Novelists Édouard Louis and Zadie Smith on writing in a distracting political present

Listening to the novelists Édouard Louis and Zadie Smith in conversation inspires a kind of hushed glee, a bliss familiar to eavesdroppers who encounter sublime discourse. For the pair, casual profundity is, quite simply, the natural fluency they use to engage their given environments. Smith’s fluency is at the core of a literary influence and celebrity in her adopted home of the United States, as well as in her native United Kingdom. Feel Free, a new collection of her essays released this past January, is the latest proximity from which we can marvel at her fluid surveys of hypermodernity. There has always been a reclined ease about Smith’s range of interests, the expert mark she leaves on these subjects, and in her ability to work a crowded room (they always are now), unreluctant to deprecate publicly—even in her politics (proudly leftist), never allowing the degradations of capitalism slip far from the horizon of any given train of thought.

These latter tendencies of Smith’s are also a natural entrance for the vim and vigor of 25-year-old Louis (not to mention he was practically the same age as Smith, 24, when his debut novel, The End of Eddy, bestowed upon him a similar literary sainthood as her debut, White Teeth). Presaging this powerful entrance, Louis first made waves with his Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive, published on the front page of France’s Le Monde in 2015. Calling for an end to serious appraisals of right-wing ideals of any stripe, Louis has never been shy about his vision to “bring the Left to life” by recapturing cultural spaces with antiracist and anticapitalist intellectual and artistic works; a promise he’s certain to fulfill with his second novel, History of Violence, published this spring. It’s an unblinking narrative of Louis’s firsthand experience with rape and sexual trauma. Much as with Smith, the autobiographical informs all of Louis’s work, a perspective first honed in The End of Eddy, a tale of his journey from a hostile family life in the French village of his birth to a prestigious boarding school for the arts. It is here, the personal, from which Louis and Smith frequently set forth to tackle the trauma of the present and the past, to point out the possibilities and latent energies of uncompromised political ideals.

Nathan Taylor Pemberton—To me, one of the clearest through lines in your respective work is the focus on provenance—a sense of place, one’s beginnings, and how that history drags along with you into the present. Why, for both of you, does this preoccupation inform your stories, essays, and your perspectives in a time when provenance seems outmoded, when our origin stories seem like such small things in the world of thought and literature without borders?

Zadie Smith—I’m always aware of the risk of being very boring, of being the ancient mariner talking about a particular place, a particular time. [Laughs] You can think of the careers of someone like Philip Roth, with his preoccupation, and obsession, with Newark. I don’t find it offensive in a writer. I think it’s one of the things writers do. A certain kind of writer is preoccupied with locality. It can be strange and feel strange in this delocalized, globalized world. You can feel like a reject or something from a different era, for sure.

Édouard Louis—It’s precisely by writing from a localized place that you are able to understand anything, even your own self. There isn’t a border between the localized story or the universal story, it doesn’t really exist. I remember when I met Toni Morrison, she asked me, ‘Why is a gay white boy born in France in the ’90s interested in a straight black woman born in the ’30s?’ I told her, ‘That’s precisely the point.’ It is because our experiences are so different that I was able to feel things in her work about domination, about exclusion, about a certain thing I experienced as a gay boy from the working class. It’s because it’s so different. It’s like when you are in a plane, and because you’re so far from earth, you are able to see the structure.

Zadie—That’s the important thing!

Édouard—It’s because you have some distance. Every single story is localized, anyway. There is no life more universal than another life. To believe so is just an effect of domination. I remember, one day I was on the radio talking about my book The End of Eddy, which portrays my childhood in a poor, gray desperate former factory town, and a journalist asked, ‘But what would Édouard Louis have written if he had grown up in a wealthy family and if he had spent his childhood sewing while he sat on his mother’s knees?’ She was making a reference to Proust, who grew up in a rich family and who mentioned somewhere about sewing on his mother’s knees. She would have never said, ‘What would Proust have written if he had grown up in a poor family with a factory worker father and an alcoholic brother?’ You see? When you talk about certain lives—the lives of people subjected to domination—you have to justify why you do it. You have to give explanations, as if these lives where less universal. People ask Toni Morrison, ‘Why did you decide to write about back slaves?’ They never ask a white person from the bourgeoisie, ‘Why did you decide to write about the white bourgeoisie?’ Anyway, I’m happy to read about Proust’s localized stories about the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie because it makes me understand certain things about my experience, even if I do so by measuring the distance between my childhood and his childhood.

