Zadie Smith on why we should never dismiss other people’s pain is a vital listen right now

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Zadie Smith just opened a fascinating discussion about allowing people to feel and express their pain during the pandemic.

It’s hard to imagine Zadie Smith thinking she “doesn’t have her shit together”. But the novelist – who is one of the most beloved and pioneering contemporary writers out there – has just described that as being exactly how she felt during lockdown

It was this feeling of helplessness that propelled her into publishing a collection of reflective essays, Intimations. Along with donating all the royalties to charities that are helping with the coronavirus pandemic, Smith hopes her words will be helpful for anyone else looking for comfort and understanding right now.

“I wrote the first one in a state of mental instability, I think that’s fair to say. I really wasn’t dealing with it very well,” Smith says on the most recent episode of The Adam Buxton Podcast.

“There were people in the first few weeks who, to me were really heroic: who got their shit together, not just in terms of productivity…

“They weren’t crying in a corner, they were helping people, they were dealing with the situation and they were looking on whatever bright side they could find and they had a kind of practical morality attitude. 

“I was not doing any of those things. I was full of self-pity and terrified and just not really functioning. I was just incredibly depressed and that went on for a while and everybody I lived with had had enough of it.”

Intimations by Zadie Smith.
Intimations by Zadie Smith.

During her interview with Buxton, Smith reflects on one of the essays in the book, Suffering Like Mel Gibson, which examines the idea of “suffering versus privilege” during a pandemic. Smith says that there is no hierarchy of suffering – we all just suffer in different ways, under various circumstances, and need to allow others to express their pain. 

“I was having all these conversations in the very early months: full of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Everyone [I] spoke to felt they were suffering and felt that everyone else was basically not suffering,” she says. 

“That was my feeling: single people felt particularly benighted, people with children felt particularly benighted, people in the city felt desperate, people in the country.”

“I was trying to think why do we not have a langue for explaining [that] parallel – different and yet equally hurtful to the subject – pain, you know? 

“Because that’s the truth of the world: you can set up a hierarchy of who should be feeling the most pain at a certain moment, but it doesn’t work for the people themselves. Even if they rationally agree with you – ‘yes it’s clear that this single person must be far more lonely and miserable than I am, but the fact is I’m lonely and miserable’.

“So I wanted to write a piece acknowledging the possibility of difference in kind but equality in effect.”

You can listen to the full Zadie Smith interview on The Adam Buxton Podcast.

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Images: Getty, Penguin

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…