Author Zadie Smith On Her New Novel, Clothing, And Superstition

Illustrated by Liz Riccardi.

Yeah, she’s pretty awesome

The following feature appears in the December/January 2017 issue of NYLON.

Zadie Smith is one of those rare species of novelists—a genius, certainly, but a genius who has also managed to transcend the literary world and enter pop-cultural consciousness. She is a new kind of lit star, or rather, a kind that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but with key differences: She is female, biracial (Jamaican mother, English father), bicontinental (London and New York), and effortlessly beautiful and stylish. She wrote her first book, the best-seller White Teeth, nearly 20 years ago, as an undergraduate.

Her new novel, Swing Time, is a realistic look not only at female friendship but also race, globalization, celebrity, class, and cultural boundaries. In other words, Smith is a writer who reflects our modernity. She’s helping to build a new and crucial literary history, and for that reason alone it is an incredible honor to speak with her. But having just moved to North London, from which she hails, it is all I can do to stop myself from asking where I should eat or shop, not to mention how I can get on with making myself (as a stereotypically exuberant American) at home in this much more reserved culture. But Smith is friendly and patient, as her reputation might suggest, and blissfully generous, offering insight on the differences between British and American friendships (British ones are harder to form but more intimate), and even ruminating on Justin Bieber’s recent move to a manor in North London: “I love Bieber so much—such a beauty. He’s like an Adonis, something from ancient times.”

You graduated from college essentially having written White Teeth, whereas most people in their early 20s are still searching. Do you remember how you came to give yourself permission to be a creative person?
I had no career thoughts at that age. I thought of myself as a student of books. White Teeth came out of that feeling. And I still have that feeling, though I have a real job now. But as for permission, it’s not like I felt at 23, “That’s all done now, I’m finished.” But I do think among young people there is this idea that there are various things in your life that you will do and then feel a sense of completion, or that you’ve scored some point in some eternal race. You know, get married, have a kid—I don’t see life that way. I see it as a circling process toward death [laughs]. It’s nice to do things on the way, but I find it hard to feel that these things are achievements. They’re experiences. As for permission, it must have to do with my family. A lot of people feel like their parents want them to be something in particular, like a doctor or a lawyer, and it’s important to them to have these things to fulfill. Whereas, with us, there was a great, like, benign neglect I would call it.

It sounds like no one ever told you no.
When I said I wanted to go to Cambridge, my parents just said, “Oh, OK.” They didn’t really know what that involved, but it sounded fine. My mum was quite a good cheerleader. I also recognized the absence of a kind of femininity in my house—or femininity as a packaged thing. I just saw it as something that took a lot of time. There was no beauty process, nothing like that. 

You weren’t asked to be a certain way?
No. There were no magazines—not because my mother banned them, just because she had no interest in them. That whole world didn’t exist, and the world we saw on TV was pretty much white, so we were outside of it all.

Did you feel out of place?
I did. I mean, it’s impossible not to. I still have a habit that I think all my family does, of counting black people—and that comes from childhood, like, “Oh, there’s one on that TV show….” Now, if I go to an event, I’m still counting. That feeling, it’s just a kind of displacement. It has some negative consequences, but it’s mostly quite an interesting experience. For all these reasons it didn’t occur to me not to do what I was doing [at Cambridge]. I met a lot of kids in college who were very oppressed by history, the history of the novel, or the history of art, or the feeling that they couldn’t add anything. I just thought I had lots of places to go.

You mentioned not having a packaged version of femininity in your household, but one thing I’m struck by in your work, and in Swing Time especially, is that you craft meticulous descriptions of clothes and fashion.
I love clothes. Love them. 

You’re known for loving clothes.
I see myself now dressing like my mother, and it’s shocking to me. I went to her flat in a pair of Portuguese sandals—someone had shown them to me on the internet and I bought three pairs. I was obsessed, I have no idea why. I put on a pair and went round to my mum’s and she opened the door in the same shoes. But the way the women in my family dress is very, you know, there are no fripperies. 

It’s simple.
It is. And they overdress a lot. It would never occur to me to go out of the house in sweatpants. I want to be taken seriously, or even feared. I think women in West Africa dress like that quite a lot. When you’re wearing your wrapper and your head wrap and everything on, you’re a personage of some significance. 

Besides your family’s influence, were there fashion icons you attached yourself to?
No, because I was a very large child. I didn’t feel like that world was my world. There were people I admired, like Katharine Hepburn or Zora Neale Hurston, but there was no reflection. Now when I see my students, and when I’m walking through New York, seeing all the black hair, it’s such an explosion of naturalness. I would love to have been growing up now.

Do you think fashion is underrepresented in fiction?
Not in women’s writing. If you read Woolf, she’ll go 10 rounds over a hat, scarf, or dress. And in her diaries she’d recount taking a check directly from wherever she’d just been paid straight to the dress shop. In Britain, there’s a kind of morality about it, like we should not get dressed at all. But the logic behind that is fascinating, because it’s implicitly misogynistic to suggest that a woman who is beautifully dressed doesn’t need her brain—there’s no other purpose to having a brain for women unless you can’t get anything any other way. I completely submitted to that logic when I was a young woman. I really felt that there were beautiful women who were idiotic. Beauty was a compensation for idiocy, and I was a serious person. 

That way of thinking played out quite a bit during the lead-up to the American presidential election.
To think that way is to be inside the patriarchy, it’s to think like them—to split women into ‘Well, these are the ones we fuck, and these are the nerds.’ I really felt that when I moved to Italy. You can’t learn it in England because we confuse ethics and aesthetics all the time. It’s part of our way of being. Italians have no conflict between the idea of beauty and intelligence. For them the intelligence is the beautiful, and the beautiful is the intelligence; they don’t see any problems.

Are you superstitious in any way?

No, nothing.

Do you believe in luck?
I think life is almost entirely luck. Talent, for example, is luck. It is an argument for social equality, because luck is so irrational. Do you believe somebody who is lucky enough to be born with some gift or another deserves a better life? I don’t. I believe in the integrity of work, but I believe the luck, the incredible luck of being born, for example, as I was, in 1975 in London at a time of basic social cohesion, without war, is a kind of luck that is so overwhelming that you owe something to it for the rest of your life. I could have been born in 1340 in Romania, or anywhere before 1962 as a black woman, and life would have been so incredibly hard. Americans seem so proud to be American, but that’s entirely an accident—the things that arrive with birth are not things to be proud of. 

If you could assign every young woman three books, what would they be?
I think if they mean to be a writer, or even a whole woman, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Boring recommendation, but kind of vital. I have my old favorites, but there’s so much new stuff. I just read Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and right now I would say that it’s really important to any young woman to read that book. I’m reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing right now, and it seems vital to me. I had to email her at only 80 pages in to say, “If I had this book when I was 15, I would have had a different life.” There are all these fucking sob stories about the end of this and that, but the fact is: Check out what these young women are writing. It’s a very good time for books. 

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

"Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design"

Prada Group has announced that Prada, as well as all of its brands, will now be fur-free. According to a press release from the Humane Society, Prada, Miu Miu, Church's, and Car Shoe will ban the use of fur beginning with the Spring/Summer 2020 collection (aka the Fashion Week coming up next). The list of fashion designers banning fur only continues to grow, with 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and more having stopped using the material in seasons past.

"The Prada Group is committed to innovation and social responsibility, and our fur-free policy—reached following a positive dialogue with the Fur Free Alliance, in particular with LAV and the Humane Society of the United States—is an extension of that engagement," Miuccia Prada told the Human Society. "Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design while meeting the demand for ethical products."

Following London Fashion Week designers forgoing the use of fur in September and the first-ever Vegan Fashion Week taking place in February, it's easy to imagine an entirely fur-free fashion future. It's especially easy, I presume, for the brands to consider a fur-free future, given that entire cities and states are taking a stance. New York is following in the footsteps of Los Angeles banning fur, with a bill proposed this March that would ban sales across New York State.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

"Club leisure" is the new athleisure

Alexander Wang is recognizing clubbing as the workout that it truly is with his latest Adidas collaboration. In this fifth installment, he "changes gears," per a press release from the brand, taking the iconic sports brand to the dance floor.

For the new campaign, the collection comes to life in iconic choreographer Tanisha Scott's dance studio and stars dancers Noemi Janumala, Dakota Moore, Avi McClish, and Olivia Burgess. The dancers show just how far these clothes can go when you want to bust a move or stretch, but TBH, I'll leave these poses to the pros and just use my clothes for flexing on the 'gram.

The collection—which features six apparel items, three shoes, and six accessories—features, per a press release, "Wang's knack for pre-styling." Standouts from the mostly black-and-white items include a silver sneaker that was *made* for moonwalking, an airy windbreaker that has just the right dash of bright blue with the scattered Adidas trefoil design, and a towel hoodie that you won't feel bad sweating in.

Ahead of the May 25 collection drop online and in stores, peep the gorgeous campaign images below.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Joggers, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Towel Hoodie, $350, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Sock Leggings, $60, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Adilette Slides, $90, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Futureshell Shoes in Platinum Metallic, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Core White, $280, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Shorts in Core White, $120, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Bum Bag, $50, available staring May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Duffle Bag, $70, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

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