“That was the argument of equality: ‘Don’t worry, we’re all the same on the inside.’ That’s not true at all. In a million ways we’re all incredibly different on the inside.”

Zadie—I was reading a book yesterday about a friend of James Baldwin, a black woman, a writer and chef in the ’70s, living here in New York, and she’s talking about the scene here in the Greenwich Village of the ’70s. One of the things she notices is Maya Angelou, who is hanging with this crowd, was married to a white, working-class, British bricklayer. Her friends in the Village were horrified. They couldn’t understand this alignment she’d made between the African-American experience and the working-class, white bricklayer. With this couple, who were wildly in love, there was a structural alignment of their experiences. Their every single detail, in terms of narrative, would seem separate, yet there was a structural alignment in terms of power. I feel that all the time. Particularly when I was reading African-American writers in England. Even if we’re superficially connected by race or skin color, our experiences are entirely different, but the structural experience felt similar. I felt this attachment.

Édouard—Absolutely, I feel exactly the same way.

Zadie—I try to be sympathetic with the idea that if you’ve lived under a certain power system then it becomes invisible to you. I had an argument recently with a very close white friend who had been offended by a discussion in The New York Times by a black woman. This woman had found it important to say she was a black woman. My white friend was offended by it and believed that this person was somehow limiting themselves, that they should aspire to a certain neutrality in the way they describe themselves: a writer, not a black writer. A woman, not a black woman, etc. I could not move my friend from the idea that blackness, or any other kind of identity apart from white identity—which for them is not an identity at all—is a narrowing of vision. It was impossible for this person to identify themselves with whiteness, to recognize whiteness as an identity at all. He was just a human. And when you’re writing you’re aware of the view that there is no such thing as straight writing, there is no such thing as white writing, but the sad thing for the writer that has awareness is that you’re always writing to the person who doesn’t think these things exist. I always resent it because I know I’m doing it. I’m trying to change somebody’s mind. It’s what Morrison says. It’s a distraction. I don’t want to be bothered by anybody’s mind. I want to follow my own thoughts.

Nathan—How do both of you navigate what seems like a culture-wide return to essentialism—the argument that black trauma can only be discussed by black writers, or that LGBTQ writers should only discuss matters of sexuality, and so forth?

Zadie—I don’t think it’s the worst crime. I think in times of war, which is what this time is, people react defensively; that doesn’t surprise me. But I don’t think it’s ideal. Édouard, what do you think?

Novelists Édouard Louis and Zadie Smith on writing in a distracting political present

Sweater by Dior Homme.

Édouard—Of course, when you experience any kind of domination—as a gay person, a trans person, a black person, or as a woman—one is able to understand and see things that other people don’t see. But for me, when I arrived in the U.S.A. last year, when I was living in New York City and first met Zadie, I discovered all these debates about cultural appropriation. I was very surprised because this debate actually didn’t exist at all in France. I didn’t understand that. For me, there is a fundamental right for people not to carry their own story or the pain that they did not choose. It was essential in my second novel, The History of Violence, which deals mostly with rape, particularly with the rape that I endured. After I experienced that sexual assault, the police, doctors, and judges all wanted me to talk and testify about it again and again. I didn’t want that because I didn’t want to carry a pain that I did not choose. I wanted other people to do it for me. On another level, as a gay person, I want straight people to fight for me. I already suffered from it, like all gay or lesbian people. I don’t want to have to be forced to be the person to talk about it. That’s the thing that makes me very uncomfortable with the idea of appropriation. For me, it’s very strange and politically dangerous to say, ‘Okay, you are black, you have to talk about blackness. You’re gay, you have to talk about homophobia and homosexuality. If you’re trans, you have to talk about transphobia.’

