Zadie Smith Cool

Zadie & Me

On Monday, December 1, 2014 renown author Zadie Smith gave a reading from a then novel-in-progress – Swing Time – at Wellesley College. I had the distinct pleasure of introducing her and facilitating the Q&A to a standing-room only audience! I’ve transcribed my introduction below. The gist of it: Zadie Smith is COOL!


The entire Wellesley College community is absolutely thrilled to welcome Zadie Smith this afternoon, the last author in this fall’s impressive Distinguished Writers Series at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities.  I would like to extend on behalf of the Wellesley College community, a big warm THANK YOU to the Director of the Newhouse Carol Daugherty and the Program Coordinator Jane Jackson for curating and executing such wonderful events throughout the year. There is so much leg work that goes on behind the scenes to create elegant, inspiring and intellectually stimulating conversations for all of us here at Wellesley.

Zadie, we’ve anticipated your arrival since early September because your face has been on display on nearly every corner of this campus! I am honored to introduce Zadie Smith, [writer of four novels, two compilations of short stories, and many, many other stories published] as in The New York Review of Books, including most recently “Find Your Beach.” I’ve only met her for the first time today—but I can already confirm that she is cool. You know this through her writing already, right? Here’s what I mean though: Robert Farris Thompson, Yale University scholar of African art coined the term, “an aesthetic of cool,” which signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.” It’s an African principle of cool as poise, serene beauty, self-possession that stems from confidence. Your writing has continuously reflected this aesthetic of cool that requires restraint and willful energy that keeps the reader turning page after page. Often times, the interwoven narratives are not easy to traverse, but they are always worth the adventure.

She graduated from Cambridge in 1997. Her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth (2000) won a number of awards and prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book), and two BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards (Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer). White Teeth has been translated into over twenty languages. Her tenure as Writer in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts resulted in the publication of an anthology of erotic stories entitled Piece of Flesh (2001). In 2013, Zadie Smith’s short story, The Embassy of Cambodia was published in the United Kingdom as a stand-alone story in book form, selling in excess of 40,000 copies in the first year of publication. Zadie Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), a story of loss, obsession and the nature of celebrity, won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. In 2003 and 2013 she was named by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists.’ On Beauty was published in 2005, and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also written a nonfiction book about writing entitled Fail Better (2006). Her book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, came out in 2009. Her novel, NW (2012) was named as one of the New York Times ’10 Best Books of 2012.’

Since like many other readers in this room, I’ve been following Smith’s work since her debut groundbreaking novel White Teeth in 2000, which introduced us to the endearing characters of two families living in North London, adeptly acknowledging diverse topics such as unlikely friendships, interracial marriage, immigration, and even the fraught legacy of colonialism. Smith found—crafted really—her literary voice very early, at age 22. That’s Cool. I read White Teeth feverishly, sighing woefully – especially at that hair relaxer scene. Nodding in agreement when Archie Jones finally began to relate to his Pakistani friend Samad Iqbal. And literally laughing out loud, sometimes uncomfortably, at/with her protagonists – again that relaxer passage. I marvel still today at how she continues to mature and experiment in her writing (I speak here of NW specifically) offering still ever so much for her faithful readers to devour. That is cool.

Few authors address the complicated terrains of race, sex, and class with the level of sophistication and humor with which Smith has through four novels and numerous short stories. Smith manages to create scenes of quasi-Shakespearean tragedy within modern spaces from a fictitious Boston-area academic community called “Well-ington” as configured in her second novel On Beauty (published in 2005 and in her latest novel NW published in 2012) readers return to Smith’s native London diving us into a throbbing neighborhood with another cast of sometimes hilarious and equally frustratingly sad charactersWhile reading NW, I smiled despite many heart-wrenching passages because Smith would often do something unexpected, like inserting lyrics from Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” that kept playing in my head after I closed the book! She is my peer. She gets me. That. Is. Cool.

I enjoyed sitting in on the book discussion that took place on campus treating On Beauty just a couple of weeks ago with faculty, staff, and students.  Of course, this academic community of WELLINGTON felt a little too close for some of my colleagues. At one point during the discussion, and it was a lively one – which touched on a number of issues including Kantian philosophical debates of the sublime and beauty, the imperfect personal/personality development of Levi, the exploration of authenticity, ambiguity, and the inheritedness of identities, Englishness or blackness, for example – one person remarked to a faculty member about a criticism a character or description (I don’t remember the exact point of contention), “You didn’t like the book?!” She immediately stood her ground, stating with her post-it note laden copy in hand, “It’s not that I don’t like the book. I love the book. I don’t argue with a book that I don’t love.” I return to this: “an aesthetic of cool,” which signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.” The tension and play between the words on the page and the emotional response from the readers is coool.

With that, I invite you to please welcome ZADIE SMITH.

ZS and me1

Q: What is COOL? A: Barkley Hendricks

It’s 2012. I’m back from a long break. The joys of motherhood demanded time spent at home over the holidays with two little ones who really could care less that I want to have some physical and mental space to blog. Pa-lease. But, I’m back. With four talks lined up on four different artists (see what’s next), I’ve got a lot of ideas that need to take shape soon. And, as promised, I’ll be working on an article about me and my mommy phd friends (I’ll try to provide some teasers on that).

So, I’m continuing to work on funk rocker Betty Davis. Along with her gritty sounds and no-nonsense sex appeal, she provides an almost surreal sense of coolness that is undeniable. It got me thinking about how I’ve thought about visual representations of cool in the past. Below is an excerpt from a study I conducted for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and their African American collections. Barkely Hendricks, a Professor of Art at Connecticut College, has been defining cool for the last four decades. His retrospective The Birth of the Cool organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University practically canonized his stake on cool. Here’s my take on the PMA’s Miss T by Hendricks from my unpublished paper, “Cooling Black Skin: Selected Portraits in the African American Collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”


According to African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson, “An aesthetic of cool,” signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.”[1] For example, in observing Barkley Hendricks’ portrait Miss T (1969), one easily gets a sense of what is “cool” about her. Her introspective glance downward from behind her gold-rimmed glasses while standing casually in her black pantsuit with shiny embellishments around her waist exudes a coolness about her that is unrehearsed and smooth. Miss T is presented without the context of her surroundings of, perhaps, a Philadelphia streetscape. She is calm. She is confident. She is at peace before the onlookers’ glare, caught up in her own thoughts of problems or dreams. Hendricks’ placement of the figure before a bare, vacant background, allows Miss T to be absorbed into the canvas with just her very presence. Hendricks provides her with a certain amount of power and agency, and perhaps this self-possession is the origin of her coolness.

[1] Robert Farris Thompson, “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” African Arts, v. 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1973), p. 41.

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