Author Ali Smith delights with visit to Birkbeck

Man Booker Prize-nominee Ali Smith, author of acclaimed novel How to be Both, has visited Birkbeck to talk about her life, career and the art of writing.

Man Booker prize nominated author Ali Smith

Man Booker Prize-nominee Ali Smith, author of acclaimed novel How to be Both, has visited Birkbeck to talk about her life, career and the art of writing.

In conversation with Birkbeck creative writing lecturer and former Booker Prize judge Professor Russell Celyn Jones in front of an audience of nearly a thousand staff, students and alumni, Smith – who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007 – explained how developing an interest in Italian cinema as she was growing up in Inverness was to influence her critically acclaimed novel, How to be Both, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize last year.

She went on to describe the structure of the novel, which is told from the perspective of George, a teenage girl living in Cambridge in our time, and Francesco del Cossa, a fresco painter living in Italy in the time of  the renaissance. This enabled her to conceive what Smith dubbed its ‘swivelable form’: two published editions of the book, one with George’s story leading, and the other leading with Francesco’s.

Speaking about how she established the main characters in the novel, Smith said that George came to her ‘of her own accord, fully formed’; in line with how she has found that characters, in her experience, develop on their own terms.

She went on to say she felt uncomfortable defining the book, but suggested it was about seeing timeless injustices whether you use your ‘eye as a machine, or as a human eye’. She touched, too, on the fundamental problem of the sentence – only being able to describe events in sequence, in contrast, say, to drama, which enables events to be portrayed on stage simultaneously.

When asked about her thoughts on the current political context, in light of recent events in Paris, Smith struck a sombre note, suggesting that the times we live in are just as volatile as any ever experienced in history. Wielding a copy of H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man, which will shortly be republished, she urged the audience to beware not to take human rights, and the freedom we experience now, for granted.

Organised in collaboration with the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck and in its fifth consecutive year, Smith joins an illustrious list of authors to visit Birkbeck as part of the series, with previous writers sharing their wisdom including Hilary Mantel in 2014, along with Alan Hollinghurst (2013), Kazuo Ishiguro (2012) and Sarah Walters (2011).

Donor Reception

Following the discussion, nearly thirty donors and friends of the College continued the lively debate about Smith’s work at a reception held in the School of Arts’ iconic Keynes Library - a space which was refurbished to the grandeur of the time it was used by influential British economist John Maynard Keynes thanks to a gift from Birkbeck alumna, Patsy Hickman. The reception provided the opportunity to thank donors for their support and to meet Ali Smith CBE in a more intimate setting.  

In a speech to the assembled guests, Professor Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, also acknowledged the Booker’s continued support of Birkbeck. Hilary said:

“We are grateful to the Booker Prize Foundation for continuing to bring this event to Birkbeck, and  enabling so many of our students from all disciplines to access the best in contemporary literature by providing each of our first-year students with a copy of the speaker’s book each year.

“Ali’s book is, in many ways, a metaphor for where Birkbeck currently finds itself, in a period of working out ‘how to be both’ – how to be both an institution that honours its past, and stays true to its foundational mission of bringing education to working people, its radical roots, and one that speaks to and can survive in the present with a distinctively modern identity: how to be both stellar in research and genuinely committed to widening access.”

To view a selection of photos from the Donor Reception, please click here.

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