Me, on the screen

Race in <em>Animal Crossing: New Leaf</em>.

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I’m sitting on my bed for the third day in a row.

I’m waiting for 5PM to hit so that I can finally close my 3DS. I’ve been ‘tanning’ my avatar in the latest entry of Nintendo’s long running Animal Crossing series, New Leaf. I put ‘tanning’ in scare quotes because the method doesn’t match my intention. Yes, I’m doing the the thing the game calls tanning, but my objective isn’t just darkening my avatar’s skin tone, it’s being able to see in the screen what I see in the mirror

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Why avatar and not character? Because the hallmark of Animal Crossing is expressivity. You play a recent immigrant to a small town, and over the course of many short play sessions you carve out a place for yourself. You go fishing, catch bugs, and harvest fruit to raise the funds to pay off your home loan, and then do it all over again to pay for expansions and for new floors. You go shopping for new furniture and clothing from a rotating stock of available options. Want to look like a sea captain? Grab that ridiculous but charming beard and design yourself a sharp looking pea coat. Want to turn that new add-on into an ad hoc trophy room? Get some shelves and tables, and put those trophies out. You’ve earned it. You get to decide the direction of the little community you live in too: Plop down (and finance) new bridges; Put into place ordinances that require residents to take better care of the plants in town. Animal Crossing is a game you push and pull and stretch and step on until you like what you see, and then you do that some more because aesthetic contentment is a moving target, and AC is all about letting you hit that target again and again.

Well, almost. Because no matter how much direct control I have over my house, my wardrobe, or the town I lives in, I don’t ever get to specifically pick one very important thing: my skin color.

Technically, you don’t customize your character at all before the game properly starts. You’re asked a few innocuous questions in the opening moments of the game, and based on how you answer, you get an arbitrarily assigned avatar. I got a doofy dude with what looked like an off-brand Fantastic Four t-shirt. I’ve seen people on forums defend the absence of a skin selection option by referencing this opening. They argued that the game would be less charming if it had a checklist-style character creator. It almost goes without saying: this is an argument that comes from a privileged position. It’s easy to make charm your primary concern when discomfort and exclusion aren’t ever possibilities. 

Still, I’m okay with having some degree of vagueness here. It works. As above, AC is about making small, discrete choices over the course of weeks and months that slowly brings your vision into being. I don’t mind the t-shirt: I know that I can buy something cooler as soon as it’s in stock (and if it isn’t, I can always design something on my own.) I don’t mind the hairstyle: I know it won’t be for at least a week or two, but eventually a hairdresser will move to town and I’ll be able to get a new ‘do. When I’m sick of these choices I can change them again. That’s where the joy in AC comes from for me: bringing the avatar and the world into line with my whims. And it does it so damned well, except for this one thing.

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It is 1992.

I am 7 years old and standing in Tilt, the local mall arcade. I flip from character to character on the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition screen. Who do I pick? Maybe Ryu? Karate and headbands care cool. Maybe Blanka? Monsters and electricity, right? Woah, definitely not Balrog. He looks, well… He looks dumb. That’s what dumb people look like. He looks like the bad guy. And he is, he’s one of the bad guys. He’s not even the cool bad guy. He doesn’t get a cape, or a catchphrase, or a mask. I don’t know the word brute yet. I don’t know that he’s a crude parody of Mike Tyson, I just see a resemblance. I don’t know know why, I just know that I do not want to associate myself with the only African-American in this game.

There are other characters of color, of course. Sagat seems okay, I guess… Dhalsim can spit hot fire, so, okay maybe. Chun-Li maybe… sure she was a girl, but she was fast. And back then, and for years after, I wanted to play as everything I wasn’t. I wanted to be thin, quick, attractive. That word called a great variety of images into my head, but they were rarely (if ever) black men. Especially when we understand ‘attractive’ to incorporate more than physical attributes.

So I tried to find affinity in other places. That same year, the X-Men cartoon started airing on Fox, and I’d pretend I was Cyclops because, like me, he had to wear glasses all the time. I got good grades, so I’d choose Donatello on the TMNT machine—he was the smart one. But I never saw myself in any of the few black characters that were available. I chose to run with Vincent or Cid in my third party slot in Final Fantasy VII, never with Barrett—another brute, another parody. Other people saw me as black, but I knew that I was mixed, and I might have clung to that. That’s how I rationalized that I get to play as the white hero instead of the black sidekick. That’s how these things work.

I hover over Balrog for a second, one more time. I like Mike Tyson, but I hear he’s a criminal. That meant a lot. I was a good kid.

I like Randall Cunningham, the quick-scrambling, play-making quarterback for the Eagles. No, I love him. My dad makes sure I get his autograph once, outside of an open practice in Westchester, PA. On the way home I hear from him about how “black quarterbacks” are a fairly new thing. That for years, white coaches and sports writers thought that blacks were too dumb to play QB—that they were good running backs, good wide receivers, great linebackers, but they just didn’t think quickly enough to be leaders. Even Randall… he says, trailing a bit, knowing the stats, knowing that he makes mistakes, that he throws interceptions. I wonder now if there was ever a point in my father’s life that he wondered, like me then, if what those people said about us might be true.

Back at the cabinet. Back in Tilt. I pick Guile, of course. Straight blonde hair, blue eyes, american F-16s and combat fatigues. And I’m a Guile player for years.

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It’s this past Thursday.

I’m at a friend’s house, looking at what might become a spare room in the next month or two. Back in my current apartment, my 3DS sits open on the makeshift end table next to my bed. I forget to turn the volume off when I leave, so when I come home, I can hear the ‘exotic’ island tune chirping out of the tiny speakers. I frantically check to see if Argyle—my twee-as-fuck avatar—has gotten any color yet. It’s been five hours, and nothing. See, it’s not that I have no control over my character’s skin color. Based on past games in the series, I knew that I could tan. Just head to the tropical island that opens up a few days into play and hang out in the sun. Just five hours and you’ll hit the darkest shade. At least, that’s how it used to work. Now, nothing.

I’m upset. I’d already been frustrated, but now I’m really upset. If I could go to the island, tan to the level I wanted, and go on about my business for the rest of the game, I wouldn’t be writing this. I’d still be upset that skin color wasn’t a customization option in the game, but the practical effect on my play would’ve been so minimal that it wouldn’t have simmered for so long, it wouldn’t have made me feel so disconnected from the me on the screen.

Because the me up here wants to go do other things: he wants to head back to the mainland, shake some trees, talk to the other villagers in town, write some letters, redecorate the house, maybe check out a few of the museum exhibits that I’ve donated to. I can’t do any of that. I adore how a friend of mine has carefully displayed custom ground tile patterns around her village in order to build walkways and boardwalks and plazas, and even though I know it would take a lot of work, I’d love to do something just like that. But I’m stuck on the island hoping for a tan.

I don’t even know what is preventing it from happening. After the first day without results I decide I should remove my avatar’s glasses, my hat, my shoes and socks. I wonder if fishing could somehow interfere with the tanning process. What if my inventory is open? Or if I’m designing a new pattern? Does the tan happen live, as I play? Or do I have to wait a day to see the result? It’s all unclear. Not only is this a time sink that keeps me on the island, it’s opaque too.

Like I said before, I don’t mind having to work at getting the things I want in this game: that’s the whole point of playing. But this isn’t work. Those other goals require skill or planning—oftentimes both. They result in discrete rewards: selling the bugs you collected for cash you can put towards new clothes; turning in the giant carp you caught at the very last second to net you first place in the fishing tournament (and a sweet trophy). They’re aspirational: a second floor to your house; a community campsite that will attract a new range of characters through your town; a new wing on the museum, maybe even one you can curate yourself. Those things are interactive. This is, well, this is me out at lunch while my 3DS sits and waits. This is patiently waiting for 5 PM when (supposedly) the tanning process ends for the day, and I can get back to work. Get back to play.

That’s the crux of it. If ‘tanning’ is a thing you want to do actively, it means stopping ‘normal’ play. There’s only so much you can do on the island. You have a limited access to storage, so you can only save up so many fish and bugs. There’s a character who will buy things from you on the island, but she only offers you 5% of what you can get on the mainland. (I’ll leave someone else to spend a few thousand words on cutting into that.) You can’t even choose to save your game from the island.

