“I’m always hoping for something better beyond the edges of the pages.”
Part of it is obviously biographical, like when I meet other mixed race or bi-racial people, the oddity of that at a very basic level is that you don’t look like either of your parents. It’s a very fundamental thing for a child. You are different in both cases. That idea of immediate identification is slightly disrupted, in a way that can be interesting, because you then exist at the fault line of what identity even is.
But as I’ve said before, to express yourself in collectivity is one of the great joys of life; to say you are my sister, you are my brother, we have this background in common, we remember these streets, this neighbourhood. That’s very important to me. The difference is, I suppose, that I don’t think of it as an essential thing. A genetic, determinate thing. I think of it as a choice. I have chosen my community, the people that I love. I choose even my neighbourhood, and to be committed to it. I don’t think of things as birthrights. I never really did…just because of the way I was born.
Living in America and every now and then being amongst people who consider themselves to be unacknowledged legislators…. that really shocked me. I was just so fascinated by the way they spoke about poverty, the way they thought about it. More than anything the way that they thought it was their job to fix it, though I had not elected them, and though I had no idea who they were, and their only virtues seemed to be that they were obscenely rich. I found all of that really disturbing. The discussion about poverty was so removed and so abstract and clearly with no experience or intimate knowledge.
Also the idea in the past decade that everything could be fixed like a computer program. That you could disrupt poverty by this or that apt. No body was ashamed or embarrassed at this kind of conversation… You just do pilates, you go get your eyebrows done, and you disrupt poverty – just the third thing on your list. So that kind of thing was amazing just because I hadn’t seen it before, so I felt like I wanted to write about it.
“This idea that you could disrupt poverty by this or that apt… you do pilates, you go get your eyebrows done, and you disrupt poverty; it’s just the third thing on your list.”
When you’re a child, there’s a part of you that thinks: it’s not true, but why can’t it be true? I guess it’s a deep instinct of fiction writers. Which is dangerous in the world! When I think about talent, the pain in the book is being aware that that talent . There is so much talent in people, generally, such a variety, so many different kinds. Now that I’m in middle age, I’m so respectful and humble in the presence of domestic talent, which I’ve never had. Really something special. My feeling in the book is the pain of wasted talent. It’s a shame that the everyday craft and practices of people are taken from them, or they are humiliated for, or they don’t have the time in the day to think about them, or even think of them as gifts, that part I find really disastrous.
On happy endings
I’m always torn. It’s never that I feel I hate a character, I can’t really write characters that I hate. I’m trying to portray them fully, virtues and faults simultaneously, and always hoping for something better beyond the edges of the pages. I don’t know why I’m so perverse that I can’t give them happy endings within the book but I’m optimistic about them, about ‘lessons learned.’
I am optimistic about personal relations. You have to really lay yourself down. For example, in order for the narrator and Tracy (in Swing Time) to be friends again, the narrator has to really submit and say ‘I’m sorry and I was wrong.’ Things that are actually incredibly hard to say. It’s so much easier to hang onto your little proud sense of your wrongs that have been done to you and all the rest of it. I say all this but writing it and doing it are two completely differently practices! Easy to think about these things in the abstract but the lesson to me about writing is how hard it is to live, even to your most basic ideals and principles.
My feeling is that some things shouldn’t be dependant on a dream. Things like decent healthcare, decent housing, decent education. These things should not be reliant on talents or particular aspirations. In the books I’m always thinking about rights, and I guess what’s changed about writing now is what is generally considered to be a natural right is getting smaller and smaller. When I started writing White Teeth, most reasonable British people I knew would have considered health care a natural right, for example. I see that argument made in the 40s in Britain getting smaller and smaller. Until the area that is demanded by capital talent – as in if you can’t make it you can fuck off – that starts to cover areas of life and I’m really stunned that we can even conceive of it that way. I live in a country now where natural rights to education and health have never been established so it’s never been considered that way. It’s always been that idea from John Lock that you dig out your pool of wealth yourself.
That’s the truth Tracy is faced with – to be a star or to be nothing. To be utterly worthless, in the economy, in the eyes of the estate, in life. That’s not humane. It’s not reasonable. It’s weird that you have to start making all these arguments again because we are naively politically agreeing with them. Foolishness, I think. I thought ‘what idiots we are. What narcissistic, self concerned idiots.’ We thought ‘this is going to go on forever – wahey!’ And it didn’t.
On first person narrative
It’s important to have it said: my life’s not like your life. There are people in this world who people in this room can’t conceive. That I can’t conceive. It becomes important to say ‘no, we’re not all in this together.’ In America I’m so aware of the complete difference in possibilities in people’s lives. Your life, particularly if you’re black in America, is defined by your zip code. Your area. Your school. It’s life and death. In places like that it feels important to say, in the first person, ‘this is my story – “I” – and it is not like the story of X, Y and Z.’ There are fundamentals about it that means my life has gone in a different direction to yours.
“An amnesiac present: politics that occur there are not pretty.”
I’m always lecturing my students about a-historical thinking; like not caring when things happen, feeling that the moment you’re in is eternal, or it’s always been like this. I realised, even though I don’t even have one of those goddamn smart phones, what it’s done to us mentally. And it’s only been ten years! It’s such a paradigm shift that we actually misremember our own recent history. I’ve heard people in NY telling me ‘oh when the tower came down I was emailing my mum on my phone in 2001…’ It’s really fascinating, that historical distortion. It’s dangerous because what it means is you live in the eternal present. Politics that occur there are not pretty.