Dinner with Zadie Smith
November 08, 2020
writer statue Dinner with Zadie Smith Ranjani Rao Singapore Writers Festival

When asked ‘what superpower would you like to have’ – many say they would like to know the future. Perhaps these are the people who read their horoscopes in the newspaper everyday or sometimes visit fortune-tellers for a peek behind the opaque curtain of an unknown future. 

I am not one of them. Let me tell you why.

On the opening weekend of the Singapore Writers Festival 2019, I arrived early on a Sunday morning to find a seat in the quaint two-level Chamber room of the historic The Arts House. I looked around the warm ambience created by the streaming morning light as I waited for my favorite travel writer Pico Iyer to speak on the topic Beyond Borders, Beyond Words. 

He talked eloquently about his life in Japan, his two new books (one of which was Autumn Light which I later reviewed for Singapore Unbound) and his friendship with the Dalai Lama. In the brief question and answer session that followed, Iyer responded with patience and humor, further deepening the intimate experience of sharing an exclusive space with fellow readers and writers. 

In contrast, watching the Meet The Author session ‘Zadie Smith: Intimations’, on the first day of Singapore Writers Festival 2020 last week was anything but intimate. Thanks to Covid, this year’s festival in its fully online version, cuts both ways. Without limit to the number of attendees who can be safely seated in a physical venue and with open access to writers (and viewers) all over the world regardless of time zones, the festival has the potential to be expansive. But does it create a memorable, personalised experience? 

Famous names from far away including Margaret Atwood have been lined up. All I have to do is login and click on the link to welcome these luminaries into my living room. I don’t need to get on a train or taxi or plan for an extra hour to get to the venue. Why, I could have dinner at my own dining table as literary conversations swirl around me, just as I did with Zadie!

The promise of online festivals is unlimited. Imagine answering the question of “If you could invite a celebrity home for dinner, who would it be?” with a long list of names. A veritable feast, albeit a virtual one. 

Making a connection, however, requires more than having a high-speed internet connection. 

In previous years, I have worked hard to rearrange travel plans, to clear my schedule, to genuinely make time to attend to what is truly important, whether it’s a family gathering or a social event. By doing so I demonstrate my desire to be present and my prioritisation of the person and the moment.

When I returned to writing more seriously, I began adding literary events into my calendar as a way to publicly declare my commitment to improving my craft, and to be counted as a member of the community of writers. 

In the past, I have spent time at the Singapore Writers Festival browsing through the pop-up festival bookstore, waiting in line for authors to sign books that I had purchased and happily coming across poets and writers whose existence I had not known. Marlon James’ magnetic personality left me in awe even as I empathised with introverted, soft-spoken authors trying their best to be a cog in the wheel of the giant publishing industry.

As I listened to Zadie Smith, I was impressed with her clarity of thought and her earnestness as she talked about ‘collective mania’ and the impact of platforms, and discussed the role of language. I finished dinner as she spoke, nodded in agreement as she read her essay “Peonies” from her latest book, and cleared the table by the time she signed off. I learned something but not deeply, similar to the superficial work I do when distracted by social media notifications. 

By not removing myself from my everyday milieu and taking myself away to a separate space where I could shed my mother-scientist avatar, I had not given Smith due attention. 

By not being physically present in the same room and participating in a cosy discussion with an award-winning author, the event had not given me the opportunity to be moved in a lasting way.  

A year ago, I could not have envisioned such a scenario where my best intentions to prioritise my writing life would be thwarted by a virus that would alter my life in big and small ways.

The writing life is, by default, a solitary, inward-focused one. 

The outward-leaning moments are few, and therefore, more precious. When these rare opportunities for connection are lost, I feel cheated; of chance encounters, of serendipitous discoveries, of unexpected inspiration.

There is always something to learn though. And this year, more than others, has taught us that it takes constraint to stimulate creativity, whether that applies to our writing or to the ways in which we connect.

What has your experience been with events that you like to attend each year? Missed any in 2020? Did you find new ways of participating? 

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  1. Ken

    Love your writing. Share your feeling about “virtual” Writers festival. I was so disappointed none of it was real this year, I didn’t tap into any of it. I’m an avid participant at such events, some times as speaker or moderator, but always as a questioning audience member who relishes human face to face contact with real people, writers and their work. Love being with books and “people of the book”.

    • Ranjani Rao

      Thanks for sharing your views. I have heard many people say the same. I wonder when we will return to the ‘good old days’! I’m thankful, though, that we can still meet face to face 🙂



  1. 5 Interesting Things I Accomplished Instead of NaNoWriMo | Ranjani Rao - […] beyond the festival dates helped me to go back and revisit some discussions like the one with Zadie Smith…
  2. 5 Interesting Things I did Instead of NaNoWriMo | Ranjani Rao - […] beyond the festival dates helped me to go back and revisit some discussions like the one with Zadie Smith…

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