Zadie Smith’s NYPL Lecture “Speaking in Tongues” Posted in Full at the NYRB


Photo by Peter Foley via WYNC

Zadie Smith’s NYPL talk “Speaking in Tongues,
curiously excised of its references to Lil Wayne and its cute, “it gives me jokes” colloquialisms, is reprinted in full at the New York Review of Books. I wish she’d kept the line about “keeping it real.” But I still think about this election night story all the time:

    To live variously cannot simply be a gift, endowed by an accident of birth; it has to be a continual effort, continually renewed. I felt this with force the night of the election. I was at a lovely New York party, full of lovely people, almost all of whom were white, liberal, highly educated, and celebrating with one happy voice as the states turned blue. Just as they called Iowa my phone rang and a strident German voice said: “Zadie! Come to Harlem! It’s vild here. I’m in za middle of a crazy Reggae bar–it’s so vonderful! Vy not come now!”

I mention he was German only so we don’t run away with the idea that flexibility comes only to the beige, or gay, or otherwise marginalized. Flexibility is a choice, always open to all of us. (He was a writer, however. Make of that what you will.)

But wait: all the way uptown? A crazy reggae bar? For a minute I hesitated, because I was at a lovely party having a lovely time. Or was that it? There was something else. In truth I thought: but I’ll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating. It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey.

It’s not in the essay, but she makes it uptown. After the talk, someone asked her about how the trip had turned out. “We danced all night,” she said.

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