Eva Schloss - full transcript

Jemima Khan talks to Anne Frank's step-sister.

shorter version of this interview appeared in the New Statesman's special issue on Jews and Judaism

Why did you wait so long before telling your story?

When I came back in 1945 I was desperate to talk about what had happened. But people were not interested at the time.  The war was finished, people wanted to move on and everybody had suffered so there was just no interest yet so we suppressed it and we lived with it.

And how many years later did you actually write your book?

Well in ’86, when the first Anne Frank exhibition came to London and Ken Livingstone had organised it, and he put me on the head table at this exhibition, which was a very solemn opening - at the end he said, "and Eva will want to say a few words".  Well as I said, I’d never spoken about it and I was quite in shock but eventually everything that I had suppressed for so many years came flooding out. So this was, for me, really a watershed.  From then on I was always asked to speak and open exhibitions and then people said you should really write your story down, which I did; then it came out in 1988.

Was it a relief to have written it?

Yes it was; it was because till then it was never out of my thoughts really, but then I was able to let go more.

Had you ever talked to your close friends or your family about your experiences by that point?

No, not at all, certainly not to my family because it was too painful but of course Otto Frank (Anne Frank’s father) became my step-father and he was my children’s grandfather so of course my children knew the story of Anea Frank and knew there was something which wasn’t quite right.

Why do you think it’s so important that your story is told?

Some people say it’s enough about this, but it was the most horrendous event ever in human history and we have to learn from it - how it was possible for something like that to happen whilst the world was just looking on, and they didn’t take it seriously.  So it’s important to talk about it and learn from it and as well. You know, six million Jewish people but many, many other millions of innocent victims were killed; three million Poles and Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies –so we try to remember those people who have left no trace behind.  So they are not forgotten.

Do you think theatre or art can do more in dealing with tragedies like the Holocaust than perhaps more straightforward learning of history can?

Well for a lot of people seeing the visual acting out of particular scenes, they can understand it better. Often teachers say to me “I’ve taught the Holocaust for three weeks but seeing an hour of theatre depicting the events brings it home so much clearer to the students.” For young people to see it depicted is very helpful I think.

How many countries has the play been performed in?

Well the play was created of course in America and now we are doing it in England; we have been touring for three years.  We have been in the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament, English Parliament and a lot in schools, at least a hundred inner city schools; we have done it at the Edinburgh Festival, and we have been in Australia with it, in Germany, in Holland, in Latvia, in Riga . And China. So it’s widespread and we hope to do much more with it.

I know you’re interested in inter-faith understanding. In those schools, where there’s a high proportion of Muslim school children, have they responded well to the play?

Extremely well. I’ve got many photos where the Muslim girls come around me and say it’s an unbelievable story and they are quite ignorant about facts but when you explain it to them and when they see it they are quite shocked and very, very keen to learn. Some black children say “we didn’t know that Jewish people are persecuted, you are white after all”

If you could choose what the one message is that people take away after seeing your play or reading the book; what would it be?

That unfortunately we have not learned enough yet.  The message has been forwarded but it hasn’t completely been embraced and there’s still a lot of discrimination and hatred and we have to work together to eliminate that.

And what’s your answer to inter-faith hatred?

Well, I think basically every person really wants the same; we want to live in peace, to have got a job, to bring up our family in a safe way. All religions are supposed to bring good to the community, to uplift communities and it seems to have just the opposite effect. I always say the Jewish religion got Ten Commandments from Moses, God and if we would keep just to this, that’s all we need.

Have you been following the Breivik trial?

A bit. I think it’s amazing that he is still not sorry. Travelling has become easier and people try to find homes where they are more happy, where they can make a living and we have to accept that we are a mixed society now.

Is the anti-Semitism of the past comparable to the Islamophobia of today?

No, I don’t think so. This Islamophobia, it’s really more political – the most people in the world are Muslims now and I think people are afraid that the Muslims are going to take over. So it’s different – nobody expects Jewish people to take over the world - we are only fifteen million people and Muslims, are a billion. 

Have you been back to Austria?

Yes, actually, not for thirty years or so, but then our youngest daughter is very interested in her roots, in the German language, she studied German and so she wanted to go and see. So we went. I was young when I left, I remembered it as a beautiful country; my mother would never set foot there, she said “They threw us out, I don’t want anything to do with it”.  I was thrown out as well, but I still have lovely memories there and I have no bad feelings against Austria at all now.

How do you get to a point of acceptance?

