6 September 2017
The award-winning novelist Zadie Smith joined SOAS University of London scholar Dr Marloes Janson to launch the paperback edition of her latest book, Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).
Smith discussed how Dr Janson’s monograph Islam, Youth, and Modernity in the Gambia: The Tablighi Jama'at heavily influenced her book, providing many of its cultural underpinnings. Speaking at the event, Smith said: “When I read Islam, Youth, and Modernity in the Gambia it was like meeting a soulmate.”
Swing Time follows the story of two young girls who meet at a dance class in north-west London – and the different paths their lives follow. One is a talented young dancer growing up in a challenging social environment and the other ends up working in the music industry in the 90s eventually leading her to work on a project in the Gambia with a famous pop star.
Parvathi Raman, retiring Chair of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, opened the event and commented on the significant impact Smith’s novels had had in retelling the story of multicultural post-war Britain.
Smith, addressing some 110 guests at SOAS, spoke of her interest in dance in West Africa. Dr Janson quizzed Smith, who not only is a novelist but also a Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, on how fiction and non-fiction can utilise and learn from one another, and how academics can reach a wider audience, thereby making their research relevant to present-day social problems. Underlining the importance of identity politics in her work, Smith also discussed the Afro Punk festival in New York, a festival which is defining culture by the collective creative actions of the individual and the group, saying “Diversity within unity is what freedom looks like”.
The event was co-hosted by the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, the Centre of African Studies at SOAS, and the International African Institute. Newham Bookshop sold copies of Smith’s books, which she signed afterwards.