Zadie Smith interview
Escape from New York
Zadie Smith on “Escape from New York”
Monsters By Zadie Smith
“Suddenly summoned to witness some thing great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness,” wrote John Updike ten years ago in these pages. He watched the towers fall with “the false intimacy of television,” from a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Over in North West London, we were certainly very small and distant, but we still felt that false intimacy. We are a mixed community, including many Muslims, from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Africa. I grew up with girls who wore the head scarf, a fact that seemed no more remarkable to me at the time than Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes or Hindu kids with bindis on their foreheads. Different world. What enabled it? It helped that so many of the class disparities between us had been partially obscured. United in the same primary schools, we were neither mesmerized by, nor especially frightened of, our differences. Later, that sense of equality became difficult to maintain. Teen-agers are preoccupied with status and justice—they notice difference. Why do some have so much while others have nothing? Natural superiority? Hard work? Historical luck? Or exploitation? For some, the basic political insights of adolescence arrived with an extra jolt: your people over here were hurting your people over there; your home was attacking your home. Then came the cataclysm. The end of the world for nearly three thousand innocent people. The beginning of a different sort of world for the rest of us. From the epicenter in Manhattan, shock waves rippled across Europe. In North West London, a small but significant change: the stereotype of the Muslim boy was transformed. From quiet, sexless, studious child—sitting in the back of class and destined for an engineering degree—to Public Enemy No. 1.
In the ten years that followed, communities like mine became the focus of debate. In 2005, Shadow Home Secretary David Davis called for the end of a multicultural “policy” that permits “people of different cultures to settle without expecting them to integrate into society.” For Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, the problem was not the segregation but the mix: “The whole world faces a big problem with people, so many different people from different ethnic groups mixing that we are losing all our separate cultures and identities, and I think that is a real problem.” We were urged to unite, yet the state continued to fund faith schools. We were urged to separate, but in the 2010 general election (despite a significant increase in their vote) the B.N.P. was unable to get a single M.P. in Parliament. When our own copycat outrage arrived, on 7/7, the “failures of multiculturalism” was again the focus, although a strong feeling of national identity is no obstacle to killing people in your nation, and the British-born bombers’ own stated target was not home affairs but foreign policy. A head scarf became a contested, subversive thing. Invested with this fresh power, the hijab enjoyed new levels of popularity, as much a symbol of cultural solidarity as a religious practice. If a few people placed SHARIA CONTROLLED ZONE posters around Newham, Muslims throughout the country had to suffer the consequences—a local version of asymmetrical warfare. Two months ago, as an unknown individual shot teen-agers on a Norwegian island, commentary converged on the central issue: Muslim fundamentalists or lone maniac?
“We’re monsters, I fear. What monsters we’re”—it’s a line from a recent Frederick Seidel poem, “Downtown,” about the Fourth of July, and the sadness of fireworks over the Hudson (“the flavorful floating shroud”) and the casual brutality of eating shad roe (“What a joy to eat the unborn”). It reminds me of this whole, unlovely decade, which started downtown, and made us all monstrous, me as much as anybody. I was for the war, at first. Later, I was pleased when President Obama promised to commit more troops to Afghanistan, not because I thought it would end that war but because I hoped it would win him the election. I sat at dinner parties and felt envious of people who had not supported the war, as if whether or not a lot of armchair intellectuals did or did not support a war was what the war was actually about. For a few Google-eyed hours, I thought that Sarah Palin was not Trig’s mother. The rise of the Internet dovetailed with this tribalism. You could pass a decade online without ever hearing from the “other.”
About one thing, though, we could all agree: everything had changed. Or had it? The 9/11 perpetrators wanted a world in which (their version of) religious belief trumped all other concerns. But in the real world our concerns are necessarily diverse: we must attend school and find work, provide for children, look after parents. And in these matters we cannot avoid one another for long. Of course, mixed communities are not without tensions—no such community exists. (Relative racial and cultural homogeneity—as Northern Ireland knows—is no guarantee of peace.) But we have many common causes and priorities. It’s to be noted that class meant little to the terrorists: they saw only two human categories, believer and heathen. Here on earth, poverty and privilege cross the religious and the cultural divide. Look a little closer at the recent CCTV footage, in London: we riot together, and together we clean the streets.
Last Christmas, standing in an apartment building in New York, I was struck by a hallway where papier-mâché Stars of David and holy crosses came together in a decorative seasonal theme. Here these “people of the book” (whose religious texts overlap and divide as deeply as either text with the Koran) lived peaceably in the same space, finding one another’s religions by turns amusing, irrational, beautiful, banal. What enabled it? It took generations; it passed through periods of unspeakable horror; sometimes people forgot, sometimes they forgave, and they did both these things imperfectly. Practical matters helped. General economic parity, difficult acts of good will on both sides, and a democratic country in which the apparently impossible has the freedom to happen. It is not a perfect relationship—there’s no such thing—and it took two thousand years to get this far. We forget: these things take time. “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., who presided over another meeting of supposedly irreconcilable peoples. Not everyone is a monster.
BY FREDERICK SEIDEL
July 4th fireworks exhale over the Hudson sadly.
It is beautiful that they have to disappear.
It’s like the time you said I love you madly.
That was an hour ago. It’s been a fervent year.
I don’t really love fireworks, not really, the flavorful floating shroud
In the nighttime sky above the river and the crowd.
This time, because of the distance upriver perhaps, they’re not loud,
Even the colors aren’t, the patterns getting pregnant and popping.
They get bigger and louder when they start stopping.
They try to rally
At the finale.
It’s the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery—
Which is why the fireworks happen on this side of the island this year.
Shad are back, and we celebrate the Hudson’s Clean Water Act recovery.
What a joy to eat the unborn. We’re monsters, I fear. What monsters we’re.
We’ll binge on shad roe next spring in the delicious few minutes it’s here.
READ THE FOLLOWING:
INTERVIEW TO ZADY SMITH
DEATH OF THE AUTHOR BY ROLAND BARTHES