IN SOME WAYS, a church is the perfect setting for a discussion of Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Feel Free. Hosted by Books Are Magic and held at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn on February 7, the event reflected the high esteem Smith is held in. In fact, she is close to being known as “Saint Zadie” among some readers. Her work is regularly described as “generous” and “universal.” A benevolence shines through her writing, allowing nearly all readers to find something in her thoughts to identify with, as novelist and Books Are Magic owner Emma Straub expressed in her introduction. “Although you might be a very silly person indeed and only about a quarter as smart, you aren’t so silly because you too have thoughts about Gene Kelly’s bottom—it’s true—and your mother at 6 PM on a Sunday evening, suddenly loving music that you always thought you hated,” she said. “And if you have those things in common with Zadie Smith, then there is still some good in the world.”
But St. Ann’s also seems to be the least natural setting in light of Smith’s demeanor, which is rarely holier-than-thou. As she talked with Wesley Morris of the New York Times, she was simultaneously humble and confident, serious and funny. She felt it was “a bit grand” to compare her ideas to Jean-Paul Sartre’s, but proceeded to do so anyway. Although the title of her second essay collection comes from one of her husband’s poems (“I think I’m in quite a bit of trouble for that”), she also credits it to Sartre. “I think always about being thrown into the world and being condemned to be free, as he put it, with no guidance, with no particular path to follow, with no responsibility apart from responsibility for yourself and for your choices,” she said.
Smith understands what it means to own her choices. After being roundly criticized for “Getting In and Out”—her essay on Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out and Dana Schutz’s controversial portrait of Emmett Till at last year’s Whitney Biennial—Smith said that she chose not to accept invitations for television and radio appearances. “I don’t believe in getting involved. I believe the piece belongs to the people who read it, absolutely, for them to tear it apart, do whatever they want, reestablish it in any way they want,” she explained. “It doesn’t really trouble me in that sense because I think it’s there for discussion.”
And Smith herself is uncomfortable with the sainthood readers want to bestow on her, or anyone for that matter. To her, flaws are an extremely human experience, and “the idea that there is a position that you can take in society in which you are right by definition, believed always and in all places at all times, that is not a human position. It doesn’t exist.” She confirmed that she regularly finds herself being seen in such a light. “My students, my anxious white liberal students, look at me and think, ‘Well, she’s a black woman so she must be in some sense flawless,’” she said, but the results are stifling. “Being placed in that role, as someone whose opinions are never wrong, who’s always on the right side of all views or positions, to me that’s like being dead,” she explained. “I can’t live in that place. I’m not always right, I don’t know what I think a lot of the time. I need to be free to be flawed in that way.”