Oct. 27, 2006
A Tourist at Ellis Island
Poem: "A Tourist at Ellis Island" by Linda Pastan, from Queen of a Rainy Country. © W.W. Norton & company. Reprinted with permission.
A Tourist at Ellis Island
I found him, Jankel Olenik,
age 3, on the manifest
of the ship Spaarndam
in 1902-my surgeon father
Jack, of the silk ties
and trimmed mustache
who never mentioned
the life he once inhabited
not just in a different language
but in a different book,
its pages yellowed at the edges.
He thrust me into the new world
scrubbed clean of peasant dirt,
whole chapters of my history
torn out. Failed
archeologist of memory,
I never asked
a single question.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Zadie Smith, (books by this author) born in London (1975). She grew up black in a working-class London neighborhood, living in a housing project that was half English and half Irish. She said, "[We were] one black family squished between two tribes at war." She said, "I never wanted to be white, but I always wanted to be middle-class. I liked the big house, I liked the piano, I liked the cats, the cello lessons." She had a hard time making friends with other kids. Her parents had a difficult marriage, and got divorced when Smith was 12.
She spent all of her free time either tap dancing or reading. She later wrote, "It is a mixture of perversity and stomach-sadness that makes a young person fashion a cocoon of other people's words. If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library. ... By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers. ... In short, I was perfectly equipped to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only vicariously."
College at Cambridge was Zadie Smith's dream come true. She described it as, "People reading books in a posh place." Whereas she'd been a weirdo in high school for being black, suddenly she became exotic and mysterious to her classmates. And she began writing a lot. While she was cramming for her final exams, she banged out 100 pages of a potential novel and sent it off to an agent. Those hundred pages started a bidding war among London publishers, and Zadie Smith wound up with a very generous book contract before she'd even graduated from college. She also aced her exams. Her novel White Teeth (2000) has since sold more than a million copies.
The critics were amazed that such a young writer could produce such an ambitious novel, which contained a huge cast of characters, including Bengali Muslims, Jews, Jamaicans, Nazis, Jehovah's Witnesses, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, and old English men. She wrote a novel about the nature of fame called The Autograph Man (2002), and it got mixed reviews. There developed a sort of backlash. People began to say that her work was maybe too clever, not human enough.
So she moved to America to get away from everything. She began teaching a class at Harvard, and she found that living in New England changed her way of looking at the world. She said, "Suddenly there was place. Real place. Not just shops and corner shop owners and buses. But place, and that was fantastic." She got married, and started thinking about what the rest of her life might be like, the rest of her marriage.
Then, one morning she woke up with an entire novel in her head about a 30-year marriage: a modern version of E.M. Forester's novel Howard's End. The result was her book On Beauty, which came out last year (2005).
Zadie Smith said, "I'm influenced by everything I read, shamelessly. ... I think if I carry on plagiarizing for 15 years, it will settle like silt, and I'll write something really great."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®