Voor Vogue interviewde ik Zadie Smith. De Brits-Jamaicaanse schrijver wordt wereldwijd bejubeld om haar romans, waarvan onlangs de vijfde verscheen: Swing Time, een wervelend verhaal over dansen, roem, talent en vrouwenvriendschap. Zadie (die om dubieuze reden ‘Zadie’ wordt genoemd en geen ‘Smith’) wordt ook geroemd om haar stijl en uiterlijk. Als een van de weinige schrijvers wordt ze uitgenodigd voor het Met Ball en fashion week en heeft ze een soort coolfactor die ook buiten de literaire wereld een ster van haar maakt.
Nu moet ik zeggen, nadat ik een uur lang tegenover haar mocht zitten in de bibliotheek van het Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam: ze is ook adembenemend mooi. Niet op een gepolijste Hollywood-manier, maar op een intrigerende, ongrijpbare manier die alles te maken heeft met hoe ze praat (kalm, zonder ehs en ahs, op een lage, ritmische toon die haar verleden als jazz-zangeres verklaart), hoe ze kijkt (afwachtend, afwijzend, veelal afgewend – deze vrouw heeft niets van het please-gedrag waar zo veel vrouwen last van hebben), en vooral wat ze zegt (intelligente bespiegelingen waar ze geen seconde over hoeft na te denken, alsof haar hoofd vol zit met laatjes die ze allemaal kan opentrekken om over willekeurig welk onderwerp een antwoord te geven dat lang en zinnig is als een essay).
Ik praatte met haar over Trump (‘If he wasn’t president of the US, I’d feel such pity for him. I can’t help it. To be that person must be extraordinary painful, at a daily level’), het leven (‘It’s amazing how hard it is to live. That’s the surprise I guess. That life is so hard at the daily level, even with every advantage’), mode (‘Fashion ate the world. It used to be a side issue, but because everything is image now, it has kind of eaten everything else. So even people with great talents in other areas – like Kanye West, he’s a genius at music making, but his greatest aspiration is to design clothes. I’m not going to have a clothing line, don’t worry. Not interested’) en haar angst voor oorlog (‘I don’t see how it’s avoidable. I don’t see why our generation should think that we would gonna get away without war. What did we think was gonna happen here? Are we just gonna live in peace until our old days? It has been war, for the past fifteen years. Not on the ground here, but everywhere else. It’s war. To me, it feels like war’).
Ze had ook interessante bespiegelingen over meisjes, schoonheid en vrouw zijn. Die kon ik niet kwijt in mijn interview, daarom hier desbetreffend fragment uit het gesprek dat ik met haar had (in het Engels).
Women are in some sense decorative and just being, while men are taking action. That for me is the problematic part of feminine life
In an interview with your friend Jeffrey Eugenides in The New York Times, you said that as a child you found it hard work to be a girl. I was wondering: what does that mean to you, being a girl?
‘Well, it’s not that I don’t enjoy being a woman. But the feminine category is really more about being than doing, and for me that was a kind of frustrating place to be. And I also see, with my children: when people speak to children, they speak different to boys than to girls. They don’t even know they’re doing it. Women mostly do it, when a little girl walks into a room, the first thing everybody says: how lovely she looks and how pretty she is. With boys, they’re much more likely to say: oh look him running, or he’s got so much energy. It starts very early, this kind of gendered consciousness, where women are in some sense decorative and just being while men are taking action. That for me is the problematic part of feminine life.’
What does femininity mean to you?
‘I would call myself womanish*, like Alice Walker. Femininity to me is a passive value about appearance, appearing a certain way in order to – and to be feminine is to be delicate, complimentary, all these things that I am not.’
Do you think that this conditioning is changing?
‘Maybe I’m wrong, but from a kind of high point in the early nineties, it seems to me that young women are very dedicated to this idea of femininity. In a way that my generation was not. They’re really committed to this idea of their femininity. They’re a kind of Kardashian-girls with the way they take selfies of themselves in their underwear. That was inconceivable for girls of my generation. I don’t even know what’s the point. If you post a picture like that – I honestly don’t know what the meaning is. Is the meaning just… look at me in my underwear? Really, is that it? Or is it meant to be impairing because you consider yourself beautiful? Really, it’s lost on me.’
Could it be that women tend to internalize the view others have of them?
‘Right. But I don’t think it can be a happy morning when you wake up and think: I’ve just got some underwear on and I’m gonna send that to 4 million people. I don’t think you’re happy on that day, are you? It must be quite of a sad day. Often their faces are like – they look really lost when they take their picture. It seems to me slightly self-harming. It’s the kind of thing that when I was young, was something from a nightmare. Like you have a nightmare and there’s a picture of you naked that goes to the whole school. Now it’s like something they choose to do for themselves. So for me it’s a very peculiar time. I don’t have any relation to it.’
Could it also have to do with being brought up in an era of smartphones?
‘For sure. Most of my generation feel a bit distant from it, I think. I also feel a bit sad, because it you commit of that idea of beauty, it’s gonna be such a hard life. Cause then you have to be 30 and 40 and 50 and 60 and 70. I do get a strong sense of these girls that they don’t really believe that they’re gonna get any older. They think maybe of it as vague. But you don’t put tattoos all over your body without having a profound inability to imagine what that body will look like at 55, 65, 75. Good luck to them, but it seems like a tough road.’
Is beauty a subject for you?
‘I don’t think I’m remotely pretty. I’m a kind of handsome person one way or another, so that’s – yeah, I enjoy, I’ve always liked my face, I don’t have any objection to it. But I’ve always been ready to age. Aging has always been very obvious to me. That I’m gonna age. Maybe I’m already prepared for it. I know it’s coming. If you talk to writers, they always think they’d be very happy in prison. They have this delusion that – well, I just like reading and writing, and if I were in prison, I’ll just read and write all day long. I think it’s the same with writers and aging – they assume, well, my life is eternal, so what does it matter. But I’m sure it will be painful, it always is. But hopefully, it won’t be everything. I’m in a very good business to be old in. The older you get, the better you get. And this is a great industry to be an old lady in. I think so. I mean, it’s never easy to be an old lady, but being an old lady writer is not such a bad deal.’
*Womanish represents an attitude or orientation toward life of strong-willed, opinionated self-confidence. The form ‘womanist’ identifies someone with a respect for, an appreciation of, and a reliance upon the capabilities of women. (Bron: Greenwood Press)