ZadieFor the serious young leftists out there, a way to critique it is to think of the way political ideas are connected to the concept of individual rights. That has now become the only political arena, but that’s not the only political arena. There are also collective duties. And a young leftist can, and should, think about collective duties. They can think about structural inequalities. Not only the rights that are accrued to a single woman in New York, who is worried about her glass ceiling, or who’s worried about her sexual harassment, her personal rights, and her personal identities, but also that woman’s relation to a great mass of working-class women throughout the world from whom she perhaps buys hair or breast milk or even rents a womb. There are structural problems that can be dealt with collectively that seem more urgent. I don’t blame anyone who puts their emphasis elsewhere, but I think we each have to choose our battles. And, for me, the question of duties is more important than the question of individual rights because individual rights echo a kind of capitalist dogma in this country: What’s accrued to me? What can I get? What am I owed? That, I find, is a depressing political place.

Nathan—It’s certainly the concept of identity that seems to have supplanted the idea of collective action in liberal circles.

Zadie—But that doesn’t mean that the insight of liberals in terms of identity is incorrect. It’s correct to say that people’s experiences absolutely matter and that they are completely various. There is such an enormous difference between being a young gay white man in France, for example, or a young mixed-race woman in England. Our experiences are entirely different, and that is a revelation more important than what we learned in the ’80s, which was that we are all the same on the inside. That was the argument of equality: ‘Don’t worry, we’re all the same on the inside.’ That’s not true at all. In a million ways we’re all incredibly different on the inside.

Édouard—Clearly, the idea that we are all the same is conservative and absurd. The reason why the working class experience or the black experience didn’t appear in literature for such a long time is that almost all the writers were white and from privileged families—Proust, Joyce, etc. But experience is not everything. I know so many homophobic gay people. Beach rats is a wonderful film about the experience of a gay man and it was not made by a gay man. And, obviously, I prefer Pierre Bourdieu talking about women more than Margaret Thatcher. She’s a woman, but he understood more things about what it means to be a woman than she did.

Zadie—But that’s become impossible to say, Édouard. For my students, for younger people, it’s inconceivable that without personal identification to a subject you could have any expertise in it.

ÉdouardI mean, but our role is to say what is impossible to say, or we are useless, isn’t it?

“I need to be angry at literature, almost to hate literature, in order to write because I know that, for such a long time, the life of someone like my mother never appeared in a book.”

Zadie—Right. Well, in that sense, the writer’s job has become way easier, because almost everything is impossible to say. You don’t have to say very much to shock everybody these days, apparently.

Édouard—[Laughs] It must be always a question when we start working to ask what is impossible to say today. When Zora Neale Hurston was writing or James Baldwin started to write, they wrote about black people because it was impossible; or when Jean Genet or André Gide were writing about homosexuals, it was because it was impossible. It was not what the literary world asked for. When I write, I always think, ‘What is excluded from literature?’ Not only the subjects, but the way you are talking about them. I need to be angry at literature, almost to hate literature, in order to write because I know that, for such a long time, the life of someone like my mother never appeared in a book. Zadie talks about reality in a completely new way, about new experiences. But also about structures that we may already read about, family and friendship, but in such a new way that they become a new subject.

Zadie—The restrictions of identity are neither about race nor gender nor even sexuality, but the narrowness of experience. If I had to rely on my experience, as it is at the moment, that is, a middle-aged woman mostly confined to the house with small children—if I had to believe that this was the only scope of my existence, the only thing available to me as subject or as idea, I think I would go mad.

Nathan—What recent films or books, for both of you, have been able to break out of the constraints of identity or the narrowness of experience? 

Zadie—I may be going crazy, and I am certainly middle-aged, but it seems to me that the movies are quite good at the moment. I don’t know what’s happening. I just went to see The Shape of Water, which I had absolutely no expectation of liking, and I really was struck by the active imagination. That’s what really engages me at the moment. I thought a lot about it when Ursula Le Guin died, and I saw it again in The Shape of Water. The film, unless I’m very mistaken, is a sly fable about the moment we’re in right now. An extraordinary moment where there’s an alliance of black, white, and oppressed working-class women and gay men against Trump, just with a fish man in the middle of it. I was just inspired by the level of imaginative integration, and it was really performing for the audience something Aristotelian. They were getting catharsis out of it. You don’t see that very often, I don’t think, where the imaginative work is so thorough or has so many hooks into you and is so speaking of the present moment, yet completely free of the present moment in terms of realism. That, to me, is very exciting. I’m completely incapable of that kind of writing, but I was amazed to see that kind of mass audience version of it. 

