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A hit at Babel, author Zadie Smith asks, and answers, 'Why write?'

0-1Lectures on writing, says "White Teeth" author Zadie Smith, tend to be magnets for high-flown literary self-importance.

"They attract humbug," she told a nearly full house Wednesday night at Kleinhans Music Hall in the latest installment of the Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel series.

 Her talk, though, was anything but.  The 36-year-old British novelist was funny, wry, self-deprecating and utterly charming as she took on the topic of why writers write. 

She skipped across the Western canon and through the centuries -- from Henry James to Philip Roth, from John Keats to Zora Neale Hurston, from George Orwell to Don DeLillo -- in a wide-ranging talk that entertained and enlightened.  She managed to be both erudite and down-to-earth.  And she concluded that Alexander Pope answered the "Why write?" question as well as any in what she called an Olympian tautology: "Because I am a writer."

 She chatted with Michael Kelleher, the series host, in a question-and-answer period that covered everything from her next novel (titled "NW" and due out later this year, it's an exploration of the author's consciousness without "the traditional furniture of the novel") to a high school student's question about the five essential British novels.  (She took a stab at it -- offering, with some hesitation, "Clarissa," "Pride and Prejudice," "Jane Eyre," "The Quiet American," and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" -- before laughingly suggesting that the student just google it. "Give me a break!")

 And finally, Smith sat at a table in the Kleinhans lobby, signing books for a line that stretched from one end of the hall to another.  (Many of those present had read "White Teeth" as a community reading project before tonight's talk.  When Kelleher asked her how she feels now about the 12-year-old novel, she confessed, with a laugh, that she hasn't read it since it was published.  "I have no idea what's in it.")

Just another night of literature in Buffalo.  What made it unusual is that Smith -- as tall and slim as a fashion model in a bright yellow dress, a red turban and cobalt high-heeled Mary Janes --  is an extraordinary talent. 

In addition to "White Teeth," the debut novel that was her breakout success, Smith has also written "Autograph Man" and a third novel, "On Beauty," which was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2006.  She teaches creative writing at New York University.

Giving the evening a poignant tone was the knowledge that it was Kelleher's last Babel.  The Just Buffalo artistic director is about to leave Buffalo for a post at Yale University.

"Buffalo," he said, "is one of the most engaged literary cities I've ever been to."  

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(The photo above shows Smith signing books at Kleinhans after her talk, with Talking Leaves bookstore owner Jonathon Welch assisting.)

  

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