I’m driving my car on the highway on a dark Vancouver evening between five and six o’clock. I have to concentrate on the road because the rain is pelting down. My wipers are going furiously and water has pooled in many places on the road. The traffic is moderate; everyone is driving slowly, wanting to get home alive on this Sunday night.
The outside world is hostile, and my eyes and a part of my mind must be on full alert to it. But my other senses and another corner of my mind are relaxed, engaged, filled with a sense of well-being. That’s because I’m listening to the cultured, soothing voice of British novelist Zadie Smith as she speaks with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC radio’s Writers & Company.
Zadie Smith became a successful novelist at only 24 years of age with the publication of her novel White Teeth, which won three first novel awards. She has also written the highly acclaimed novels NW and On Beauty. Wachtel calls Smith a “brilliant essayist.” She has written essays for The New Yorker, The Guardian and other top periodicals, and published an essay collection called Changing My Mind.
Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, provided Wachtel with fertile grounds for conversation in Sunday’s interview. I encourage everyone to listen to the full podcast here.
I enjoyed every minute of their conversation, but it was Smith’s thoughts about joy that touched me the most. When I reached home and drove out of the heavy rain into the warmth and light of my condo’s underground parking lot, Smith was talking about the differences between joy and pleasure. I was entranced—I had to stay in my car for the last minutes of the interview.
The topic of joy had emerged earlier in the conversation when Smith was talking about her essay “What Beyoncé Taught Me,” and what she had written about the connection between dance and writing.
“To me, the great lesson of dance is joy,” said Smith. She further explained that “dance is the expression of a way of being,” in much the same way as a writer’s style is an expression of their way of being. “Dance is the expression of a personality through form.”
I felt the thrill of recognition when Smith talked about great dancers and a great dance performance. My running friends will also understand the similarity between a beautiful dance performance and a perfectly-executed track race. Smith noted that an extraordinary amount of practice and work must be done by even the most gifted dancers, “but in the performance … the thing seems like a natural act … fluidity … the work is in some way hidden.”
At the end of the interview, Smith was talking about her personal response to joy in. She admitted that like many writers, she has a “melancholy strain,”—yet she also possesses a huge capacity for joy, and frequently finds joy and beauty in everyday life. “Almost too much so,” she said. In her voice I heard a plaintiveness that added to the expressiveness of her words.
She tried to explain some of the paradoxes of joy and the way she experiences it. She spoke of how in today’s world, more than ever before, we are always globally connected, always aware of how other people live, the daily difficulties and horrors so many face. This leads her to the questions, “How can you have fun in life? What gives me the right?”
She added, “Joy is a difficult emotion to manage … I find joy to be a sublime emotion—always tinged with terror—of loss [giving her children as the best example]… Can joy last?”
She believes that some people choose to live at a “less-high pitch”; they control their range of emotions. She’s heard about people in Japan called “shut-ins,” who spend almost all of their time alone, interacting with people only online. Smith understands this: sometimes, she says, she feels an instinct to shut down, to try to “manage” emotion.
Smith and Wachtel talked about the differences between joy and pleasure. Pleasure is easier to handle; there are many small pleasures; they can be bought, and they don’t last very long; Smith likened them to soap bubbles. In contrast, you can’t demand joy or get it when you want it.
“It comes over you. Maybe that’s why it’s so unnerving—it’s not controllable.”
Listening to Smith’s lovely voice on that rainy drive was a great pleasure for me. But the deeper good feeling came from her words about joy, and the way they harmonized with my own experiences of it. I know that I feel joy, and the glow of it had been with me all that day. And even on the bleakest November days, and during times of seemingly-hopeless discouragement, I remember that joy is renewable and irrepressible.