Arriving home from class on September’s 14th day, I shove six books into my bag and dress to impress. Doc Martens, a button up, my Snoopy socks, and an 8-ball ring: I am playing intelligentsia, and I am doing it well. The edges of my bag, hardcovers poking through the seams, could be used to beat a man. The ideas in it, exclusively Ms. Smith’s, could be channeled to raise him up. I am on my way to New York City to meet the brain behind the books I carry. My train leaves at four, the book launch doors close at eight, and half an hour later, wearing her signature headscarf, my hero walks out to introduce The Fraud, the latest novel in her oeuvre and now my bag. She walks like she does in ‘The Pictures’—those YouTube videos I’ve eaten one too many meals over—with the elegance of a woman who’s captured the world once, then twice, then four more times with each successive novel. She’s at the podium. I’m in tears. She clears her throat. I sit up in my seat. “To begin,” she says, “I’ve come down with a cold. So excuse me if I’m not entirely here.” She sniffles. I sigh. “Not entirely here?” Where is the writer of my dreams?
The story reads as follows: I met Zadie Smith’s ideas before I met her words, before I met her. In our last year of high school she was all my friends could talk about. They conjured her in the same way her interviewers did: the prodigal daughter, the face of fiction, the shy kid from Kilburn who, at twenty-two, charmed the literary world with half a smile and some electric rhythm. Who dragged Victorian prose and Modern life into a room and walked out with White Teeth, a debut that turnt entire careers into dust. Whom I had to read, read now, read forever, Eli, dammit, because she’ll change the way you look at the world. Who delivered on their promises.
Last December, home for the holidays, a victim of self-inflicted ennui, I spent most of my days lying around: mornings in bed, lunch breaks on sofas, afternoons splayed out on our garden’s newly-sprinkled grass, unbothered by my quickly sponging pants, because everything was the same—wet ass or dry. I’d gone into my first semester of college looking for meaning. I’d come out with crippling anxiety, a couple of Bs, and a suitcase of library books I had no plan to read. If nothing could save me, I decided, then I didn’t deserve to be saved. So I leaned into it, into the nothing—until Smith’s On Beauty found me and changed it all.
The book begins with an email to a father from his estranged son. It starts with the familiar and expands into the identical—the novel, while set in early 2000’s Massachusetts, created a world that felt entirely my own. With adultering academics, pseudo-intellectual teens, late-night poetry readings, and God-fearing families, it felt like the life I had and the life I sought met in the middle to create the life that could be mine. On Beauty picked me off the grass and pushed me into the world; Smith’s words reminded me that, even through the disarray, life could be holy. I worshiped her for this.
And, lord, her religion was a consuming one. White Teeth found me on a lazy man’s pilgrimage, a six day train trip between America’s coasts. I read the first page in Los Angeles and the last in New York. Smith dubbed me a “creature of consequence,” and asked that I face the repercussions. Grand Union rewrote me by the story: each one with a new one guiding principle for life. The Autograph Man enlivened me in its mission to set alight the mundane.
Her words became mine. I watched all of her interviews, read most of her books, and spoke of her like she was one. If my soul felt sapped, I turnt to Zadie, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 8, Verse 5: “Bring on the Poetry.” If my spirit felt cold, I sought Zadie, Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 15, Verse 12, as a reminder that I was human, that I was not the first who failed to “keep up appearances in the bleak midwinter.”
But I failed to extend the same humanity to her as she lent to me. Thousands of words were pulled off the page and fashioned into the image of a woman who does not exist. When I read her, I remembered what I could. When I listened to her, I heard what I wanted to. And it wasn’t until she blew her nose into a lavalier microphone that I learnt I’d known Zadie through the filter of Eli, but never Zadie as is.
At the end of the interview, I hobble down the aisle to ask her a question. Eventually, my rattling voice gets out an inquiry about shame—whether it’s different from guilt and how much we need of both. There’s a video where she talks about the importance of the feeling, and I’d always thought she was referring to the personal, the kind of shame one feels about their very existence, so when, in a room full of witnesses, she muses about the shame of being a writer, I slowly start to leave her.
Zadie Smith has a cold, a family, a life of her own. She misinterprets your questions because you misinterpret her. She has written seven novels; she has labored over them all. She did not arrive fully formed. She is not an idea.
She sneezes, and I don’t know what this means, but bless her all the same.