Well you know, I was full of hatred and discrimination, and not just against the Germans but against the whole world because I felt everybody had let us down.  But I was miserable, I was really suffering from my own hatred and it was actually Otto Frank who told me, you know if you go through the world hating people you will be suffering, not the people you hate. So slowly, slowly I started to accept what had happened and see that there are some wonderful people; there is a lot of good being done in the world, and the Germans I think are at the moment, the least anti-Semitic people in the world because they have learnt their lessons.

Have you got any German friends?

Yes I have German friends; I’ve been quite a lot to Germany, I’ve been to Berlin, I’ve been to Munich, to Frankfurt and many places and I’ve spoken to many, many young Germans and do you know, they are very, very sorry, very guilty about what has happened and we can’t carry on into generations who had nothing to do with it. My mother felt much more bitter, but then it wasn’t so long ago, but now it is really seventy years ago that all this happened and we can’t really carry on our hatred and discrimination into the future, then we do the same as Hitler to discriminate against innocent people.

Have you ever met anyone who denies the Holocaust?

I had once been confronted with in America, a man who admitted he had been in the Hitler Youth, but he said you know we didn’t do any harm; it was just like Boy Scouting.  So he had really not admitted that there was anything bad being done by them. Nobody has really confronted me and said, you are just telling lies. Personally my opinion is we should just ignore them, not give them a platform. The more we let them speak and the more we listen to them and the more we defend our position the more they talk.

Have you been back to Auschwitz?

In 1995 the Dutch television contacted me because it was the first time there was a big memorial service in Auschwitz with all the heads of states from the western world, and they wanted to do a programme with me there.  At first I said no I certainly won’t go, but then I was thinking it over and I thought well perhaps if I go I can close the circle, you know, and I will be able to get over it easier.  But it was horrific; I went back, it was January 1995 and it was very bleak and it was really horrible.  They did the programme and after that I have never been back, and I won’t go back. Now it’s become sort of a tourist attraction, you know, people go and I’ve seen a film about an American group going to Mauthausen and he was saying oh now I’ve seen Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, I have still to go to Dachau – and they are filming to show to their friends – it is a very solemn experience, it shouldn’t be used as a – well, as a tourist thing.

Why did you decide to keep your tattoo?

Well when we came back, first of all we didn’t – it was an expensive process, we didn’t have the money and we had other worries.– I’m actually glad to have it because in schools children always want to see it and I say to them it’s very important for you to remember because when we are not around anymore in twenty years, thirty years perhaps, there will be more people who will write the Holocaust never existed and so it’s a new generation of youngsters who will have to keep the story alive and tell well yes, I’ve seen somebody, I’ve seen their tattoo.  It’s important to have a visual remembrance of it.

How did you  find your family and friends, initially when you first came out ?

Well my mother was with me - in ’45 we were liberated, the war wasn’t finished, so we couldn’t go back home yet, so we went east and we travelled for four months with the Russians till we ended up in Odessa.  So then after, when the war was finished, we came back via Marseille and up through France back to Holland and there were transports coming back from Germany, people who had survived at different camps, and it was a very, very sad period; people going around asking have you been in this camp, have you met this person, do you know anything? We personally didn’t hear anything till we got a letter from the Red Cross saying that both my father and brother had died in the camp. So this was for us of course the worst, you know. I got over my own suffering and I’m not bitter about that, but that loss – that they have killed my brother who was not quite nineteen, my father was forty-five, they were in the prime of their lives, for no reason whatsoever, you know, that is something I will never be able to forgive.

Were you scared to have your own children after your experience?

No not at all, on the contrary I wanted to build up again a family because many of our family members were lost.  So I wanted to – I really wanted a large family and carry on the Jewish tradition and our families' genes.

What happened to your faith during your years at Auschwitz?

I definitely came out of Auschwitz an atheist; I really lost faith in everything, in humans, and even in God, because the suffering was just unbelievable and if we are supposed to be the chosen people, you know, God’s people, how can he let this happen without helping, without stopping it. God wasn’t there for us, so obviously I came out of the camp an unbeliever.  But as I got my life back in a way and the birth of my first daughter was really a miracle. I couldn’t conceive at first because in the camp you have no periods - they put bromide in your liquids - and so obviously my hormones weren’t working properly. I was really very, very worried that I wouldn’t be able to have children, but through treatment I was able to and that was, for me, a turning point actually in my life.  I started to believe, well perhaps God did protect me, perhaps I should carry on the family and, you know, I started to have faith again.

And so now, would you say that you are a believer in God?

Yes, I certainly believe there is something - there is a purpose, there is a reason why the whole world exists .

Were your parents religious? 

No, certainly not orthodox; We were a liberal Jewish family.

Would you mind describing the moment when you last saw your father?

Well my mother had been selected by Mengele to be gassed. For three months I thought I had lost her and I was in a very, very bad mental and physical state. I was really on the point of giving up. One day a couple called me and said somebody is here to see you and I went out of my barrack and there stood myfather with his SS boss. I don’t know how he was able to get to see me, how he was able to find me amongst hundreds of thousands of women – it was unbelievable and he told me that my brother was still okay. I told him that my mother had been killed – Now I feel very guilty because I think that probably made my father give up. He didn’t want to live anymore. But, this is what I thought, and he came three times to see me and then I never saw him any more. I was fifteen.

And when did you see your mother again and how did you find out she was alive?

When the Germans realised the Russians were approaching, they evacuated most of the camp and took them into Germany and Austria. It wasn’t so strict any more; there were many, many camps, A, B, C, D, E and you could go around from one camp to the other and those people we had come with on the transport with told me that they’d seen my mother alive. At first I thought they just told me that to cheer me up, but it was true and then I was able to go to where she was and we were reunited. She was very, very weak, so this was the point really when I became an adult.  I had to look after her.

And Anne Frank, you knew each other as children.  What was she like?

Well we were eleven years old; I knew her from eleven to thirteen and at that time she was definitely not anything sospecial and I certainly didn’t have any inkling that she might write such a diary with such a message and such a meaning. When I knew her she was a child, interested in clothes and fashion, in hair styles, in boyfriends and certainly not anybody who I would have suspected to become famous or even be able to write such a book with so much depth in it.

And when did you first read her diaries?

At a time when I was still very, very bitter - I was a very miserable teenager and I must say at that time I thought it was the same thing I went through; I wasn’t particularly impressed. 

Is peace in the Middle East possible?

I always thought Ireland and Israel is a bit similar; there has been no peace in those countries for ages, but it has been possible in Ireland and people start to be more reasonable and realisethat if both parties really want peace, you know, it doesn’t help anybody to be in a war and to kill each other. So I do hope eventually people will see reason and come to a solution because theremust be a solution and there can be a solution, but both sides have to cooperate.

Did you ever consider living in Israel?

No, definitely not.  My husband had emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and when we got married he definitely wanted to go back but at the time my mother asked him not to take me so far away.  My husband has lots of relatives there, it’s amazing what they’ve achieved in this relatively short time but I’ve lived in four countries Austria, Belgium, Holland and England; all with these different languages and different cultures and it’s difficult. and so I never had any intention to move there. But on the other hand I think it’s a country which has to stay a Jewish country because if ever something like this happens again we don’t have to wait, we don’t have to wait to get out, we can just go there and be safe.

Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?

Well in theory, yes. I think we need that country but it is not a country where I would say I want to go and live.

How do you respond to those who compare what Israel is doing to the Palestinians to what the Germans did to the Jews?

Well I think that is completely nonsense because the Germans killed innocent people, they were good citizens, there was no quarrel, there was no dispute about anything and now of course Israel and Palestine are in war. There is no peace treaty, the Palestinians haven’t accepted the existence of Israel and there are attacks on Israel’s population – the Jewish people, because we are so small, value life very, very, very much, you know. Each soldier, each civilian who is killed, it is a tragedy for us. But the Palestinians don’t seem to realise that and – I don’t agree with the war- but the Jewish people, but the Israelis are defending themselves against continuous attacks and of course in a war situation accidents do happen- innocent families are killed, children are killed, but it is because there is a war going on.  So it’s completely incomparable.

Of what are you most proud, personally?

I am amazed that I’ve been able to survive and my family sometimes don’t like it that I’m a strong person, quite domineering, but it is through my strength I was able to survive A lot of it was luck aswell, but without my strength I would certainly not have made it.

Do you have any personal regrets?

The only thing is I really wanted to have a much larger family. I had the fourth child but I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t have any more children, and this is really quite a regret for me.

What are your plans for the future?

Well I’ve been approached by Hodder & Stoughton, the publishers, they’ve commissioned me to write a new book and this is what I’m working on now which will come out in March.

Don’t you ever get tired?

Well, I do but I have a good night’s sleep and that’s it, I can carry on again. Next month, I’ll be eighty-three and I hope I’ll be able to carry on my work because I hope that I have a little bit of influence on young people.

Do you ever nightmares about your time in Auschwitz?

I used to; I used to have it for many years because you had to suppress it and then of course it came out at night.  But since I began to speak out, even though I think about it daily, I don’t have nightmares anymore.

Eva Schloss is the author of “Eva’s Story” and “The Promise” (Puffin, £5.99)

Eva Schloss at the opening of the new exhibition 'Misschien trekken ook wij verder' ('We too might move on') at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage