Writers & Company

Zadie Smith's latest book, Intimations, reflects deeply on isolation and injustice

The bestselling English author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing a personal essay collection that examines our current time of isolation. 
Zadie Smith is the critically acclaimed and bestselling author of many novels. (Brian Dowling/Getty Images)

Written during the early months of lockdown, Zadie Smith's new book, Intimations, is an insightful and moving essay collection exploring questions prompted by this time of isolation. 

In six deftly crafted and illuminating essays, Smith thinks about life during the pandemic and about the worldwide response to anti-Black racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in June. The essays also explore the bonds of community, the role of the writer and the very nature of creativity, empathy and contempt. 

The work was inspired by Meditations, a book of personal writings by the ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Smith read it while under quarantine with her family in London, where she lives part-time when she's not teaching at New York University in New York City.  

Smith is the critically acclaimed and bestselling author of many novels, including White Teeth and Swing Time, and the recent short story collection, Grand Union. Her essays about contemporary life and art appear regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and have been published in two previous collections: Feel Free and Changing My Mind

She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from her home in London. 

A modern day stoic

"What inspired me about Marcus Aurelius was the sense of speaking the truth, writing the truth because you have no expectation of an audience. That's how I was trying to write this book.

"The manner of his full accounting — it's hard to describe if you haven't read it — but there's nothing self-indulgent about the way he discusses himself. He's almost seeing himself entirely from the outside as a stranger would, trying to understand what he is capable of, what he is not capable of and how he reacts in various situations.

What inspired me about Marcus Aurelius was the sense of speaking the truth, writing the truth because you have no expectation of an audience. That's how I was trying to write this book.

"It's quite a controlled narrative. I suppose at the moment I was writing, I was feeling a little bit desperate and entirely out of control like everybody. It was a way of controlling the narrative, even in my own mind." 

A 2005 photo of the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in a wing of the Musei Capitolini in Rome. (Giulio Napolitano/AFP via Getty Images)

What we've lost

"There's a book called Photocopies by John Berger. It just happened to be one of the books that was around me during the early months of the pandemic. 

"It's portraits of people that John has come across in different situations. What struck me about it — and it reminded me of Orwell, which I was reading at the same time — is that if you want a revolution and if you're interested in justice for people, you have to have some conception of people.

I wanted to record some people, just for my own pleasure and clarity, to know what it was that we were losing. Because what we were losing in those early months, was other people.

"That may sound like the most obvious and dull thing to say, but it struck me. Sometimes when I'm reading people who consider themselves activists, they consider people rhetorically, statistically and as symbols. There's an impatience with people themselves.

"I wanted to record some people, just for my own pleasure and clarity, to know what it was that we were losing. Because what we were losing in those early months, was other people." 

A course of action

"There's far too much mystification and nonsense written about art making in general. At the same time, the element of compulsion in it is usually set in childhood; there's not much you can do about it once it's been structured that way. 

It was one of the purest writing experiences of my life because I kind of knew why I was doing it.

"I find that compulsion in myself — because it's me and I have to live with myself — a little bit exhausting. Particularly in times of extremity, it's the uselessness of it that struck me. When I was writing at home, I was emailing friends and talking to people in New York and London who were activists and who were involved and out there. 

"It's just not action, writing. For me, once I realized that if I published it, that would be an action. I could make money [and donate the royalties to charity] — I could do something direct. 

"That motivated the rest of the collection. It was one of the purest writing experiences of my life because I kind of knew why I was doing it." 

Action and activism

"There is a tendency these days for everybody to feel and to express themselves as if they were activists. But I have a lot of respect for the word. I grew up around them. My mother was involved with a lot of activism. I know the difference and I know what I'm not. Then the question becomes, what can you do? It's that question of activity: what is in your human capacity to do? What is it that comes to you naturally and usefully and productively? 

There is a tendency these days for everybody to feel and to express themselves as if they were activists. But I have a lot of respect for the word.

"I don't see a great difference between writing and making a home beautiful or the man who gardens or the woman who designs houses. Whatever it is, that kind of commitment to an act, I don't see the great difference. I see things that are more active and more productive in the world. I see what I do, which I consider to be less active and less productive. 

"But the impulse behind it — to do something with time to make it meaningful, to make something that is meaningful to others —  I think many people have that instinct. Most people, in fact."

In 2020, Britain's NHS workers wait in their cars to be tested for COVID-19 at a drive-in facility in the borough of Brent in London. (Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)

Perspectives on a pandemic

"The London borough I live in — Brent — has the highest level of COVID-19 death in England. It's a strange experience. I went from New York and then to London, to this local emergency. You learn so much about the influence of secondary images and media images on reality. Of course we understand that our consciousness is shaped by these secondary images. But when you move from America to England, confronting what appears to be the same urgency, the response is entirely different in many different ways.

But when you move from America to England, confronting what appears to be the same urgency, the response is entirely different in many different ways.

"It took us a while, about a month of watching the television, to understand that even the language was different. In England, people spoke about shielding their older relatives or their older friends, which then had a completely different metaphorical consequence in terms of how you behave in the world.

"It's fascinating. Those little differences of language, of imagery, of concept created a whole different series of actions. Even though supposedly the threat is the same in both places, that was almost too complicated to write about. But it's like whiplash: to go from one place where every soul you can see has a mask in every situation and then to London, particularly to this borough where so many people have died and a mask is a rare sight.

"In New York, you had the sense that the danger is directly to each person, it faces each person directly. And so you are the barrier between disease and yourself. In England, shielding was a kind of third term. People would go out in the world, feeling that they were fine and getting stuff to protect the shielded person — but that the language didn't connect in their minds that they should also be shielded as they were out in the world.

"It's incredibly powerful, this language. What it reveals to us, more generally outside of emergencies, is the extraordinary power of language to form reality — not to describe it, to actually create it."

Zadie Smith's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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