A conversation between authors Zadie Smith, Yaa Gyasi, and Courtney Martin



hello hello ladies so so many of our audience members are in their 20s so we thought we would kind of bring you back to our 20s it's gonna be a little easier for yah than it will be for zayday and i who have to look way back but so Yas debut novel which you should all read if you have if you're like the one person who has not read it it's called homegoing it's an epic historical fiction there are some people in here who have read it yeah it's gorgeous it was published in 2016 and she essentially won like every award you could possibly win well deserved she was born in Ghana the daughter of a professor of French at the University of Alabama and a nurse and I love this anybody remember Reading Rainbow yes so so her first story ever she submitted to the Reading Rainbow young writers and illustrators contest and and won it which encouraged her to be a writer I'm like thank you Reading Rainbow you didn't win I got honorable mention for the writers and the audience who don't win if you get honorable mention keep writing and then she's she's talked about how Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon which she read in high school is really like a click moment for her of like I gotta be a writer and as a massive fan of Toni's I think that's so beautiful so yeah you talked about that when you were in college you went back to Ghana and you visited the cape coast castle a place where slaves were confined before being shipped to the new world a place just 50 miles from the town where your mother grew up right and you returned home and you said you wrote a single question at the top of your blank computer screen which was what does it mean to be black in America and that that question unfolded into homegoing and why that question can you unpack that a little bit for us sure I mean I think for me the question was something that had been looming in my mind for many many years as you mentioned I was born in Ghana but we came to America when I was only 2 and then from there we moved around quite a bit so we lived in Ohio Illinois Tennessee and then Alabama and in each place there were fewer and fewer Ghanaians and so in Columbus Ohio there were there was a large gun in community I felt I was going to the African Christian Church like I still felt very connected to my ethnicity and then by the time we got to Alabama there were very few in the part of town that we lived in there are a few black people in the part of town that we lived in and so suddenly I was kind of faced with this question of how to I guess balance or navigate my race and my ethnicity and so for me going to Ghana taking that trip trying to understand the ways in which Ghanaian history and American history connected for me was a way to kind of open up this question of what it meant to be black in America that's amazing I kept thinking when I was reading it so to give you perspective it's it's descendants of this one woman that branch into two families and it's linked short stories of many many many generations from slavery until contemporary America and I kept imagining you in writing classes like 20 whatever years old saying I'm gonna write this epic novel that it you know like explaining it to a teacher and having the professor whether suddenly or not so subtly be like oh girl like you need to pick away less complicated first yeah I kept wondering like what allowed you to hold on to that epic vision which also I was thinking about the gender and race implications like epic novels are often written by like young overly confident white dudes right like and you wrote you successfully achieve this gorgeous huge novel as a first novel like did you have to squash a lot of haters and like not let a lot of professors that told you not to write something that big right out of the gates yeah absolutely I mean I think part of the task in the beginning was not just squashing the haters but also squashing that voice inside of yourself that says this is stupid this is impossible why are you even trying because if you're not willing to fail at something epically then you will never be able to write something epic you know and so I think having that reminder for myself was really helpful and then sticking to the research and understanding that I was kind of attempting to tell the stories of these people who had really existed obviously the the novel is fiction but every time I read an account of what somebody had gone through in these time periods that I was writing about I felt as though I had to I would do them a disservice if I didn't try at least to get this book right I'm so glad you didn't listen to this those voices zadie you had success at a very early age also I can I like couldn't believe this when I read it we wrote white teeth at 23 years old Satriani it was published in those 23 years not B I mean that's amazing so like since then let's just put in perspective for Zaidi's career she's published seven books five novels two essay collections also one every imaginable award maybe not the one from LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow but every other award that you can win become an icon of sorts when you look back at that book white teeth and at this 22 year olds writing did you have like a driving question at the top of your computer screen I metaphorically speaking like yeah yes I absolutely identified with them your question I think actually it sometimes under underplayed the sense that when you're writing you're not for me anyway it wasn't about describing myself or my identity it was genuinely a question I guess question in my house was how did these people come to be married which is the question perhaps everybody asks of their parents but in my case it was a very long question yes what why did why does a woman from Jamaica from the Diaspora how does she meet this working-class white man from an equally long ancestry in a different place and then that question expanded to you know why are there Bengalis next door why are there poles why the Irish why this Jewish family I grew up in this incredibly mixed environment in this mixed school so everything was questions and also deep voice is immune oh I really wanted to know what was going on in all the houses next door all the flats next door I was really fascinated by other lives you know but why did that fascination manifest in fiction form I mean did you think about investigating it in other ways or were you always drawn to fiction it's such a strange form because it really is lying to tell the truth if you see what I mean like that there is no way when I read yours book first of all I felt I wish I'd had that but when I was 15 is one of my strongest feelings about that book there was a book that I had wanted to read my whole life but but the rightness of it is not the rightness of history or you know it's not it's the rightness that you feel in your gut which is very hard to quantify why when I read one book about you know the history of diaspora do I feel this is right and another book might feel false or that there's no guarantee in that sense and it's it's full of risk no matter how much research you do you can't do research into humans not not really so it when I was writing about all these people the risk is always what do you know about the bangladeshi family next door and what do you know in fact about your own mother what do you know even though about yourself it's not rocket science it's this emotional content and all you can do is feel your way through it you know and research helps fish alright yeah you you have facts you have historical details but the rightness or wrongness of a page is always a massive risk every page is a risk because at any point the reader is free to say no I don't agree I don't feel this isn't my life it doesn't represent me and so that risk is what I'm addicted to in fact and the possibility of being wrong so many ways a little time for some reason is a great thrill to me you're a thrill seeker so did you have a the equivalent of a song of solomon like something you read well yeah boring it was also the focus or maybe a bit stronger for me was Alice Walker and the color purple I'm just because I don't know why I had a stronger impression on me and I was younger when I read it probably and then of course all the other writers I was I was brought up in a in England so I was reading Dickens Roald Dahl Shakespeare you know it's a massive canvas of reading you know some of it which was close to me and some of which couldn't be further away but meant as much yeah so yeah I'm sure that's a beautiful thing to hear that your book had have influence on Zadie did you have an audience in mind when you were writing or did you have to sort of banish the notion of who anyone's actually going to read this in order to take that leap of faith to get it done well I mean what Sadie said about wishing that she had had this book when she was fifteen I think that's that's always my target audience you know is myself at fifteen the book that I would have wanted to read the book that I wish that I had been able to see myself in I'm gonna butcher the Toni Morrison quote but she says something like if you are looking on your bookshelf for a book and you can't find it you have to write it and I really took that mandate to heart you know I had never seen myself in fiction and I and I read so voraciously as a child that the fact that you know I was able to you know find commonalities with with these characters you were completely different from me was also exciting and it means that I think that fiction does its work that it like allows us to feel empathy for lots of different people and yet still I I craved a story that that I myself as the as a middle schooler as a high schooler would have would have wanted to see and have you been surprised by who has responded to the novel have there been any interesting reactions that you were like well that's not who I wrote it for but great you know um I mean I think any time anybody has told me that they've read the book I feel bad you know because writing writing a novel I think of it as you know you're kind of working in the dark for so many years uncertain of whether or not your book will ever come to light and so the fact that this book has come to light and that the light has been so bright and that so many wonderful people have have read it and gotten something out of it I'm astonished every time um zadie in your most recent book of essays you write my hope is for a reader who like the author wonders how free she really is which I love what do you mean by that what I'm wondering when I'm writing is whether it's possible to to create a citizen or a civilian a non writer who thinks as a writer does about identity I guess that's what interests me when I was a reader right yah I was reading all kinds of books by necessity with people in there were nothing supposedly nothing like me yet when I read Madame Bovary I thought I – Oh Madame Bovary when I read Tolstoy z-value Levitch I thought I – I'm even Levitch and that's the experience of minority readers all the time this identification across suppose it boundaries what I'm trying to do is encourage people in the other direction so if somebody's reading swing time and they're reading about a little black girl in London I don't want that identification to be at a distance like oh look at this interesting exotic story of this person I want them to identify the way I did holy body and soul no matter what they happen to look like no matter what their particular background that's the exercise that you place yourself in this person's life not as a minority interest not as a oh I wonder how they live this is your life for the duration of this book this is your life you live in it the way I lived in your books and that kind of exchange it's important to me and and also I guess you know as a person who feels that a identity is real and also constructed I'm interested in a coalition across a difference you know that's that's the story of my life my family and and partially the story of my country so I I'm trying to make people step into this girl's life as if it were their life that matters to me that takes a real generosity of a reader to write to believe that they will go the full way as opposed to this more sort of objectifying reception or read and one of the things I've been thinking about with both of your work is that novels allow for this multiplicity of characterization like this nuance and that's very present in the both of your work and I as someone who's trained as a journalist I think one of our huge failures at this moment has been creating so much dualistic narration about who people are and who represents a country etc whereas you all are able to to encompass so much nuance and the characters that you're portraying do you feel like is for like the regular people of audience like do we actually have that failure of imagination about other people or is that a representation of journalism do you know what I mean it's like people read your novels and love them and yet then we go out and have all of these like incredibly reductive ideas about each other is that a failure of human nature a fail of journal failure of journalism like I'm just trying to unpack why we seem so bad at nuance in these this moment in particular I think fiction is wonderful obviously but there's it's hard to find a substitute for experience you know and in my experience we're talking backstage about the kind of housing estate or project as you call it that I grew up on was was class-wise United but race was completely mixed so when you live in this kind of coalition space of black people Indian people Pakistani people Irish people it's not that your lives are point four point exactly the same but there are points of connection that you can communicate across and you get used to the idea that perfect alignment doesn't have to exist in order for communication to happen right and that's my assumption what's happening at the moment I think is that unless the alignment is perfect it's considered as if no can happen but it can happen it