening in St. Andrews, but it’s a hop, skip, and a jump, and he really could be my great great great grandfather, and in order to do it justice, I had to not think that. I can’t really describe it, but I had to not make it about me, that’s the best way I can put it.

And the moment I’d finished writing that section, then I was really devastated. It was a posthumous feeling. It was so strange that when I was writing it, I was very calm, cool, and collected. I’m just gonna state the facts. I knew how brutal they were, and I really wanted to… It’s that old English phrase, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I do feel that when you’re writing about something like that, that you don’t need italics, you don’t need exclamation marks. I really wanted the reader, maybe particularly the English reader, to know that there’s no exaggeration here. Just read it. This is the truth. No ideology, no speeches. This is what actually happened, if you’re interested. So that involved being very neutral. But after I finished, then I really did feel it, actually. Because it’s overwhelming. And that’s just, you know, 20 years. Imagine 300.

Audience Member 7: I’m really loving this talk. And the thing I’m really growing to appreciate is you as a political person. And I know this is a generalization…I was born in Oakland and I’ve shut down a few federal buildings, bridges, and military bases in my time, but I’ve always had this jealousy of people elsewhere in the world. I think of England, Europe, the entire rest of the world as being much more, on average, people being more political than here in the United States. We could say politics, in some ways, is backward in the United States. Let’s just say it’s f****d up. So I’m curious, and I hope I understand your biography, since you came to work in the United States on this side of the Atlantic, how perhaps it has changed your political outlook, political analysis?

Zadie Smith: I actually think of it the other way around. But it’s a real, live question for me, I don’t know the answer. I grew up in a political compact, so the great battles had been done–I benefited from them. Free school, free healthcare, subsidized housing. Which I sometimes hear described here as if that weren’t revolutionary. I think you could only think that if you didn’t grow up in them. I guess if you lived a private existence, then it might just seem some half-assed neoliberal middle–

–but if you lived it, it’s really extraordinary that that ever existed. But the window was short, right? By 1975 it’s starting to crumble. But so that really interests me, the idea that in fact, I don’t think… Once the compact is made, you have the opportunity, in fact, not to live your life at the barricades. You have space to live your intimate life. The question, I think, the young generation says to our generation is, “Well, what the f*** did you do with it?” And the answer is, we went dancing and took ease. And that is the problem. And I think that’s a completely fair political argument. We enjoyed the compact that had been given to us, not realizing that it wasn’t permanent, and that you have to continue to be active.

When I got to America, I thought, because there is no compact, action is continual here. I was amazed to see people going to doors in elections and all my students disappearing to do…Nothing like that happens in England. Because it didn’t have to, because the political system was basically settled in a way you thought you could live. But that was a delusion. So I’m always torn by the idea of, of course I… The dream to me is some kind of social compact which allows people to live the time of their own lives. But the question of this generation is, maybe that never happens. Or if you think it’s happened, you’re mistaken. Because the powers come up underneath you again.

I think that’s the key question. Whether it’s possible for a social compact to last enough to give people their private lives. And I do not know the answer to that.

Audience Member 8: Hello. I imagine that in writing a novel, you learn a little bit more about yourself and the way that you see the world. And I’m just wondering, what did you learn about yourself in writing this novel that maybe surprised you or that you wrestled with?

Zadie Smith: I kind of developed some pride. Like I come from two long lines of peasantry, I guess. Or, dispossessed people without land. White working class people and Jamaicans. And it was quite, you know, healing and interesting to study the past of both those clans. Because when you have a name like Smith, it’s very hard to know anything about your history. It just disappears into this welter of millions of Smiths. So, it was enjoyable for me, for that part. And I’m sure it’s some, like, sad little mixed race Freudian girl level-healing, to think of these two communities in some kind of useful dialogue and not just screaming at each other in my kitchen.

So, I’m sure that was a part of it. But it was also really engaging. Not just personally, but it was an interesting history to not even uncover, because it’s there in plain sight, but to spend time with.

Audience Member 9: Hi Zadie, thank you for being here. I really loved Swing Time, and I was wondering if you could talk about it. Like, what part it played in your life, what surprised you when you wrote it, maybe? 

Zadie Smith: It was such a weird kind of thing with memory. It was really hard to write in the first person. Maybe I’m the only writer who finds it disassociating to write in the first person. I found it really strange, but it was lovely, digging up some memories, particularly for my whole generation, memories of work, a kind of work before the phones. Of a kind of communal relation we had before all of that. It was enjoyable, a lot of the time. 

And just lovely to write about dance, which is something that I really do adore. That’s the most autobiographical part of that book, is that dance really matters to me. And I am aware of writing like a dancer. Chronology, as you can tell, doesn’t mean much to me, but rhythm does. It was nice bringing those ideas to the fore and writing about rhythm and bodies and movement. That’s maybe the way I experience–everyone has different diaspora feelings, but my diaspora feelings are connected with dance.

So when I’m in West Africa, when I’m in the Caribbean, that is the connection I feel, that I understand that movement. I move that way myself, and I feel this kind of family feeling. So, it was a lot about that.

Cathy Park Hong: Okay, I think that’s the end of our conversation. Thank you. Thank you so much. Zadie.