Zadie Smith Talks About NW in London

"I wrote it [NW] almost entirely in a library in Manhattan."--Zadie Smith

In terms of language and dialogue Zadie Smith's NW is one of the most alive novels I've read this year. As I wrote in my review of NW for Shelf Awareness, "One does not read NW so much as eavesdrop on it."

NW is brainy and philosophical and also entirely accessible--no fancy words, just life transcribed through an intelligence that notices all the intersections among class, race, turf and ambition for a collection of modern Brits who grew up in the North West (NW) postal district of London. There is heart also, particularly in the middle Felix section, which travels all the way south to Soho (W1) and arcs like a mini-Ulysses between the Leah and Natalie/Keisha sections.

Because Smith's style in NW is idiosyncratically Woolfian you have to pay attention to who's speaking or thinking, but it's not that difficult. A moderate tolerance for non-standard typography and chapter length is also helpful, but that's all you need to be immersed in NW's multi-charactered world.

I've been listening to Zadie Smith podcasts both new and old to find something to recommend as an accompaniment to NW. One thing I discovered is that Smith is far more comfortable talking to fellow writers than to journalists. She is also staggeringly polite to journalists who ask ham-fisted questions about race and novels.

Never mind, all you need to scratch your itch for live Smith is to listen to her in conversation with Nikesh Shukla on his "Subaltern" podcast from September 2012. (Here's the iTunes link to Zadie Smith on the Subaltern podcast.) The podcast is only 30 minutes long but it's incredibly satisfying, quick without being "lite," relaxed yet jammed with interesting stuff. Smith reveals how she arrived at the relative spareness of NW after attempting to write a 120-page version (!), muses on mature existentialism, riffs amusingly on the difference between being edited by magazine and newspaper editors in the UK ("random") vs. the U.S. ("relentless"), admires the multiplicity of James Baldwin's perspective, rues the challenge of writing realism in the digital age (Tao Lin), chats about the experience of doing a profile of Jay-Z for The New York Times, and hints at what she might write next.

P.S. For the completist, Guernica Magazine has posted a video of Smith in conversation with Nathan Englander in 2010 at a fundraiser for the Dadaab Young Women's Scholarship Initiative, in which Smith's comments on writing and identity seem to point to NW. 

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