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Countdown to Zadie

Brit Lit expert and writer-in-residence to give talks on Zadie Smith leading up to Feb. 11 Mac Hall appearance

Zadie Smith Photo by Dominique Nabokov 

By Heath McCoy

Even though she is one of today’s most celebrated contemporary writers, the work of Zadie Smith also boasts a healthy connection to a great literary past.

Both poet Nick Thran, the University of Calgary’s 2015-16 Canadian Writer-in-Residence, and English professor Pamela McCallum agree on this point. Thran and McCallum will each be speaking on Smith, in the days leading up to her Feb. 11 appearance at MacEwan Hall as the University of Calgary’s 2015-16 Distinguished Visiting Writer.

Thran will be giving a reading largely focused on Smith’s most recent novel NW tonight (Feb. 4) at Shelf Life Books (at 7 p.m.) while McCallum will deliver her lecture on Monday, Feb, 8, at Gallery Hall in the Taylor Family Digital Library (also at 7 p.m.) Both lectures are free.

“I think people connect with the way in which Smith writes about a new generation of English people who are born in England and raised in England, but they may not look the way we typically assume an Englishman or woman would look like,” says McCallum, an expert on British literature. “In other words, she’s writing about that second generation of immigrants. She’s one of the few writers who has really taken this on in a very brave and profound way. Of course, this has resonance today, not only in Britain, but also in Europe and North America.”

But along with this contemporary relevance, Smith also taps into the larger tradition of the classic English novel, McCallum notes. For example, her acclaimed debut novel White Teeth in 2000, was often compared to the work of Charles Dickens.

“White Teeth was that epic, family novel that spanned several generations, as in the works of Dickens,” McCallum says. “Like Dickens, it was a really exciting story about the streets of London.”

The contemporary/classic connection is just as prominent in 2012’s NW, says Thran. That novel is decidedly postmodern with its experimental tone, the literary voice shifting between first and third person, stream of consciousness and even screenplay style dialogue. But at the same time, Thran feels, the book “communicates a palpable nostalgia for the traditional story and all of the elements that define that.”

“I love that it’s kind of classic and modern at the same time,” he says. “NW presents its story in a way that’s very contemporary. I don’t know if you could tell it in any other way. But it also makes room for nostalgia, without letting nostalgia dictate the terms of the narrative.”

McCallum expands on Smith’s contemporary significance. “She was the first modern writer to take on the cultural mix in Britain, which resonates with any of the settlers’ colonies. She’s not afraid in The Autograph Man (2002) to create Chinese characters, or in White Teeth to create Muslim characters. She’ll create Bangladeshi families alongside Jamaican families. She really addresses how contemporary cultures are going to live together. She examines the issues they need to think about and engage with.”

She adds: “When you really get into it, you realize it’s all related to a larger question about the state of England.”

This is a key concern in so many of the great English novels, McCallum points out. “Look at George Eliot’s Middlemarch or E.M. Forster’s Howards End. They’re all about the state of England. What is going to happen to England in this new century?”

“Zadie Smith really places herself in that larger tradition, even though she’s very contemporary and cutting edge. That’s what has given her work such resonance, I think.”

Admittance to the Feb. 11 Zadie Smith event at MacEwan Hall is free but tickets were claimed on the day they were released. However, all is not lost! To win access to the event: