"It's really repulsive," Zadie Smith said, describing a short black and white musical called Rufus Jones for President. The British-born novelist was in Toronto this past week promoting her new book, Swing Time, and we each sipped green tea as it rained. As our conversation veered toward the pros and cons of being a "minority" in the mainstream media – "numbers wise, there are more of us than them," she noted of the irritating term for non-white people – Smith mentioned the Sammy Davis Jr. film.
Shot in 1933, the movie stars an eight-year-old Davis as a bullied boy being comforted by his mother, played by Ethel Waters. She promises that he's headed for great things. The two drift off into a comic dream of a black president, one in which Rufus buys votes with pork chops and makes it illegal to build a fence around a watermelon patch. It's a ghastly parade of racist stereotypes, with white actors playing makeup-blackened Arabs and pointy-hatted East Asians as well.
"And poor little Sammy Davis is doing amazing tap dancing and working so hard," Smith said. It's a "horrible film," the author added – yet it's also full of astonishing footwork and offers the chance to enjoy Waters's luminous voice. It's impossible to either fully reject or embrace.
Rufus Jones didn't make it into Swing Time, but it helped develop the book's main theme: that each of us, like Davis, Waters and the two biracial girls at the centre of Smith's story, must make a life out of an individual bundle of human duties and gifts, often in the face of denied rights and dignity.
Living in a London housing project, the girls of Swing Time are friends by virtue of a shared neighbourhood and skin tone, but have very different fates. As they navigate mixed-race identity and life in 1980s and 90s London – plus pop culture, family and the transition from girldom into womanhood – their journeys will be familiar to fans of Smith's canon.
But there's plenty of new material here, too. Swing Time is Smith's most diasporic story to date, touching down in both New York City and West Africa and exploring what blackness means in each place. It's also her first book set in the first person, narrated by a character who remains unnamed throughout. "Part of the idea was, 'How does somebody talk about themselves from the inside?' " she explained. "And it just occurred to me that people don't, unless they're insane, refer to themselves in the third person. They just speak."
Which is what the unnamed narrator does as the story unfurls. She tells us that her friend, Tracey, has an enviable talent for dance but an unreliable, likely abusive, father. She, the narrator, has flat feet but two solid parents. Tracey's emotional damage makes it difficult to maximize her personal gifts. The narrator, meanwhile, is so distracted by her envy of Tracey and resentment of her own mother's determination to have a life beyond the domestic that she barely considers her own talents or desires.
Smith asserts that almost every character in almost every one of her stories shares bits of her own personality. While readers have assumed she's the unnamed narrator in the new book, she identifies strongly with the mother's timeless struggle to do it all. "The most difficult part is always the domestic part," she said of the process of writing.
She and her husband, novelist and poet Nick Laird, live in New York and London with their two children, who are seven and three. When she was about halfway finished the novel, their child-care situation fell apart, leaving them to put together a patchwork schedule. "We just had to get on with it," said Smith. "[My children] suffer, I think, when I work, but it's the same with all working parents." Celebrity authors, they're just like us – constantly being interrupted.
Life's "interruptions" come large and small – African-American poet Claudia Rankine uses the word to describe much thornier issues, namely racism and misogyny. Her epic 2014 book, Citizen, depicts a steady drip of micro-aggressions dehumanizing everyone from a college professor to an airplane passenger to tennis champion Serena Williams. In a recent interview, Rankine recalls being asked by a black reader why the book couldn't have been more hopeful. "The book is full of people living their lives," she replied. "And even if it focuses on the interruptions to those lives, around the interruptions there are still lives. That, I think, is important to remember."
This answer echoes a Toni Morrison line that's been making the social-media rounds since the U.S. election: During a 1975 speech in Portland, Ore., Morrison told her audience that "the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work." These ideas also echo in the backdrop of Tracey's struggles in Swing Time, a century of African-American dancers trying to do their work.
Some didn't succeed, exhausted by prejudice. Smith's narrator is delighted to introduce Tracey to Jeni LeGon, whose existence gives the girls a brief glimpse of a historical reflection; in real life, LeGon was so worn out by 1930s Hollywood that she gave up trying to be a star and moved to British Columbia. Others hung on, but sacrifices were always made – as was the case with the Nicholas Brothers of Alabama, another favourite of the narrator (and Smith). In the 1943 film Stormy Weather, the compact Fayard and Harold Nicholas are set up by a dashing, scatting Cab Calloway, then perform one of their signature moves, leaping over each other to drop into the splits down the entire length of a staircase.
"Their genius is undeniable," said Smith. "It's usually the case that history will defend genius no matter the present-day lies around it, but that's no substitution for practical exclusion. They weren't able to reach their full capacity."
The Nicholas Brothers always played backup to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Despite their arguably superior skills, they were never leading men – in part so their scenes could be excised when their movies played in the American South. Their legacy was passed on to their dance student, Michael Jackson, who also makes an appearance in the novel, shyly lying to Oprah about why his skin tone has changed.
Neither Sammy Davis Jr. nor Ethel Waters lived to see a black president, and now, Smith sighed, "we're losing ours." She agreed that her race makes her place in the public eye political by default. "But there's lots of different interpretations of politics, different kinds of intervention," she said. "I don't think you have to be bullied into only having one focus."
In part, that's because she sees the U.S. president-elect as an attention hog and is reluctant to "inflate his own sense of victimization and power." More importantly, her belief that both politics and art must be a wide umbrella is a core philosophy. After Sept. 11, 2001, she defended her work against charges of frivolity by arguing for the right to write about "love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded." And she still feels the same way.
"I think a kind of comfort can come from strange quarters, places you wouldn't expect," she said. Take again Rufus Jones, in which Waters is called upon to sing Under a Harlem Moon. The song was written two years before the movie was made, penned by a Jewish songwriter named Morris Gitler who changed his name to Mack Gordon to make it in Hollywood. "The original lyrics are quite unpleasant, all about picking cotton and being pickaninnies," said Smith. "And as she sings it, she changes all the lyrics … just enough that the most painful lines are gone."
Waters is gorgeous and unhurried as she performs her artistic resistance – if anyone noticed, it wasn't in time to reshoot the scene. "Under the radar," is how Smith put it. Interruption, it seems, can work both ways.