"As a writer, I am stealing continually," Zadie Smith said. "I would use the word voyeurism. I am a voyeur. I want to know."
Smith was onstage at the sold-out Colburn School of performing arts in Los Angeles on Monday night, wearing a crimson red head wrap and matching lipstick. She possesses a stage presence as commanding and elegant as a dancer, what she considers "the most intensely pleasurable of the arts" and a central concern — along with cultural appropriation — of her latest novel, "Swing Time."
"The construction of the idea that a culture is delicate and needs utter protection, I find actually quite malignant," she said, expressing a nuanced perspective. "The question of appropriation of white culture doesn't come up. The monolith of it couldn't be hurt by me wearing those Converse," she said, tipping her head toward the shoes of her interlocutor, former Times critic David L. Ulin, to the absolute delight of the audience.
She recalled reading "Madame Bovary" for the first time. "I cannot say it occurred to me to be offended that it had been written by a man. I felt it was a fantastic act of drag … I didn't feel he was appropriating a woman's role."
Ulin engaged Smith in a wide-ranging discussion that included literary technique and the social and political contexts in which literature is written and experienced. Ulin described the novel as a work that "doesn't come to any easy moral judgments," an equally apt description of Smith herself. Smith writes to discover the complexities and ambiguities within her characters. She said that she asks of herself, "In what ways am I wrong too?"
Ulin set the conversation on a broad course, asking Smith to riff on a recurring theme that he's noticed in her novels: the discord between what people assume about one another, and the reality beneath those assumptions — the tension between what we can or cannot know. Smith described the effect of those assumptions as a kind of "double consciousness."
"All of those assumptions that someone has about you for whatever reason — your gender, your race, some small feature of your face — creates a secondary person in you," she said, "How deforming is that?" Smith, however, was quick to offer a deeper examination of the phenomenon, a closer take. As a younger woman, she wished she were free of her double consciousness, "but when I got older, I thought that kind of freedom is its own blindness," she said. She quoted Phillip Larkin's idea of "being the less deceived" as an ethos to emulate.
"That's what I'm aiming for," she said, "I just want to see something clearly."
The evening had begun with Smith reading a passage from "Swing Time" befitting of both the venue and of the present political mood.
"I was told there was no time for dancing, or in a variation that this was not the time for dancing," she read in the voice of her narrator, looking up and over the crowd, "as if the historical moment itself forbade it."
After four acclaimed novels, including the highly acclaimed "White Teeth" and "On Beauty," this book is Smith's first written entirely in the first person. She admitted to a certain unease with the perspective — "even shopping lists are difficult for me" — but that she ultimately found that without the omniscient narrator, she had created "a first person that was a kind of absence." To heighten that feeling, the narrator of "Swing Time" goes unnamed throughout to the novel.
"To me that's a more interesting arrangement," she said. "To discover who you are through what you do."
"People are in each other's skin more than they might admit," Smith said, adding that the acknowledgement and embodiment and experience of that essential connection is "the revelation of fiction."
The crowd was largely young, diverse and dressed for an evening out. Miranda July and Carrie Brownstein sat together in the second row. While waiting to have their books signed, sisters Fatima and Dara Hyacinthe, who, according to Fatima, "both really love to read," discussed their favorite moments of the evening. "I've never thought of appropriation from a writing standpoint," said Dara.
For Smith, fielding the broad assumptions of others — as well as her own — is one of the driving forces of her work as a writer and as a human being. From the lit stage she told her readers, "It's this kind of dance you have to do."