Zadie Smith Voices Obama

Zadie Smith recently gave "Speaking in Tongues," the 2008 Robert B. Silvers lecture at The New York Public Library.  After some quickstepping around the dilemma of writers as lecturers, she confesses that when she moved from Willesden (northwest London) to Cambridge University (where she began her astonishing debut novel, White Teeth), a voice-shift seemed necessary to become a "lettered person."  In the first half of the lecture Smith gives voice to both Eliza Doolittle's cockney patter in Pygmalion and 17-year-old Barak Obama's push-back jive as he transcribed it in Dreams From My Father.  She admires Obama's fluency in reproducing a range of other people's voices, from a black old lady on the South Side, to an Englishwoman on safari in Kenya.  In the middle of the lecture Smith delves into the tension between voice and racial authenticity.  She also discusses voice in Shakespeare, and the suppression of religious expression in 16th century England, before bringing the issue of flexible voice and perspective back to the 20th century with an arresting excerpt from a Frank O'Hara poem.  Smith loops it all the way home to November 2008, with an amusing personal anecdote of being torn between celebrating at a "lovely" election night party in New York, and the risk of taking her "silly posh English voice" (hardly!) uptown to a wilder celebration at a reggae bar in Harlem.

"Speaking in Tongues" lasts about an hour, and includes Silvers himself providing a rather gushy introduction.  The podcast is available for free on iTunes from the "Live from The New York Public Library" podlist.  (Search iTunes for "zadie speaking" and it should come up.  Sorry--I haven't been able to generate a direct link to this podcast with the current iTunes Affiliates tool.)

Major Minutes:
Minute 27:  Smith compares Obama's skill with dialogue to James Baldwin's.
Minute 42:  A piercing insight on the expression "talking down to" and race.
Minute 59:  An excerpt from O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings"
1 Hour 2 Minutes:  Smith's avows her novelist's credo: "I believe that flexibility in voice leads to flexibility in all things."
Litagogo PodPith Score:  4.5/5

If you want Zadie Smith's generous account of her novel-writing process, it's available for eyeballs only in a lecture she gave to Columbia University's Writing Program in March 2008. "That Crafty Feeling" (lecture is 100x better than title) was published in the June 2008 issue of The Believer and is available for purchase online.

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