Zadie Smith: On Optimism and Despair

Add to RSS feed
Facebook
Twitter
Follow by Email
Google+
http://laurietobyedison.com/body-impolitic-blog/?category_name=politics">
Pinterest

Laurie and Debbie say:

On November 10, two days after the U.S. election, author Zadie Smith  gave a speech in Berlin, accepting the 2016 Welt Literaturpreis. With less than 48 hours to take in the news, Smith’s speech offers important insights and clear direction. Read the whole thing. Read it more than once.

President Trump rises in the west, a united Europe drops below the horizon on the other side of the ocean—but here we still are, giving a literary prize, receiving one. So many more important things were rendered absurd by the events of November 8 that I hesitate to include my own writing in the list, and only mention it now because the most frequent question I’m asked about my work these days seems to me to have some bearing on the situation at hand.

The question is: “In your earlier novels you sounded so optimistic, but now your books are tinged with despair. Is this fair to say?”

… Sometimes it is put far more explicitly, like so: “You were such a champion of ‘multiculturalism.’ Can you admit now that it has failed?” When I hear these questions I am reminded that to have grown up in a homogeneous culture in a corner of rural England, say, or France, or Poland, during the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, is to think of oneself as having been simply alive in the world, untroubled by history, whereas to have been raised in London during the same period, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.

Smith’s first key point is invaluable. As she says so perfectly, some people and some experiences are presumed to be normal and therefore implicitly always successful, while others, just as common if not more so, are constantly judged and frequently declared as failures. And yet, the mixed, pluralistic worlds that Smith describes are home to so many of us and our satisfying, sometimes difficult, complex lives.

She goes on to point out one of the key failures of the oversimplified belief that people who come from one place think alike:

My best friend during my youth—now my husband—is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes, and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government, and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

This point is impossible to argue with.

Having clearly situated us in a world where people are too complex to be categorized by either how they look or who they fight with, she goes on to give us a place to stand:

I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to a twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one. …

If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done—or more to the point, what would have been done to me—in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

And finally, she pulls us back from both the divisions among us and the history which makes those divisions so real … back into our complex selves:

If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

Read the whole thing. Read it more than once.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Work for Today’s World

Add to RSS feed
Facebook
Twitter
Follow by Email
Google+
http://laurietobyedison.com/body-impolitic-blog/?category_name=politics">
Pinterest

Debbie says:

Events in the progressive world have changed since November 8. I spent the last few days in Eugene, Oregon, at the 2nd Annual James Tiptree Jr. Symposium. The results of the election were present everywhere:  in comments on the panels, in discussions in the halls, in the way everyone was so hungry  to see and hug old friends, to make real connections with new acquaintances. “How are you doing?” is a different question now than it was early last month. I hugged a friendly acquaintance and heard myself saying, “Can I just keep hugging you forever?” and she said “Yes!”

Photo by Joyce Scrivner
Photo by Joyce Scrivner

The Symposium is in Eugene, Oregon, where the University of Oregon houses one of the best feminist science fiction archives imaginable, including the papers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Suzy McKee Charnas, and more. Last year, the symposium honored James Tiptree, Jr.; this year, the focus was Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Symposium was a fine celebration of Le Guin’s life and work — and then it was more. The first day hosted two panels (one by students in a feminist science fiction class) and a beautiful, very politically aware keynote by Karen Joy Fowler, who struck a note of moving away from centering the individual in plot and politics. Ursula Le Guin was there and participating from the audience, and we all had a thoroughly satisfying, thought-provoking day.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 1.

Saturday brought an extraordinary sea change in the programming. The morning began with a panel in which three transgender academics and artists, in a panel organized brilliantly by Alexis Lothian, discussed The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s late-1960s novel exploring what happens on a planet largely without gender.

Tuesday Smillie, “art to think about how to move ahead, find ways, imagine futures when there is no clear path, no shadows to help us see,”
Aren Aizura, whose deeply embodied talk included “Structural change is up to us – and LeGuin’s book reminds me to put the care of bodies at the forefront of struggle and
micha cárdenas “”I worry that calling LEFT HAND trans feminist may continue the tradition making trans women invisible.”

All three panelists did an absolutely amazing job of simultaneously holding up the novel as a gift to them (and all of us) while critiquing the ways it fell and falls short of its stated purpose. In this process, they showed us their art, revealed their lives, and modeled the intersection of political rage, artistic integrity, and the ability to move past human failings.

Before we could all breathe after that, we were thrown into a panel (curated by Joan Haran), using Le Guin’s anarchist “ambiguous utopia,” The Dispossessed to talk about activism.

Grace Dillon, of the Inishinaabe people, gave us insight into her tribe’s open-hearted, communitarian  ways of making change. Inishinaabe communities are open to non-tribal people, and also include plant people and rock people (and not all rock people take the inanimate language construction).

adrienne maree brown, a Detroit activist and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (with Walidah Imarisha) drew heartening connections between activism and joy, positing a world in which justice is associated with pleasure.

Both Dillon and brown continued Karen Joy Fowler’s theme of decentering the individual and honoring group action.

The afternoon of the second day featured two excellent, memorable presentations, one by Kelly Sue DeConnick and one by Brian Attebery. Nonetheless, the voices of the morning lifted the symposium experience out of “really really fine tribute to one of the world’s great writers” into “thoughtful, realistic, forward-looking grappling with the questions of today in the context of work by one of the world’s great writers.” The only disappointment was that Ursula Le Guin could only attend one day, and thus was not there to hear these presentations.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 2.

Embodiment was a surprisingly (to me) recurring theme in both days of the symposium. A number of panelists and presenters noted how much Le Guin’s work is very grounded in the physical, and the geographic; perhaps that’s why it calls on the body more than other fiction.

The University is likely to post the audio transcripts in a month or so; I’ll put links here. Special thanks to Linda Long of the University of Oregon libraries, who did so much work putting the symposium together.