Singapore Writers Festival 2020 is happening from now till 8 Nov. 🎉
Read my overview of the festival here.
This is my first time hearing Zadie Smith’s voice and she is just as sharp as she is on the page. Parts of what she says resonate so much it feels like she is stapling words into my head.
Over the course of an hour, Zadie talks about writing (how the impulse arose for Intimations, her newest essay collection), the “platforms” that dominate our lives, and about language.
When she picked up the pen it was initially out of an urge to return to a distance away from technology, back to her rate, her time, her space. As writers, she says, there’s more than one way to think, more than one way to write, and more than one way to live — you don’t have to live at the frenetic pace of clicking notifications, scrolling, giving hot takes, and doing violent arguments. We think this is how we ought to live, “embedded in the algorithm,” and that it’s as natural as breathing.
But it was invented by a couple guys on the West Coast of the United States.
Watching her on my screen, animated, freckles capering about, the lure is undeniable.
She interrogates, reminding, “Things could be otherwise,” which she calls a mantra for all writers; that no matter how feverish, how manic the collective dream of social media, and how convincing ideology is when disguised as nature, writers need to observe better. And to observe requires them to sometimes abstain from the language of their times, to separate themselves from a massive medium (be it the TV in the 80s, or Instagram now), and to engage with — not symbols, not abstract ideas — the detail of lives.
The language of our times. What is it?
A few words surface frequently over the course of her conversation with moderator Joel Tan. Cultural appropriation. Privilege. Memes. What it means to be a woman. What it means to be black, white, Chinese, other, a person of color (or not), underrepresented, overrepresented, to be a good informed citizen.
“Language is not truth,” says Zadie.
Language offers a frame to make sense of our lives because experience is without form, as is interior life, as are our feelings. And perhaps all our lives are a makeshift attempt to grab onto a frame for the roiling madness of experience. No frame — a novel, an article, an argument, a meme, a caption, a slogan, a quote — can be permanent. The language that we hold onto is always transformable, partial, relative, and will one day be washed away as was the language of the generations before us. Our 19th century human counterparts had an utterly different conception of “equality.” No surprise. Those in the 22nd century will sweep away our language too.
The danger, then, as Zadie suggests, is in letting a secondary medium provide you with the language of thought and assuming that its language is innocent, neutral even. Social media mediates, nudges, forces upon us a certain language, standardised by algorithms to the point of banality. She brings up the example of Gmail offering to finish our sentences.
I wonder if she’s right. Then I think about who is even listening. Zadie probably wonders the same thing because at some point in the hour, she says, big eyes staring right at the camera, “I wonder if I’m writing for a person who is quickly, swiftly ceasing to exist.”
The kind of person who reads more books and essays than memes and listicles? Or the kind of person who isn’t embedded in the algorithm? Or the kind who, paraphrasing Orwell, do their own thinking instead of letting others do their thinking for them?
Zadie Smith is no doubt provocative. I love that.
In particular, I take time reflecting on her insistence that writing should neither be a social media exhibit nor a performance for the algorithm because I do write for an audience (hi there, you who are reading). It’s near impossible to be Marcus Aurelius nowadays — someone writing only for himself — unless I’m keeping a physical diary.
I guess I don’t have an answer. In secondary school, I was obsessed with Facebook. Then, I came to Instagram two years later than all my friends did, only after I had finished A-levels. Over the past few months of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve intentionally weaned myself off social media for long stretches of time.
But this blog, this corner of the internet, feels different. It nourishes me instead of depletes. It allows for ambiguity, for nuance, for meandering paragraphs instead of pithy, immediate, surface representations. Maybe that’s why I still read novels and am trying to write one. To make sense of this world, this life, this moment. For me, it feels like a hard hard thing to do. And so I write.
Thank you to Zadie Smith and moderator Joel Tan for the illuminating conversation! Many thanks to the wonderful Singapore Writers Festival team for the complimentary digital pass! Check out the exciting programme in the days ahead here.
I’ll be covering Liu Cixin’s event tomorrow!!!
Lots of love,