In short, the island is ludically segregated from the rest of the game. On one hand, that makes it different, it makes it special. Trips to and from the island come with a sea shanty sung by an offensive-but-maybe-in-a-charming-way sea captain. You can play mini-games with your friends there. It’s a great place to visit, but…

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For years I played as white characters.

They were inevitably the ones I wanted to be like. Still, there were moments when I’d get to step into someone’s shoes I felt comfortable in. GTA: San Andreas’  Carl Johnson is problematic in his own right, but when I read people on Gamefaqs complaining that Rockstar had “gone ghetto,” I bristled. For the first time ever, I took pride at seeing someone like me in a starring role of a game. He was only like me in this one way, but it was the one way that had never been represented, so it mattered that much more. It got tricky when games started to let me customize my characters. I made huge stables of wrestlers in Fire Pro Wrestling G, and yeah, some of them were black, so I didn’t even notice that I never actually played as anyone but the quick, non-black luchadores. I never even noticed that the black characters I’d made were all from the Balrog or Barrett school. Bruisers. Tough guys. Brutes.

I remember my Knights of the Old Republic character so well: he was the asian guy with reddish hair, a smug look on his face, just asking to fall to the dark side. But something in me was upset that he got paler when he went evil. I wanted him to remain a man of color, even if it wasn’t my color. Years later, I split the difference and made my two main characters on the MMO The Old Republic green skinned, alien brothers with Greek features and strange tattoos.

In sports games I made myself. No. I made Randall Cunningham, again, but with my name, and with less interceptions. The game knew Austin Walker was black and was a quarterback, but it didn’t know he was a “black quarterback.” It would never run those smarmy editorials, carefully phrasing my trade in such a way as to signal to the “right” readers that I should leave because of how my race affected my performance.

The first time I ever played in a long term D&D campaign I made a half-elf—bi-racial, like me. I’m putting this out there because it’s hilarious and says basically everything you need to know about 18 year old Austin Walker: his name was Xanatos Woodshymn, he was a bard who was raised by orcs and who saw himself as the ‘by any means necessary’ advocate for the kobolds who were being used as slave labor in the nearby mines. He was the reincarnation of the Elven god Corellon—it was one of those D&D games—and at the final moment of the first “season” of our campaign, he sided with the orcs, resurrecting their ancient ‘evil’ god and becoming public enemy number one for all of elf-kind. It was a weird year. I had dreadlocks.

I had dreadlocks because I’d spent years trying to work out a hairstyle. In high school, I wanted hair like all my white friends. In the end, I chose simply not to have the same hairstyles all my black friends. In the process tried a number of regrettable hair styles, many of which—like the dreads—stuck around for way too long.

By the time Mass Effect came out, I’d cut off the dreads. I was sitting with my roommates and making my character, and there was an unspoken pressure there. For weeks, I’d planned to remake my space-asshole Asian character from KoTOR. But what would my roommates say if I did that instead of making someone who looked like me? Would they be surprised? Concerned? Suddenly, for the first time ever, I felt a responsibility to really be me, on the screen. I remembered early interviews with Casey Hudson, how he described Shepard’s indistinct, multi-ethnic background. He was already halfway there, I thought. Let’s just give him a less chiseled chin, tight, curly hair, my lips, my nose. I made Austin Shepard. Since then, I’ve never made an “Austin” again. Since then, I never had to. But all of my characters have had something of me in them.

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My 3DS is in my bag, at my feet.

The volume is down this time, but I keep peeking to make sure that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is still running, that my battery hasn’t run out—I can’t save here on the island, remember. Plus, every half hour or so I pick up the system and flick through a few menus, coming to rest on a new one. I’m terrified of screen burn-in. I’ve read that it’s rare on the 3DS, but I have a history with electronics breakings in remarkable and unlikely ways. Still, it’s worth the risk.

Soon—if the past games are to be any indication, it’ll be in mid July—I’ll be able to tan on the mainland too. That is only a relative improvement though. I’ll still have to be careful about becoming too tan—I’m not a “level six” tan, after all. This will never be stable: it is an ongoing, careful project, and it’s one with questionable implications.

One is the way in which your desired skin color affects the degree to which you have to monitor your avatar’s time in the summer sun. Because New Leaf’s tanning doesn’t seem to happen in real time, and because it seems to take days instead of hours now, trying to get a particular mid-level skin tone is more precarious than maintaining a pale complexion. Not only is the outcome hard to predict, but someone who wants the default skin to stay only has to bring a parasol around with them in the summer sun. They literally have access to tools and methods I don’t. It is very hard not to just write “DO YOU GET IT?” over and over again. I don’t have a tanning booth, or tanning lotion. I certainly don’t have a way to lock in my current tan level.

The other implication is that it might be the case that tanning is a disincentive to overplaying. I hadn’t realized it until my friend with the cobblestone roads pointed it out. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve kept your game running for five straight hours for some odd reason. You might notice that your town’s other villagers will greet you with an admonishment. You look tired they say, you should take a rest. You should stop playing. There is a strange, formal parallel between this directive and tanning. Both come only after hours of uninterrupted play. The same activity results in both outcomes. Coupled with the fact that players are outfitted with ways to prevent, but not cause tanning, it’s hard not to draw some connections.

My argument isn’t that Nintendo has gone out of its way to be racist, it’s that the question of race seems to have never been brought up to begin with, and that has its own problems. Privilege works by naturalizing one position, or one set or style of positions. It isn’t as simple as valuing that position over others: even that would acknowledge a field of differences. To work in a system of privilege is to start all projects from a set of premises that are believed to be inviolable. You don’t get more pale, in New Leaf, you only get darker. The natural position is whiteness—or, at least, one without melanin like mine.

I’m sitting at Starbucks. I’m writing this from an armchair I’ve sat in before, hundreds of times. Once, as I did so, two older women, white, glared up at me from across the communal table when I started to read, and relocated across the room. They shot me dirty looks for hours.

Games rarely got race right, but sometimes they’d cede control to me, and let me figure out what I thought “right” meant. I craved those experiences, and I still do. Not all of my characters are black, or men, or straight like me. I get to craft something along with the game, something that ‘fits.’ That can be an awkward experience: fiddling with skin color sliders, augmenting breast size, giving a character a deeper or higher voice. Figuring out what ‘fits’ for the character I have in mind feels somehow almost fascist. There is something actually sadistic in all authorship, after all.

But there are moments when I want to see more of myself on the screen. Times like this. I rarely use terms like ‘privilege’ in my writing, whether here or academically. It isn’t my field. Or, I guess, part of the way this particular power relation is structured, it is my field even if I didn’t want it to be.

I remember that I’ve been called nigger more times in the last two years of walking this small stretch of Canadian road than I did in 25 years of living on US soil. Someone threw an egg at me once.

I haven’t felt like sharing many of my New Leaf screenshots. Sometimes, something is too clever not to share, but I position my character so that he’s obscured. On seeing the head-on shot of Argyle wearing my cobblestone road friend’s absurd t-shirt design (above), another friend said “That’s my mental picture of Austin almost exactly.” He meant that in the nicest way possible, but it stung. I knew part of why it was only ”almost” exactly.

A girl I dated here suggested that my skin tone prevented me from getting important vitamin D from the sunlight. Vitamin D, she said, necessary to make deep, interpersonal relationships. I see some irony now, desperate that my little avatar soak in as much sun as possible I want to be on this screen. I want to be black on this screen.

Across from me—and I can hardly believe this is happening right now—a group of twenty something student teachers are whispering about how black students don’t understand apostrophes or commas. I hear the phrase “drug issues” and “them” a few times in a row.

But still. My 3DS is in my bag, open, my avatar staring back up at me in the island sun. I wanted to end this piece by saying that I’d closed it. I haven’t. The sun is still out on the island. I can’t be sure tanning actually stops at 5, so I wait. I’m hoping he’ll look more like me, soon.

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This piece was originally posted on Austin's tumblr, Clockwork Worlds, and is reposted here with his permission. The original article can be found here.

Austin Walker is pursuing a PhD in media studies at the University of Western Ontario. He writes on gaming and culture at ClockworkWorlds, and tweets @austin_walker.

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