Zadie Smith held the Chapel audience captivated throughout the 2015 Tolles Lecture. Attendees hung onto her every word as she read what she called “Two Essays About Being A Person.” Smith, an English novelist and tenured professor of creative writing, has written four novels and many essays published in The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review in addition to other projects. She completed her first novel, the best-selling and critically-acclaimed White Teeth when she was in her final year at Cambridge University.
Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Benjamin Widiss introduced Smith, praising her work which he said “exploded like fireworks, crackling, dazzling and beautiful.” He said that Smith “pronounced herself unable to read her previous work,” but nonetheless he read the audience the first three sentences of White Teeth.
After thanking Widiss for his introduction, Smith did not waste any time before beginning to read. In the first essay, “The Bathroom” she discussed what she called her “lower-middle-class” upbringing in England, her childhood home, raising children and the emotional violence inherent to family life.
She began by describing her family’s move from council estates (the equivalent of housing projects, she said) to a house which “from the front looked like a whole house and inside felt like one.” With sure and sweeping observations, exceptionally sharp jokes and vivid imagery, Smith discussed the complexity of class and family. “Having non-essential spaces like a spare room and extra toilet represented to my parents a uniquely British sense of achievement,” she said. Much of the essay dealt with the sacrifices her parents made for her.
Describing what she called the “retrospective swirl” of parenting, Smith compared her experiences raising her own children to those of her parents. Her mother filled the bathroom of Smith’s childhood home with verdant plants and it wasn’t until Smith was an adult, she said, that she realized that might have been because her mother was homesick for her native Jamaica. Her father, who once dreamt of being a photographer, used the bathroom as a dark room to develop family pictures of Smith and her brothers. He had given up his dream for her family, a fact which Smith said she had “nothing but contempt for even as I benefited from it.” Calling every family home, to an extent, emotionally violent, the first essay Smith read explored the losses and sacrifices in the fibers of every family.
The second essay Smith read, titled “Meet Justin Bieber,” compared the pop sensation to twentieth century German philosopher Martin Buber. Buber proposed that the world includes relationships between the “I” and the “it,” that is, the world of “things,” and the “I” and the “thou,” or genuine meetings between beings. Smith used Bieber to explore Buber’s ideas in the context of twenty-first century fame and one-sided relationships. Even for the non-Biebers of the world, she said, actual “I-thou” relationships are exceptionally rare. Smith managed to provide a clear yet concise understanding of Buber’s foundational argument, parse lyrics from Bieber’s song “Boyfriend” with a straight face, and make larger points about the depth and meaning of human relationships.
At the beginning of her lecture, Smith said she’d originally planned to read three essays but decided on only two when she realized she would run over time. Based on the rapt attention, laughter and engagement of the audience, attendees would have happily listened to a third.
Before the reception and book signing, Smith answered a few questions from the audience. When asked about the differences between writing about race in the United States versus the United Kingdom, she attributed the fundamental differences to the fact that America is much more segregated, both racially and economically. When asked why she thinks that is, Smith said, “What a long, historical answer that would be. I could go into slavery, the absence of a protective state and so on. I write about the space I grew up in. Our housing projects [in the UK] tend to be united in their poverty but made up of different races, and that is not the case here.”
The final question posed to her concerned the differences between an essay and other forms of writing. Smith said that whereas a newspaper column, for example, conveys a specific point and directive, her essays are “attempts at, or movements towards something. In my essays, I am saying, ‘I have felt this, do you feel this?’”