This is the first in a series of interviews with each of the finalists for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. For your chance to win a copy of Swing Time, follow @bookistreader on Twitter and tweet the link to this interview by midnight CST tonight (December 14, 2016) using the hashtag #Carnegie2017giveaway. We’ll announce the winner on December 15 on Twitter. For information about the other ways were celebrating this year’s Carnegie Medal finalists, click here.
Zadie Smith has been touring all over with her splendid new novel, and appearing everywhere from the cover of Bookforum to the pages of The Guardian and The New York Times. Nonetheless, she generously responded to our questions about Swing Time, a finely choreographed novel about two “brown girls” growing up in London, utterly enthralled by dance.
DONNA SEAMAN: Dance is a way of knowing life through one’s body. It is also a heritage that has been passed down through the ages and across all cultures. You contrast dance with more intellectual pursuits as your unnamed narrator goes away to college and her childhood friend Tracey pursues a dancing career. Can you talk about the significance of their diverging paths? It almost feels like an exploration of the body/mind problem.
ZADIE SMITH: I recently heard the wonderful tap dancer Michelle Dorrance describe the history of her art. She talked about the fact that when everything was taken from the slaves, even the drum, all that was left was the body. I think of dance as the art form available to people who have nothing. And then, on another track, like all people of the book, I am always curious about those who find a completely ulterior way to express themselves. It strikes me that people who work and express themselves through their bodies are always aware this is only one form among many. Whereas people of the book very quickly tend to convince themselves that there’s no other way of life. The narrator of Swing Time is a bit like that. She thinks she can solve life by thinking about it.
The narrator, whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is a white Englishman, loves a Fred Astaire dance number in the musical Swing Time, until she suddenly notices that Astaire is in blackface. This stands in contrast to her unalloyed pleasure in the Nicholas Brothers, and her fascination with Jeni LeGon. How did you come across LeGon, and how important was it to pay tribute to her in your novel?
I only heard of her about a year ago, through a Canadian journalist who mentioned her to me. It’s one of the things novel writing involves: making research look like lived experience. I wish I had loved LeGon for years but she’s a recent acquisition.
In yet another inquiry into appropriation, mega-pop star Aimee takes full advantage of her fame, wealth, and white privilege, and decides to build a girls’ school in a West African country. Then, in some warped equation, she coops African dances for her act, and basically buys an African child. We can’t help but view her as an improvisation on a true-life celebrity. Can you share your inspiration for this character?
There’s no one person. Many celebrities have these projects in Africa and some are very useful projects, some less so. I really didn’t intend Aimee to be a mean-spirited portrayal of anybody. My method when I’m writing is often to think of a kind of error and imagine that playing through many different people. It’s easy to say Aimee is wrong in the novel, but she doesn’t seem to me to be any more wrong than the narrator or many other characters. She certainly has more scope in which to perform her error, but that’s not the same is being the greater sinner. It seemed to me that the narrator would have taken that baby just as quickly if she had thought she could get away with it.
The scenes in Africa are so poignant and so barbed. The narrator reports, “They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.” Can you talk about cross-cultural hubris?
That is accurate to my experience. Whenever I am in impoverished places in the world I feel my own incompetence and comparative innocence. The thing about extreme poverty is you have to be so ingenious to survive it: every element of your daily life is about finding a work-around, a fix, a life hack. It amuses me that the very rich in Silicon Valley have appropriated these terms for themselves when it is really the very poor who are the masters of it. To survive on the equivalent of a dollar a day takes all kinds of daily mastery of your circumstance.
I always intend to write a 130-page novella with a straight time line. I never do that. Part of it, I’ve realized over the years, is due to the fact that my characters are from so many different places and situations that I am always effectively dancing around my readers’ prejudices or expectations for them. I feel a compulsive urge to bring context or back story or nuance, and I haven’t yet solved the problem of doing that in a straight clean line. If everyone in your lovely little novella is a white guy on the Upper East Side I can see how the time line can be more focused and direct. The structural messiness of my novels is a sort of bug in them, that I can’t eliminate without losing something else vital. I must want it to some degree. As much as I admire lovely novellas it’s the feel of life I’m trying to get to, with all its messiness!