Broadside 2019 – Zadie Smith

There were moments when I wanted to call out “Stop! Wait! I need to process that!” during the conversation between Jia Tolentino and Zadie Smith at last weekend’s Broadside festival. Their banter was rapid-fire; the topics they were discussing were big and intense ; and it’s taken me a week to reflect on all that was covered.

Zadie got straight into it with, “I’m always thinking a lot about death. And human autonomy, free will. Shit like that.” She was being truthful and funny all at once.

The conversation took off from there, beginning with both Jia and Zadie’s thoughts on the role of technology in our lives (it’s worth noting that Zadie is Gen X and Jia, a Millennial, whose work focuses on the internet’s culture of deception). Zadie spoke at length about the interface between autonomy, freedom and technology – “We are becoming simple machines. Our technology nudges us into simple spaces. ‘Smart’ means we no longer think. The ‘smart’ takes away your autonomy.”  In reference to devices such as Google Home she asked, “If you have something in your house that you treat as a slave, in what ways are you training yourself to be a master? Forget about what that means for the machine, what does that do to you?”

“I hear a lot of people blaming each other but even the blaming feeds the machine. Everything feeds the machine. The casino always wins. The guys at the top are making money off your opinions and your feelings and that’s the core of our despair.”

Both Jia and Zadie grappled with the idea of the individual versus the ‘world’ in terms of the internet. Jia said that “…on an individual level, we’re not meant to communicate to that many people, which the internet enables us to.” Zadie observed that “…the internet has made us more and less free. It has freed so many people in terms of self-expression while simultaneously binding us to common consensus.”

Zadie speculated on the impact of the online world in terms of our self-perception (particularly for teens) –

“Appealing to the ‘other’ for judgement is intense and often horrific… People now go online to ask who they are as a person but there’s nowhere to retreat. It’s more and more difficult to recover.”

Looping back to her initial statements, Zadie said, “There will come a generation that feels no friction in their relationship to technology.”

The conversation inevitably turned to writing, writing habits, and Zadie’s latest book, Grand Union, a collection of short stories. Zadie’s approach is pragmatic – “I don’t really have many theories about writing. Every time you sit down, it’s a new day and it’s a new piece of writing in front of you.” But she was also honest, and revealed the constant feelings of doubt inherent in showing your work – “Whenever I’m writing, I ask myself if it’s good or if I’m deluded. It’s every sentence I write. I compare it to walking into a bar in a certain outfit and wondering if it’s what you want to be wearing.”

My job is about feelings, and having an instinct for what is being felt collectively, which of course is an act of assumption. It’s a risk.

She labelled writing a novel as an ‘act of endurance’, and said, “They get harder as you get older. The world as it is impresses itself on you and your imaginative faculties stiffen. Which is interesting in its own way.” And then added, “I do remember thinking when I was young: why do people write bad novels? I couldn’t understand. It’s not that you mean to write them though, it’s that they happen to you.” Jia laughed and laughed.

Broadside was billed as a feminist festival – Jia and Zadie spoke about feminism throughout their conversation, however a few points stood out. Zadie mentioned the differences in her children (a boy and a girl), “As a feminist, if my daughter requested too many girly things, we didn’t give them to her before we asked ourselves: what are we doing? My son lives outside concepts but my daughter finds herself surrounded by overdetermined ideas about who she is.”

Jia observed, “When you are socialised into traditional feminine identity, you’re told you should always be improving.” Zadie replied, “As women, we’re expected to constantly improve and yet also stay the same… this is the overdetermined femininity that we have to contend with.”

There were some particularly funny moments in the discussion about feminism, especially when Zadie reported that she is constantly surprised by the American aversion to talking about age and ageing – “In America, mentioning that 44 is middle-aged is an insult.”

I’ve always been obsessed with time. What I find weird is that anyone should find that strange. As a child, I used to wonder why no one over 40 was running down the streets yelling – it’s astonishing given the situation we’re in.

Zadie spoke extensively about what it meant to be ‘good’ (and she’s tough on herself) – “It’s unbelievably hard to be good. It’s amazing to me how I’ve written all these novels and tried to learn something, but in my actual practice as a human, I didn’t get anywhere after all that thought and reading. I make the same mistakes.”

She reflected on our inherent desire to live a ‘good’ life but observed that “…the system is designed to make you feel despair – I eat kale / I don’t eat kale.” Zadie then said something that I’m sure I’ll return to over and over –

What makes you happiest is not the constant curation of self, it’s the opposite, it’s the act of giving. But it’s the lesson we refuse to learn.

To end, I joined the insanely long queue to have my copy of Grand Union signed. Zadie and I had a lovely chat (about Melbourne, about white wine, and about how many people were at the event) – nothing about this chat felt hurried or awkward and I walked away with such a warm feeling, about Zadie and the whole day.

