Zadie Smith, award-winning novelist, essayist, and short-story writer best known for her debut novel White Teeth, treated a wrapt Boston College audience to a reading of her new story, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” yesterday evening. Gasson 100 was full to bursting: eager listeners crowded at the back behind packed seating, pressed into the sides of the room, perching on the windows, clutching well-worn copies of White Teeth or NW, Smith’s latest novel. Excitement was palpable, a buzz reminiscent of English playgrounds in early 2000′s as copies of White Teeth were passed around like illicit cigarettes, taken home to be devoured in late-night reading binges. This installment of the Lowell Humanities Series was initially scheduled to host Edwidge Dandicat, acclaimed Haitian-born novelist and nonfiction writer who was forced by unforeseen circumstances to withdraw from the event, asking Smith to take her place. The Boston literary community were certainly glad that Dandicat found an equally respected and illustrious writer as her short-notice replacement.
After apologizing in advance for attempting an American accent, Smith launched into “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” with very little foregrounding: we knew only that it was set in New York, the protagonist was an African American drag queen, and that we would be getting the whole story, no matter how long it took. It became clear early on that this would be, in fact, a masterclass in delivery, Smith alternating between Miss Adele’s sassy American quips and the narrator’s deep British tones in what became a seamless one-woman dramatic reading, all characters vocally distinct and fully embodied.
It wasn’t just the texture of voices that Smith conjured to animate her words that her audience found so compelling, it was the tissues of deeper lives poking up through the surface of the story, grounding the action in a denser sense of personal history, of the city’s history, revealed with the deftest of touches, and then quickly submerged again beneath a snappy one-liner. Miss Adele walks the freezing streets of New York, lamenting the partial gentrification of the neighborhood — why didn’t they go all the way instead of half-assing it? — and musing on her strict religious upbringing, her straight-laced brother living in Florida. Entering an unassuming and family-run corset shop, Miss Adele encounters a husband and wife bickering incessantly in a language she can’t understand, abysmal customer service, and her own aging body. Importantly, she is confronted by her own expectations of judgement and discrimination — her conviction that she can detect derision in spite of language barriers. Meaning, for Miss Adele, is universally felt. Making us laugh, making us think, making us sit deathly still in order to catch every word, Smith delivered an exemplary literary performance.
Afterwards, the usual run-through of writer Q&A’s — where do your characters come from, and which writers do you admire — concluded with an unexpected non-question: a man stood up in the middle of the room and thanked Smith for writing; her influence made the world a better place, he said. The audience applauded their support of this statement, glad to leave Smith with something of the feeling she had left them. Later, at the signing table, Smith took her time, chatting at length with those who waited for a signature, diffusing these usually awkward exchanges with questions about her readers lives, leaving a lasting impression of a woman truly engaged with the world around her — unaffected, sincere.
“Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” appears in the current issue of the Paris Review, which also features poetry by Smith’s husband, Nick Laird. The last in the Lowell Humanities Series for this semester takes place next Wednesday, April 9th, Gasson 100, and features Emma Donoghue.