might be clumsy it might be all could it might be embarrassing it might make you angry sometimes it's still possible right and there are things that you have in common structurally in my case in our housing estate the fact that we were all poor that's that is a coalition in itself so I I think in fiction that becomes much easier to do in life we bristle a little bit know if your story's not my story how can we how can we speak yeah I think what fiction does in part two is that it takes away it takes away this wall so that you're not as as ad was mentioning you're not becoming this kind of voyeur looking at this other person you if the fiction is done well you feel as though you are actually living the experiences of these characters you get to kind of follow their thoughts and feelings and so in a way they become your thoughts and feelings just for that moment that you're reading the book and I think that that exercise of of walking and other people's shoes rather than kind of seeing them watching them but feeling as though you have become them is the thing that when I read that's what I'm that's what I'm looking for right well and especially in the case of homegoing you have such a macro and a micro thing going on because you're getting these generations and these sweeps of history of context but then you're getting these tiny details I mean I can I can bring to mind different characters and these like tiny moments that made me empathize with them whereas a lot of the media we're consuming is so flat and so fast and doesn't contain that kind of macro and micro right so I think part of it is a time thing yeah does that make sense sure yeah and what you said about fast and flat fiction takes forever you know I can say homegoing took me seven years and so I'm I was able to kind of imbue that sense of of macro and micro because I was thinking about it so deeply for so long and I think if if you're writing and reading things very quickly off the cuff you don't always get that that second layer that third layer that fourth layer yeah last year at the summit I got to interview this amazing woman Adrian Marie Brown who's an organ a writer and she said that basically all community organizing is speculative fiction because you have to imagine the world that you're trying to build into and I thought of her when I was reading your work and preparing for this and I just wondered if you'd talk about what you see as the role of the novelist at this really contentious moment where a lot of us are feeling very heartbroken and kind of turning to media turning to different you know activists endeavors but sort of trying to find ourselves and all of this I think for me when I'm the mode I write in is the idea that in those in some ways opposite to a lot of what we've heard well we're here is that my own story is in some ways for me the one I'm least it like when I'm writing my novels I know that sometimes there are characters who seem physically like me or structural in the same position as me but the problem with yourself is that you're you're so subjective about yourself and sometimes I'm the person I see least you know whereas when I wrote white teeth the people I were really engaged with was everybody else right a kind of fascination I loved and a curiosity I think in terms of community organizing that seems to me so essential that of course yourself is important than your identity but what you're there for are these others is trying to understand ask questions what's your life like how does it feel what are you doing that extension away from yourself into other people is what maybe fiction could could model as a kind of citizen citizenship behavior right the idea that yourself is great but it's just the start of a much broader story so the practice of curiosity question of being radically involved in other people's lives and caring about them yeah yeah do you have have thoughts about the novelist role because it's it's interesting you said it takes you seven years like that's a lot of years of being you know sitting in front of a computer and I'm sure their moments of thinking like is this relevant is this you know in these fast-moving times how do you think about your work in context of everything that's going on well I was I was grateful for the for the slowness of writing homegoing because it meant that I was able to kind of the world was changing around me but I was able to kind of understand why the questions that were important to me were questions that do always matter to the wider world and so I was thinking about I was thinking about Ghanaian history I was thinking about American history I was thinking about identity and and some of the things that came up in the book at the time that I was writing it didn't feel particularly relevant to the world that at that moment and yet when the book came out and seemed extremely relevant and so that that understanding that our curiosities are important and I think that's that's something that that that novelists can can be aware of and can kind of help help us see I love that I also feel like both of you I mean curiosity to its most granular form is questions right learn how to ask really good questions stop talking so much right could be a good lesson for all of us right now and and and you talked about that your novel came from a question I know you're just working on your second novel is there a new question at the top of the blank screen these days that's driving you that you can share not as not as direct as with homegoing but it is still it is still driven by questions I think what I'm always attempting to do in my work is to feel as though I'm being deeply interrogative and so if if I I can't name a specific question for the next book but that desire to continue kind of interrogating my own thoughts and my mind is hopefully something that will be apparent on the page can't wait to read it zadie do you have a question at the top of your metaphorical screen these days or a few of them is it sweet I finished just finished a book and it actually has an epigraph which is a question so that's it's it's Frank O'Hara how can a person fail to be I thought there was a really interesting question I mean what ways can you genuinely fail to be human you know act like a human to consider other humans I wouldn't have thought that was possible a while ago but now I realize it is like being human isn't just a thing you're born with that you kind of have to earn it you know it's it's it's actually a a big deal and there's loads of ways you can you can fail to be a full person so I was putting that question to myself you know in what ways do I do I fail every day to honor this thing of the human which to me is kind of a big deal beautiful is that nonfiction or fiction it's stories short stories yes Wow all right well I can't wait to keep reading both of you I feel so grateful for your work and the way you move through the world and let's all keep attempting to earn to be human here in our time together thank you both so much [Applause]

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