(image here because mine was rubbish! And the graphic reporting by the amazing Sarah Firth below)


12 responses

  1. Fascinating Kate. Thanks so much for writing this up. How long did you have to wait in line to get your book signed?

    I’m always interested in discussing technological change – currently the Internet and all associated with it – but my overall opinion is that most changes bring positives and negatives, and that each person needs to think seriously about the technology they are using and how to make it work best for them. Easier said than done of course.

    But, what does this mean: “on an individual level, we’re not meant to communicate to that many people, which the internet enables us to.” Who says what we are “meant” to do? Just because in the beginning we were be pretty much limited to the people around us because we couldn’t travel and didn’t have communications doesn’t mean that that’s how we were “meant” always to be. But this definition we weren’t meant to ride horses, or drive cars, or fly in planes? We also weren’t meant to read books or see movies? Where does what we were “meant” to do start and end?

    • I waited about half and hour and I was in the first third of he queue – lots of eager fans there! (And if she was as gracious to all as she was to me, it was well worth the wait).

      Yes, the ‘meant’ is an interesting point… There were a few moments during the session where I think Jia stopped herself and thought “Is this me?” – Jia has obviously done a lot of thinking about how technology impacts our lives but I do think Zadie was asking questions about that in a way she hadn’t considered before – it was a great conversation.

      • It certainly sounds like it was … and my problem is that if I were there I wouldn’t have thought of the questions to ask that I have the time to think of after reading your write-up. I do wish I could think more quickly.

        The problem is that we so easily get pushed into this is bad and this is good positions whereas my view on life is that that’s rarely the case.

      • Yes, and Zadie referred to the danger of binary thinking with her ‘I eat kale/ I don’t eat kale’ comment – it was funny but very true.

        This session was probably one of the most jam-packed events I’ve been to. Basically every single thing they said was thought-provoking – as I said, I wanted them to slow down so that I could process it all! I think the Wheeler Centre will release a recording of the session – I might have to listen again to check all the bits I missed.

  2. Zadie’s comment “Smart’ means we no longer think” resonated with me. We live in an age where people don’t acquire even basic skills – they just turn to the internet to tell them what to do. How many times do you go into a shop where the sales assistant can’t add up even simple amounts without using the till calculator? Often i’ve done the arithmetic in my hand quicker than they have

    • The technologies are a double-edged sword. Zadie spoke positively about the internet in terms of giving voice to people who may not otherwise have had an opportunity but was clear that for her personally, she didn’t want to be the ‘average’, which was someone who spent a third of their life looking at a screen.

  3. Pingback: #Winding Up the Week #95 – Book Jotter

  4. I’m not sure about technology and smart, though I certainly think people who don’t like arithmetic (or geography) rely too much on their devices. But for people who like thinking, and I count myself as one, technology is liberating. We have a limitless community with which to discuss stuff, we can research to our heart’s content, and people who do like logic and math can still do stuff in their head but also can do so much else, programming new stuff. And I do and that’s how I made my living for years.

    • I’m with you Bill. I am so glad to have access to the smart devices we have today. I would never have “met” you or Lisa or all the other booklovers with whom I communicate on the web without the internet. I do have bookloving friends, here of course, but the breadth and wealth of contributions we get from the blogosphere can’t really be measured.

      And then, of course, there’s TROVE, Wikipedia, the ability to book restaurants, hotels, shows and receive formal confirmation of same, etc, etc.

      Then there’s the photos – I love having digital photos and no longer having to worry about albums proliferating. Of course, we manage our photos – organise and catalogue them so that we can find them when we need. (A big job that has a back log – but so did the print albums!!)

      Zadie’s comment in reference to apps like Google Home – “If you have something in your house that you treat as a slave, in what ways are you training yourself to be a master? Forget about what that means for the machine, what does that do to you?” – is thought provoking, and I’d love so see some research into this. Meanwhile. I’m not inclined to believe that such apps are training me to be a master. I am more likely to wonder whether they are encouraging me to be physically and/or mentally lazy, or whether they are liberating my time and energy for more meaningful or enjoyable things?

    • On the whole, I feel that my life has been enriched by technology however, I (like you) have a ‘before and after’ comparison – what of the kids today who may be ‘lazy’ because everything is at their fingertips? This is a complaint we hear often, and as a parent of teenagers I constantly hear about the dangers of phones but I also think that it’s not going to change. So, if it’s not going to change, how do we make it work for us in a way that’s enriching, fulfilling, kind? I haven’t read Jia’s book but it’s great to see younger people who are thoughtful and articulate, challenging some of the thinking around what’s in place and what the future might look like.

  5. This sounds a fascinating talk, I wonder if I’ll be able to access the recording in the UK? I have a mixed experience of Smith’s writing and unusually for me, I generally prefer her essays to her novels. But I’m interested that she feels her novel writing gets harder as she gets older, as I’ve much preferred her more recent novels to her much-hyped earlier ones. Sounds like it was a really good pairing by the festival organisers and I love the graphic reporting!

Leave a Reply to whisperinggums Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.