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.