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While the world shouts, Zadie Smith wants to whisper in your ear

This week, St. Louis University honors acclaimed British-born writer Zadie Smith as the 2021 recipient of the St. Louis Literary Award. Smith is the award’s 54th recipient, which puts her in good company, with other literary greats honored by the university since 1967.

“It feels surreal. To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing on this list, but I’m very glad to be there,” Smith, 46, said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. “It’s incredible.”

Organizers of the annual St. Louis Literary Award look for a writer who has “enriched our literary heritage by deepening our insight into the human condition and by expanding the scope of our compassion.”

British-born author Zadie Smith is headed to town this week for SLU’s 2021 St. Louis Literary Award.
Dominique Nabokov
British-born author Zadie Smith is headed to town this week for SLU’s 2021 St. Louis Literary Award.

In conversation with host Sarah Fenske on the eve of the award ceremony, the novelist said she is always “trying to find different ways to think about things.”

“I feel quite often — I’m sure a lot of people feel this — that sometimes the public discourse feels very deadening and very same-y,” Smith explained. “All I’m ever trying to do is find a different language, a more intimate language, to kind of whisper in somebody’s ear rather than screaming in somebody’s face, if you know what I mean.”

In an era that often feels perpetually angry, she said she too has “plenty of anger” but is most interested in focusing her expression on what she thinks is important — and on “what is of worth and is joyful.”

“Any discourse which finishes in absolute finality I can’t deal with,” Smith said. “For instance, I have a son. So I can get very angry at men and the behavior of men. But I still have a son, and something has to be done about this son. He still has to be raised; I still have to have a relationship with him. And to me all life is like that — there’s a continuity that ideology can never get to. So you have to find some way to live.”

The author of five novels as well as many essays and short stories, Smith earned multiple raves for her debut book, “White Teeth” (2000). She’s since become a prominent figure in literary circles. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, she is also a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her 2019 story collection, “Grand Union,” is at the heart of SLU’s celebration, with the university making the collection its campus read and planning a series of events exploring themes in her wide-ranging body of work.

One of her latest books, “Intimations,” marks a return to the essay form. Smith wrote “Intimations” during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic and saw it published in July 2020.

Zadie Smith won’t succumb to absolutes: ‘You have to find some way to live’
Listen as the 2021 St. Louis Literary Award recipient talks with host Sarah Fenske about everything from death, anger and the COVID-19 pandemic to her first foray into writing a historical novel.

“I was very aware of being useless and nonessential in the most fundamental way that someone can be nonessential. That was me. And so I thought, ‘Well, what is it I can do?’ I have this one thing: I can type. And if I could do that, and do it quickly, I could make money for people who actually do things,” Smith recalled. She donated all her royalties to two charities, the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.

Smith also recently released “Weirdo,” a children’s book co-authored with her spouse, Nick Laird, and is now deep into work on a new novel.

“I’m just delighted to be in a novel,” she said. “I remember about it how basically escapist it is. … When you’re in it, everything else disappears, and in a year like 2020 it was nice to be elsewhere, even for a little part of each day.”

Her in-process book is set in 1830, marking her first foray into historical novel writing. She said for her it’s a book about England, Jamaica, the diaspora and “the deep roots” of current issues.

“Sometimes you have to go a long way back. The news feed doesn’t give you the information you need to understand, always,” Smith explained.

She touched on some of her favorite reads of late, including work by Elizabeth Strout and Chinua Achebe. She also reflected on her recent feeling that she’s doing, as a writer, what she’s “best fit” to do.

“And you would wish for everyone exactly that in a just society — that people did what they were best fit to do,” Smith said. “Whether it was great or small, that it brought them pleasure that they felt their skills fulfilled.”

Related Events
What: 2021 St. Louis Literary Award ceremony
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 4
Where: Sheldon Concert Hall (3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108) and online
(The hybrid event is free and open to the public, but registration is required, as is proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result for in-person attendees.)

What: 2021 Craft Talk with Zadie Smith
When: 1 p.m. Nov. 5
Where: Cook Hall on SLU’s campus (3674 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108) and online
(Like the award ceremony, this event is free and open to the public, but registration is required, as is proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result for in-person attendees.)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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