Author and NYU creative writing professor Zadie Smith began a reading of her newest novel, “NW,” just after 7 p.m. on Thursday night in the Kimmel Center for Student Life. As she began, her voice captured the attention of the audience and the excited chatter died down.
Smith’s book is set in London and features four characters who struggle with issues of race and class. The project started about eight years ago with a simple idea; this month, the novel arrived on shelves at book stores around the world, only to fly right back off of them.
“The book starts with the idea of a girl coming to the door, desperate,” Smith said. “Someone coming to ask you for something. Not just on the street, not someone you can walk by… someone knocking on your door and asking for something. Money, in this case.”
Smith discussed the development of this image: the idea of having guests evolved from one person appearing at a stranger’s door to millions coming to the door of a nation.
Themes like this are common in “NW” and connect strongly to societal discrepancies in race and class. But Smith also manages to find the humor in these issues.
“It’s not always deliberate,” Smith said. “I mean, maybe to me class is a little bit funny, you know? You have to laugh. Otherwise you cry, the way it’s set up.”
Many who have had the privilege to hear Smith read her work — either at the event at Kimmel or her reading at Barnes and Noble earlier this month — noted the sheer authenticity Smith exudes both in her writing and in the way she speaks.
“I really liked how genuine she was,” said LSP sophomore Abdul haq Bin Shamsul kamar.
“It’s really great that she seems to be so genuine in wanting to teach people how to write and trying to communicate the difficulties and weird challenges you face [as a writer] that are hard to articulate,” Bin Shamsul kamar added.
LSP sophomore Briana Finkelstein agreed. “The way she gave the reading like a real storyteller creating different voices enthralled me,” Finkelstein said.
Smith credits her own life experiences for her ability to discuss race and class in such a unique way. When it comes to writing about things that are unfamiliar to her, however, Smith said she simply listens.
“If you want to know anything else about people’s lives and secrets of their hearts, you could at least listen to them, you know?” Smith said. “And hear how they speak. And so that’s something that I try and do. I try and keep my ears open.”
Smith also turns to friends and family to help her understand things that are unfamiliar. She mentioned asking her younger brother to explain how teenagers speak.
Smith also finds teaching at NYU to be helpful with her writing.
Alexandra Connolly is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]