On Zadie Smith

First things first: I am a huge fan of Zadie Smith and just a few months ago I greatly enjoyed reading her latest novel Swing time.

So, when I saw and article in the guardian titled Have you been paying the hair-and-makeup tax? You need Zadie Smith’s 15-minute rule, I was intrigued. And later disappointed. Apparently Zadie Smith limits her 7-year old daughter’s mirror time to 15 minutes and explains this to the child with the following words:

“I explained it to her in these terms: you are wasting time, your brother is not going to waste any time doing this. Every day of his life he will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a shit if you waste an hour and a half doing your makeup.”

I was quite disappointed by the simplistic, binary gender images that were invoked here. What kind of image of gender roles is Zadie Smith transferring on to her daughter? It may very well be that Ms Smith’s son doesn’t give a shit and just throughs on any shirt he can find. These days, we know there is more to gender than boys want to play outside and girls want to look pretty. But it particularly startled me that a woman like Zadie Smith, who writes to elaborately and with a great eye for subtle details about race and gender issues, falls for the binary gender construction when it comes to her own family. I can’t believe that she reinforces the constructions through her daughter.

But, as I said, I read the article a few days ago, I was disappointed and a bit shocked – and then I moved on. Only today did I get aware, that I was not the only Personen disagreement with Zadie Smith’s statement. I read about the reactions here. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be concerned with the conservative gender role of boys do that and girls do this, but took offense with the fact that Zadie Smith was too beautiful to be concerned with makeup and therefore had no right to speak about the issue. Seriously? That is your feminist rebuke?

So, these were my thoughts on the discussion. And what are yours?


Writer’s Series: Maya Angelou



  • Born in 1928
  • Education: high school
  • First publication: I know why the caged bird sings (1970)


Maya Angelou was already in her 40ies, too, when she wrote her first book. It was an autobiography. She has written mostly autobiography. She didn’t come from an intellectual background at all. For all I could find out, she finished high school and that’s it. From then on she worked in all kinds of professions and lived in many different places all over America. A point was made that even though she didn’t have a university degree, she was  later on appointed as a professor of English.


I, personally, had not heard of her until her death. It may be my fault, but she wasn’t really present in the book market in Germany or any other country I lived in around Europe. This is reflected in the lack of translations of her work into German. As far as I know, only her most famous first book I know why the caged bird sings has been translated into German.


Besides my interest in the birth of the writer or the transformation of an ordinary person into an artist, I am also quite interested in the writing habits of authors. Many readers will have heard of the book about the daily rituals of famous intellectuals. I don’t know, what pattern the choice of the people was based on. Maybe none. I am particularly interested in what writing habits there are. How writers make time for writing and how much they write or how much of their time they spend actually writing. I personally find writing a draining and exhausting task, so I cannot imagine any writer to follow a “normal” 8-hour workday routine.

In any case… Maya Angelou described her writing habit in an interview with the Paris review. She says that she leaves the house around six and starts her day’s work at around 6.30am. She works until 12.30 or 1.30pm and then goes home, takes a shower and “plays sane”. That means she goes shopping and runs errands of all sort. In the afternoon she looks at the writing has done in the morning and starts editing, dismissing etc. That’s 6 to 7 hours of writing a day. Straight up writing. Not counting in the editing in the afternoon.

Writers Series: Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach


  • born in 1964 in Germany
  • Education: studied law (specialisation: criminal law)
  • First publication: short stories Verbrechen (crime) in 2009 (aged 45)

Ferdinand von Schirach was 45, when he published his first book, a selection of short stories that are loosly based on cases he had worked on as a lawyer. Before his career in writing, he was a very successful lawyer and had many famous and influencial clients. Following the success of his first book, he has published several other collections of stories, novels and essays. He still keeps his chambers.

Apparently, he is one of the few contemporary German writers with international success.

I first heart of Ferdinand von Schirach through an interview with the German newspaper Die Süddeutsche. The title is: “It is not about loneliness, it is about distance.” That caught my attention. How he openly spoke about feeling distanced from people and how he likes to be alone, even prefers it sometimes. He seems like a person, who knows what he’s saying, because he has thought about already for a very long time. Maybe because he only started his publishing career in his mid-40s. He is not overwhelmed by his success. It feels like had given this interview many times before in his head.

It is not a common and popular way to be these days. Everybody is supposed to be active on social media to keep up with life, especially if you are writer and want to promote your book. You need to be proactive, outgoing, even slightly aggressive. Is seems that writing the book is only half of it – once it is written, you need to become some happy go lucky puppet that loves smalltalk and canapes. And if you are not into all that – how dare you speak out about it?!

After the newspaper interview, I was intrigued and read his first book Verbrechen (crime), because I like crime and detective stories. I read, or rather listened to, it in one go on a very long train ride between the Netherlands and the south of Germany. It grasps the banality and triviality of life in a very distanced and detached style of writing. The tragedies of life stand on their own, without being dramatised through literary transformation – naked, just as they are: normal tragedies of life.

His literary work is not only reflected in his interviews, but also on his website. Here is a screenshot from the landing page:



Writers Series: Cornelia Funke

Source: Wikipedia © Cruccone

  • born in 1958 in Germany
  • Education: studied pedagogy and illustration
  • first publication: children’s book Die große Drachensuche (The great dragon search) in 1988 (aged 30)

Funke says, she wrote her first story, when she was “ancient”. Before she studied pedagogy and worked on an activity playground in Hamburg. Something that had come up in the late 60s, when children develop skills and play in nature. Something of that sort, I think. Simultaneously, she studied to become an illustrator of children’s books. When she finally worked as an illustrator, however, she claims to not have liked to stories she was given to illustrate – she started writing her own. She published her first story with her own illustrations in 1988, when she was 30.

On her website she says that she realized that one couldn’t live against their talents or skills, during the time that she was working at the activity playground.


2015-01-28 09.41.50To me, Cornelia Funke was always one of those authors, who became popular and famous in the aftermath of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the popularity of these kinds of fantasy stories of witches and wizards. Suddenly everybody seemed to be reading children’s books, even teenagers and students like me and my friends. I always thought, however, that the original was the best without ever bothering to look at other authors like Funke or Pratchett.

It was only a year ago or so that I saw Funke on TV. They showed a portrait of her a one of the most famous German writers. Turns out she now lives in the US and has sold the film rights to many of her books to Hollywood producers. She was shown in her huge and beautiful house with a dog and an amazing view of LA and palm trees and the ocean. I was rather impressed, I have to admit. I had no idea.

Today I am using many of her children’s books in my German classes with primary age students. At the end of class, I always read a chapter from one of her books. Right now, we are reading Gespensterjäger (Ghosthunters).

Writers Series: Ernest James Gaines


  • born 1933
  • Education: Writing and American Literature in San Francisco and at Stanford University
  • First publication: a short story in 1956

Gaines was born on a plantation in Lousiana 1933. He says about himself that he started his training to become a writer when he was about 12 years old. He had to write letters for the old workers on the plantation, who didn’t know how to read or write. Since they had not much to say by themselves he wrote the letters for them. Part of it was his own imagination; part of it came from questioning them.

Aged 15, he moved to California and first entered a library. It is not that there had been no libraries in Lousiana – but they were only for white people. The saw the amount of books, however, none them delt with his people. So, he decided to write his own novel.

He wrote his first novel aged 17. It was rejected and he burned it.

He published his first piece, a short story, in 1956.

In short

He knew he wanted to be a writer from very early on and he followed that career path. He studied Literature and Creative Writing, he sent out manuscripts to publishers and he got a fellowship at Stanford University. In general, in was a very straight forward career path.