Month: August 2008 Page 2 of 5

Zadie Smith: Fierce, flawless

Unfortunately, I have yet to read any of Zadie Smith’s books. However, given her renown at such a young age (according to her Wikipedia page, she was basically courted by publishers during college) I decided to read her Atlantic Monthly interview. When I did, the title of a certain Ani DiFranco song came to mind, hence this post’s title.

Zadie Smith believes that fiction is a “hypothetical area” in which to experiment with possible courses of action.

I have to admit, it’s been a while since I thought of it that way, and I was glad for the reminder. Lately I’ve been so stuck in “What would really happen? What would these characters actually do?” that I feel like some of the “let’s play make-believe” aspect has gone out of my writing. And isn’t that the most fun part?

Later Zadie says:

In a lot of American fiction, particularly young American fiction, the idea of writing third person is anathema. But I didn’t even know there were novels that weren’t in third person until I was quite advanced in years. So that kind of narrative voice seems natural to me.

I felt the same way — Books in first person? Isn’t first person bad? Isn’t literature about the characters, not about me? — which is another reason I had a hard time writing in the first person myself. (Except for personal essays, of course.)

I also found her methods VERY interesting:

I don’t take notes. I don’t have any notebooks. I keep on trying to do that because it seems like a very writerly thing to do, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I tend to get the idea for a novel in a big splash. Usually I work out the plot for the first half and then kind of feel my way through the other half. I wouldn’t say I make excessive plans, though.

I don’t think I could work that way — I love my journals, and I’m desperately trying to finish #23 so I can start #24, because there’s nothing so exciting as starting a brand new journal! — but it almost elevates Zadie to an unreal level of cool that she doesn’t need notebooks the way most writers do.

Also, WOW, can I just say how much I love her for saying this?!

All my books are made up of other books. They’re all deeply structured on other fiction, because I was a student in fiction and I didn’t have much actual living to draw on. I suspect a lot of other people’s novels are like that, too, though they might be slower to talk about it.


I think every writing student needs to hear that. And every parent of a writing student should probably hear that too. Or maybe just my mom…

When it came to writing the academic part of the novel, I was thinking about how I felt when I was a student—how lost I felt a lot of the time, and confused about what I wanted and what I was getting.


I think I know a few people who could stand to hear that too.

And finally:

You’re constantly told in college and elsewhere that good taste and good fiction are about not pushing, about not expressing your opinion too forcefully. So we’re always hearing things like, “Oh, it’s a very good novel about a young black boy, but unfortunately the author presses too hard on the question of race.”

And the same with women’s fiction. It’s nonsense, and it’s time to stop. I felt like a hand was at my throat when I first started writing. That if I was going to be a proper writer, I’d better be as polite as possible and as calm as possible and as un-angry as possible—and recently I’ve been thinking, you know, fuck that, basically.

Like I said: fierce, flawless.

What six years could look like


It’s not a fairytale, exactly, but maybe it’s better. Maybe it’s the real thing.

Foto Friday: Endurance is NOT my middle name

Coho canoe trip! 017

My apologies for not posting the Friday foto on time. After rowing 12 miles (and leading team-building exercises after lunch) and then coming home to puppy poop on the carpet (we think he has an intestinal bug… the vet appointment later today should tell us more) I showered, ate, and then passed out around 7:30 pm and didn’t wake up until this morning. At which point I realized my ENTIRE body was sore, especially my neck, shoulders, back, and butt bones.

Good to know

From PREP author Curtis Sittenfeld (a woman! who I hope to meet through a mutual connection!) in an NY Times essay I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.:

“You write the book you want to write, and then publishing has its way with it.”

Can you See the Asian-ness?

After learning some sad news last night, I’m feeling weird, so I thought I’d keep with the mood and post about something that’s been weighing on my mind. Writers Carolyn and Lisa See (mother and daughter respectively) are “Chinese American.” But you’d never know by looking at them.

(Seriously, when I first went to Lisa See’s Wikipedia page, I thought someone had put up the wrong picture.)

It shouldn’t bother me, and maybe “bother” isn’t even the right word, but it does make me feel… strange, to see these non-Chinese-looking women so clearly and easily labeled as Chinese American. Maybe it’s because I, who am half-Chinese, have struggled over the years with my own appearance and identity.

(Eyes too small. Face too flat. Pretty hair. Tall. (HAHA.) Too skinny. Not skinny enough. Can’t speak Mandarin. Doesn’t know traditions. Bad pronounciation. The only brown head in a sea of black at Chinese school. The only one of my friends learning pin yin instead of zhu yin fu hao. “La China” in Spain. Chinese among Americans, American among Chinese.)

Did these women struggle similarly? With one quarter and one eighth (I think) Asian-ness in their blood, can they really identify as Chinese? Can they understand what it’s like when no one would ever mistake them for being anything other than “white”? What in their body of experiences gives them the — sorry to use this word — right, to claim that heritage, the one that I am so tentative to take, because I worry that if someone were to challenge me on it, they might decide I don’t have enough evidence to support my stake?

I don’t know enough about them to come to any conclusions. All I have are questions. Questions that aren’t even really about Carolyn and Lisa See. It’s not personal. It’s just another reminder of all the issues I have yet to resolve within myself.

And none of it has anything to do with their writing either. From what I have heard, Lisa in particular is a fabulous writer, and I may go see her when she comes to Cincinnati to speak in a few months. (Would it be too weird of me to ask her some of these questions, in a non-offensive way? I’m really, really curious about her take on it.) Personal weirdness aside, I’m more than happy to learn what I can from them.

From a conversation between Carolyn & Lisa See:

Every writer has to be a little bit delusional about his or her work. We have to know it’s good. Even if we hate it, we have to know it’s good. Perseverance, stubbornness, has everything to do with keeping on. When I started writing, I was the wrong age, too young, the wrong gender — not all that many women were writing for a living then — and on the wrong coast, the west one. But you just have to put all that aside and go on working.

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