Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri just ended over the weekend. I became aware of the four-year-old event last year when Salmon Rushdie headlined (I had a FREE ticket, they are all free) but could not attend. But when Zadie Smith was announced as the headliner for 2018, I immediately got two tickets and made plans to attend with my wife. On Friday, we made the trek south from Des Moines, my copy of WHITE TEETH and my wife’s copy of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays, FEEL FREE in hand.
We got into Columbia with a few hours to spare and managed to hit one of the fine campus-town dining establishments for a cocktail and appetizer before arriving at the Missouri Theater with a good half hour to spare.
The theater is a wonderful venue, nearly a hundred years old with all the charm and character that comes with a building designed for live performance in the 1920’s. We managed to snag a front row seat off to the left with a wonderful view.
In discussion the next day, a new acquaintance described Zadie Smith as a person with a palpable presence you can “feel”. When she came on stage, wearing her signature head wrap and glasses, her presence filled the theater. She read from an essay about President Obama from a decade earlier then took her seat across from the moderator, Camille Dungy.
Camille Dungy was the perfect choice for a conversation with Zadie Smith. She steered the conversation effortlessly as it flowed organically from topic to topic with Smith routinely offering complex and insightful responses mixed with the perfect amount of humor.
Two hours flew by and then a short Q&A followed where Zadie Smith offered deeply encouraging and empathetic responses to all comers.
Twenty years earlier I sat in my college apartment flicking through TV channels when I landed on the Charlie Rose show on PBS. He was interviewing a young debut author named Zadie Smith. I don’t know why I paused on the channel but I watched the entire interview from beginning to end and promptly went out and found her book in the library. White Teeth hit me in every place and I have followed Zadie Smith ever since. The thing about the interview on PBS and the in-person version twenty years later is how similar a young Zadie Smith and the more mature version were in their ability to draw an audience in, show them pain and struggle and heartache while at the same time offering them endless hope and love to battle against it.
On that program in 2000 or 2001, she gave me, a young college student, that thing that most authors speak of, that person that sees some talent or spark in another person and offers encouragement. In that interview, I saw a person a year or so older than me, who was doing it and not waiting until they’d “lived” life enough to write about it. She had lived life and I realized, so had I. I would need another few years before I embarked on my writing journey, but Zadie Smith is where it started for me.
Friday night, Zadie Smith seemed like she could go on for another three hours but the conversation finally drew to a close with long applause, leaving me and most of the audience in a state of intellectual overstimulation.
My wife and I made our way to the signing line and in a short amount of time, we were in front of Zadie Smith. I fumbled with words to say about who I was and why I was there as my wife expertly carried on the conversation gaining a chuckle from Zadie Smith.
Then Zadie Smith noticed my name written on a Post-It note on my old copy of WHITE TEETH and remarked “Are you a writer? Great name for a writer.”
“I am,” I said, without hesitation.