Édouard—I recently read a book by French journalist David Thomson about the young men who went to Syria to join [ISIS] and that eventually returned to France. Some of these thought ISIS was not radical enough, others thought ISIS was too violent. Almost everyone in this book, when they talk about why they went to Syria, it was a combination of their being homophobic and hating women. But at the end, in spite of all these differences, each one said, “I went to Syria because I would have a free house, and I would have people giving me food.” And I think this idea that most governments across the world are destroying the idea of providing a different life to everyone—to support people, to sustain people—is something that is very important. 

Zadie—I finished reading Fire and Fury, and I realized something about [Steve] Bannon quite similar. Obviously, he’s a racist and a homophobe, but his actual economic dream is a socialist dream. He wants a protectorate for America, where people can live in an equal and easier way than this capitalist war where every day is a war for survival. He’s a crazed kind of socialist, and it was so fascinating reading that book to realize that. Economically, I think people are desperate for a safe place to land or somewhere where you don’t feel that you are fighting to the death to get to a pension which probably won’t arrive. Around Bannon’s vision there are all kinds of atavistic, racist, homophobic ideas, but it made me think that my husband, who all the time during the election, was right. Bernie [Sanders] probably was the answer because that same economic argument, in fact, has very broad appeal across all kinds of constituencies that we would otherwise find alien to us. People have a great need for it, a desire for it, even if they wouldn’t give it the name “socialism.”

Novelists Édouard Louis and Zadie Smith on writing in a distracting political present

Édouard Louis photographed in Paris. T-shirt by Dior Homme.

Nathan—On a lighter note, how often do either of you interact with people of the opposite political stripes. What are these interactions like for both of you in your personal lives? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to share your views or do you keep your head down? 

Édouard—I’m cut off from the community that I used to belong to. As a writer if your work starts to be translated and you are traveling, suddenly you have a different life. Politics doesn’t affect you really anymore. You know?  The more dominant you are socially, economically, racially, sexually—the more dominant you are, the least you’re affected by politics. Politics doesn’t mean the same thing if you are a working class person or if you are an intellectual. If you belong to the middle class or the intellectual middle class, you are protected from politics by the money you have, by the culture you have, by the people you know. I remember when a new government won the election when I was a kid, people were so scared, you know? It was a matter of life and death. We knew that a new healthcare law would determine if we could go to the doctor or not. When I was a kid there was this new help from the state for poor people to visit a dentist. It’s a story that I often say, but for me, it’s so meaningful. My father went to the dentist for the first time in his life. I was fourteen. For him, politics meant so much. I think for Zadie, and for me, now, it doesn’t matter the government—we will go to dentist if our teeth are in pain.

Zadie—It doesn’t mean because politics actually affects the bodies and lives of disenfranchised people that disenfranchised people always care more about politics. That’s the part I find problematic. With me, the main times it happens in my family is with my  one brother who is a Christian. I would say a religious Christian. I don’t have those arguments with him anymore. I don’t want to draw too much from him or suggest he represents a whole constituency, but an election will happen in England, and my little brother will be unaware of it, for example. And I don’t think he’s alone in this. He would never have read any mainstream media of any kind, and almost all his news comes from the internet. What’s fascinating is that when we’ll have an argument, usually he’ll send me a long email containing what I consider to be a conspiracy theory of one kind or another. And then, the response I send him in return, I would be ashamed to show anyone. I become this liberal, hectoring nightmare. I have suddenly total faith in institutions like the New York Times. I become someone I would be horrified to know. It forces me into positions that I am disgusted by, and yet I’m trying to correct him. He, in the meantime, is offended and hurt that I’m suggesting that he’s not intelligent or that he doesn’t understand. It’s like a horrible microcosm of the argument going on in America right now. Contempt on both sides. I love my brother, and I know he’s a very intelligent person, but we are living in completely different media environments, and we come to completely different conclusions. He finds my media environment absurd. It is genuinely genuinely absurd to him that all I do is read the Times and various established newspapers. He finds that comic. We’re just at completely different polls. It’s challenging and fascinating and always a glimpse, for me, into what’s coming because when I’m reading my papers, and they’re talking about a youth vote, I’m aware of this constituency of which my brother is apart, for whom that whole world, it just doesn’t exist. Electorally, there is no interest at any level.

Édouard—You are reaching the impossible point, Zadie, because what you are saying is that it’s not because you experienced something that you see more about it, it’s that you perceive more things about it.  Sometimes, the people who are the most affected by politics don’t want to deal about politics and don’t necessarily perceive it, and that’s the impossible point.

Zadie—But they can have different areas of knowledge, right? Like, my youngest brother is also what I would call a spiritual person. I’m aware of being completely bereft of that entire aspect of life. When he’s speaking to me about it, I can’t even engage with him. I’m aware at all times that we’re existing in different spheres. The older I get, I’m not at all sure that I’m in the right one. He seems to be getting more peace as a human being than I am getting through whatever policy I’m employing. So I don’t know, it’s just a constant challenge, the idea of reality. His reality is entirely different, but aspects of it are powerful—spiritually powerful and aligned in a way that I can’t hope for.

Édouard—There is always a certain absurdity about the cultural media and about being a writer. I experience so many types of things that you are saying. All the things that we think are important about publishing in the New York Times, publishing in Le Monde, publishing in the New Yorker

Zadie—Literally meaningless.

“When you’re deep into a novel, there are many moments when you feel that the news is meeting your work where it is.”

Nathan—As the shockwaves of the 2016 election in the U.S. transmute into something a bit less electric, how do both of you go about your work? Is there an urge to want to say very loud things about every bit of erosion happening before our eyes?

ZadieI do think there must be something particularly dense or stupid about me because I am not over the shock. I still haven’t gotten over the headline on the front of the Times the day Trump was elected. I still wake up most mornings with a profound sense of the surreal. But the things I’m writing are set in the past. It’s the same frustration you have whenever you’re writing, when you’re deep into a novel, and I’m sure Édouard feels the same. There are many moments when you feel that the news is meeting your novel where it is. You can’t believe you have to complete this incredibly slow process, while time is moving at a different speed. It’s an almost absurd frustration. But I think a long time ago, I resigned myself to that, to not have anything to do with hot takes or the present. You just have to keep your eyes on the prize and not get distracted.

Édouard—For me, the current political situation is very, very distracting. It’s very difficult for me. I have trouble writing. I am currently working on a novel, and it’s very, very difficult because I’m writing about characters, I’m trying to create situations, and I am creating stories all while people are actually suffering so much; when we have these crazy people ruling our countries and when people are dying because of politics. It makes me ashamed of writing literature. I could say that my story as a writer is a story of shame. There is not a single day where I don’t think to myself, ‘Instead of sitting in front of a computer, you could be much more efficient. You could free animals from slaughterhouses. You could demonstrate more or create a queer association. You could go help the migrants stuck in Italy.’ I try to use this shame in order to make another kind of literature. Shame is an important and beautiful tool, in a way. The problem for me is that so many writers write without shame. They write about a bridge being built, about the little feelings and emotions of the middle class, while gay people are being killed in Russia, while black people are being killed by the police in France and in the U.S., and they are not ashamed. It makes me have doubts about literature. Zadie, aren’t you affected by that?

ZadieYou have to stop sometimes. I find great comfort in thinking about the fact that I am not the only writer. If someone says to me, ‘What are you doing fiddling about? Who cares about this novel when there’s X, Y, and Z going on?’ I would agree to the extent that, if I was the only writer in the world we would be in really fucking deep trouble. But, luckily, I’m just a tributary going into a massive lake, and there are so many of us, and we are doing so many different things. I can look across out my window and know that Ta-Nehisi [Coates] lives in the next building. He’s got a lot of things covered over there. I’ve got a poet upstairs, Terrance Hayes, and I know he’s got some poetry covered up there. No writer needs to be all the writers all the time. And I always really want to say this to my students because I can see their anxiety. You’re not the only one, and the fate of literature does not lie on your shoulder. It’s your job just to channel whatever it is that you have, even if it’s very small, even if it seems insignificant, and feed it into this river, this huge, collective bit of water called literature. And that will do.

 

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