15x: Afterthoughts on Zadie Smith (John and Elizabeth)

Zadie Smith touched down at Brandeis because Swing Time was this year’s New Student Book Forum selection. It made for a busy day: on top of the podcast, she spoke to faculty and undergraduates at two different events. So, lots of material to discuss.

We do our best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel.

If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do):  funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.

Discussed (or gestured at) in this episode:

Tony Judt, Postwar

Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy

Nicholas Lehmann, The Big Test

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

Stephen McCauley (with JP on RTB) Barbara Pym and the Comic Novel

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (and others…)

Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

J. P. Toussaint, The Bathroom

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, A Room of One’s Own, “Moments of Being”

Philip Roth, The Counterlife, Exit Ghost

Listen to the episode here:

You can read the transcript here:

P.S. Just before we hit Publish on this, Zadie Smith’s latest essay appeared in The New York Review of Books. It too focused on the arbitrary, contingent and altogether peripatetic nature of identity:

I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God. My mind wandered.

15: Zadie Smith (in conversation with John)

In this episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

Zadie and John also touch on the purpose of criticism and why it gets harder to hate as you (middle) age. She reveals an affection for “talkies” (as a “90’s kid,” she can’t help her fondness for Quentin Tarantino); asks whether young novelists in England need to write a book about Henry VIII just to break into bookstores; hears Hegel talking to Kierkegaard, and Jane Austen failing to talk to Jean Genet. Lastly, in Recallable Books, Zadie recommends Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom.

Mentioned in this episode:

Zadie Smith, White Teeth, NW, Swing Time, Two Paths for the Novel” “Embassy of Cambodia,” Joni Mitchell: Some Notes on Attunement” “Zadie Smith on J G Ballard’s Crash

Willa Cather, Song of the Lark (1915, revised 1932)

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Charlotte Bronte, The Professor and Villette

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Pauline Kael, various film reviews

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Ursula Le Guin, “The Story’s Where I Go: An Interview”

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black and Wolf Hall

Dexter Filkins, “The Moral Logic of Humanitarian Intervention” (on Samantha Power)

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again

Gary Winick (dir.), Thirteen Going on Thirty (starring Jennifer Garner, not Anne Hathaway)

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Bathroom

Listen to the episode here:

Transcript of the episode here:

Pro Tip: Zadie Smith also generously recorded some PSA’s for RTB. You might even call them our first celebrity endorsements. Prick up your ears and try to catch their first public airing, coming soon…

Fall RTB Lineup: Writers, Scholars, Auteur

The RTB crew were busy over the summer. Like an iceberg (although not quite as cool….maybe more like a duck) most of what we do lurks beneath the surface, invisible and inaudible. Getting Cixin Liu’s words out there in both Chinese and English was fun, but it was also daunting; ditto our presentation of The Electro-Library.

So we are especially delighted to announce our 5-episode Fall 2019 lineup. This season poses new challenges, some conceptual, others geographic. John is going on the road to track down an elusive English filmmaker (a first for us!) in Columbus Ohio, of all places (November 21).

Back home, Sharon Marcus will come to Brandeis to discuss her wonderful new book about stars and stardom, The Drama of Celebrity (airing December 12 – for all these dates, read “if all goes well”).

Christine Walley from MIT– her marvelous work on postindustrial working-class Chicago features in Episode 10x–will also be dropping by (November 7). The physicist Albion Lawrence will be on hand (October 17) to help Elizabeth and John tackle that age-old academic question, why can’t humanists collaborate the way scientists do?

Starting us off with a bang, though, is a writer who constantly gets compared to Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis (ouch?!) but is really the closest our generation has come to the “moderate modernism” of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. From White Teeth to NW, she has staked her claim to chronicle London as colorfully and cogently as the Kinks and the Clash. Yup, the one, the only Zadie Smith.

Can you tell I’m a little excited for this interview? It kicks off our season, airing on September 26th. And it will be followed by an “aftermath” in which we dissect her words and then discuss the talk (and talking to) that Smith gave to Brandeis undergraduates during her visit.

Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)

In May, John and Pu interviewed SF superstar Cixin Liu (you will want to listen to that episode before this one). In August they entered the studio again to work on the final edits for that interview in both its Chinese and English versions. While they were there, they took some time to reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.

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In the original interview, Pu leans forward to fine-tune a translation….
Continue reading “Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)”

Episode 13: Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson

John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson, author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a book that both tells a part of the history of Polynesia, and tells how histories of Polynesia are constructed.

Tupaia's_map,_c._1769
Tupaia’s map

The discussion also ranges to consider different moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the Hokule’a‘s triumphant reconstuction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding, in which the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium (below) served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.

Continue reading “Episode 13: Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson”