Adolescence, Identity, and Storytelling: Zadie Smith Preaches to the Choir

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Zadie Smith, in her Wednesday lecture titled “Why Write?,” acknowledged from the outset that taking on the identity of a writer can be demoralizing to the extreme. Writers, once they declare themselves to be so, must deal with feelings of “pointlessness, redundancy, and absurdity.” She  said the declaring one’s writer-hood can feel as outdated as, “I like gas lamps” or “I’m a town crier.” However, as the award-winning author went on to prove, the possession of an identity, however problematic or obsolete, is invaluable in itself.

Smith, a current professor of Creative Writing at New York University, is best known for her expansive, colorful first novel, White Teeth. She has since published multiple short stories, a collection of non-fiction Changing My Mind, and three other novels: The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and this year, NW. A common theme in her work is a sense of impersonality in her characters. Everyone, especially her teenage characters, is mired in their private searches for self. In On Beauty, Zora, a precocious college student, exemplifies this struggle:

“She found it difficult, this thing of being alone, awaiting the arrival of a group […] In fact, when she was not in company, it didn’t seem to her that she had a face at all […] Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea. It was either only Zora who experienced this odd impersonality or it was everybody, and they were all play-acting, as she was. She presumed that this was the revelation college would bring her, at some point. In the meantime, waiting like this, waiting to be come upon by real people, she felt herself to be light, existentially light […] she had brought along, in her knapsack, three novels and a short tract by De Beauvoir on ambiguity–so much ballast to stop her floating away, up and over the flood, into the night sky.

In  White Teeth, Irie, another teenager, tries to discover who she is by learning about her family history. “She laid claim to the past – her version of the past – aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond,” writes Smith.

Clearly, Smith has a fascination with the self, and by focusing on the soul-searching years of growing up, she is able to explore how we craft personas. One answer suggested both in her fiction and in Wednesday’s lecture is storytelling and narrative. Just as Zora is held together by the books in her bag, and Irie by the story of her past, Smith posits that writing and reading are ways to explore different identities, to help counter the “radical ambiguity […] at the center of human existence.”

Smith points out that the problem of the “de-centered self” is now not only a literary or philosophical fascination, but one under investigation in the sciences as well. Philosophy, however, has long dealt with the connections between narrative and self. In his Poetics, Aristotle described the catharsis, or purgation of pity and fear, that comes with narrative. Hume, in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding,” describes the association of ideas that form a narrative structure that helps us make sense of the world and, one could extrapolate, our selves. In his essay “Man Has No Nature,” Jose Ortega y Gasset writes that “It is too often forgotten that man is impossible with imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to ‘ideate’ the character he is going to be. Whether he is original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself.”

Smith, as a novelist, is very aware of her capacity to write herself. She feels that writing allows her self-determination and self-exploration. When she writes, Smith says, “I can be everyone.” She quotes Gregor von Rezzori, author of  Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, to echo the sentiment. “I expect writing,” he said, “[…] is an attempt to find an identity […] the search for the voice […] the secret of transformation, living many lives in one life.” So perhaps that loaded statement, “I am writer,” that silly and sometimes sad sentence, represents more than a singular identity. It represents the ability to assume infinite guises at will.

The same self-exploration through narrative goes for readers, in addition to writers. Smith hopes to provide the self-understanding to her readers through exploration of different personas. She feels that fiction should be “less of an epic boast” and “more of a kind of query,” posing questions, often of identity, through characters, questions that will resonate and perhaps lead readers towards greater understanding. Some of these questions, Smith says, include “I’m in this relation to myself…are you?” and “I’m wondering whether I exist at all, are you?”

Teenagers characters are the perfect agents for these questions, she explained in her question and answer session, because they are naturally philosophical, more aware of a disconnect within themselves. This feeling, this uncertainty can be heightened when one is alone for long periods of time, she says. It is scary and startling, and fiction should tell the truth about it. Fiction, she thinks, shouldn’t comfort us, convincing us that we are “whole, wonderful” people. We are fractured and confused, as Smith’s novels tell us. But they also let us live through a variety of other fractured, confused people. And sometimes this can make us whole.

Smith believes that, as George Orwell said, we write because of a “desire to see things as they are.” And things – especially people – are messy and unformed. “Seeing clearly does not mean seeing singularly,” she said. Writers have “a duty to complicate that narrative, to render the world in all its complicated variety.” And so Smith does with her question-filled characters, many on the dark brink of adulthood, whose queries and complexity make us examine our own.

Photos by Ellen Sanchez-Huerta/The Daily Gazette.

Correction: Zadie Smith’s non-fiction collection is titled Changing My Mind, not How to Be Alone. This article has been changed to reflect this.

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