In a 2015 interview Zadie Smith remarked, with an equal air of self effacement and quiet assertiveness, that as a writer she has always tried to avoid the delusion of objectivity. Smith’s mixed race upbringing in North-West London of 1990s ensured that there was always an external impulse to assimilate into the majoritarian aspects of British culture, which in Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was cheekily described as the idea of “being more English than the English”.
For Smith, however, the determination to gain access to this world of orthodox Englishness was always a strictly intellectual and purpose-driven exercise. In the same interview the author amusingly reflected on how in her entrance test to Cambridge University the examiner was more interested in knowing about Smith’s reflections on Alice Walker than on EM Forster. The author, on the other hand, was far more prepared on the writings of canonised greats, even if it was for the sole purpose of “passing the test”.
By the time Smith left Cambridge, she already finished the manuscript of White Teeth, depicting the intertwined lives of three families in North London from diverse roots: Bangladeshi, English and Jewish Catholic. White Teeth became a publishing phenomenon in England in 2000, and its remarkably prescient and refreshing portrayal of immigrant experiences was widely praised.
Smith went on to write four more novels: The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW ( 2012) and, most recently, Swing Time ( 2016). Simultaneously, for two decades now, Smith has written singularly perceptive literary essays on wide ranging topics for publications like New York Review of Books, New Yorker, The Guardian, The Believer, Harper’s, among others. These occasional works were collected in a volume very aptly titled Changing in Mind (2009) for an author who saw ideological inconsistency as “practically an article of faith”.
Since then, Smith has made New York City her professional base, becoming a professor of fiction at New York University. Smith’s writing in the next few years continued to enquire about the incredibly delicate and fractured nature of identity. In a world in which the political reality of every citizen ceaselessly intervenes in their existential reality, the freedom for the reader in Smith’s eyes is in this placement of freedom within one’s affective experience: because the writer herself is delightfully unpredictable in rejecting feelings as commandment.
A return to identity
If Changing My Mind manifested a masterful display in revealing the multitudinous impulses of identity, Smith’s latest collection of essays, Feel Free, continues to carry forward that work. The world has changed stupendously in the last decade or so. With a subtle solemnity Smith defines the essays written during the years of the Obama Presidency as “products of a bygone world”. Embodying ambivalence as an act of self-preservation is perhaps a counterintuitive, even reactionary, stand to take in a world where identity politics is transforming public discourse. Smith has nothing against that – she is only opposed to the all-knowing and colour-blind pronouncement that fixing of political realities (based on myriad forms of hegemony involving race, gender and class) takes precedence over negotiating with the self. Smith contends that there is perhaps a fallacy in compartmentalising affective realities in political terms in a world where structuring of identity itself has always been culturally specific.
She writes in the foreword of the book:
“Writing exists for me at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two. If my writing is a psychodrama I don’t think it is because I have, as the internet would have it, so many feels, but because the correct balance and weight to be given to each of these three elements is never self evident to me. It’s this self – whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way “self-evident”–that I try to write from and to”.
Much like in Changing My Mind, the essays in Feel Free are products of commissioned literary journalism, a bulk of which appeared over the last eight years in New York Review of Books (along with her children, Smith co-dedicated the book in the memory of Robert B Silvers).
In five parts
The essays are categorised into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. The first section is an experiential reflection on different modes of belonging, while the last is a joyous anti-instructive primer on different layers of mental inhabitation. In a superbly witty essay on Justin Bieber, Smith speculates philosophically:
“What’s it like to be such a person? What does it feel like? Does it still feel like being a person? If you met Justin Bieber, would he be able to tell you?”
On the Bookshelf consists of a series of review columns for Harper’s, written between March and August 2011, in which Smith considered books, among others, by Sharifa-Rhodes Pitts, John Gray, Paula Fox, Geoff Dyer, Mela Hartwig, Edward St Aubyn and Ursula K Le Guin. There are also separate longer reflections on Hanif Kureishi (the essay was first published as an introduction to the Faber and Faber edition of The Buddha of Suburbia in 2015), perhaps Smith’s predecessor in unveiling cultural identity at work as group therapy in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Retrospective appraisal is acutely discomforting for the writer, as is made clear in the essay “Notes on NW” (“I am not in the habit of sitting around wondering about my novels after I have written them”), which was written as a response to a question put forward by The Guardian regarding the roots and inspirations for the novel. The best essay from this section, “The I Who is Not Me“, is an exquisite meditation on the nature of first person narration brought on by the reality effect and what it says about the conversation between corporeal personhood and writerly self. Deviating slightly from her stated policy, perhaps only for illustrative purposes, Smith says in a lecture (delivered in October 2016) on her recently concluded novel:
“When you write a novel in the first person you take on an impossible identity, someone you can’t be, because you are already you-and not this ‘I’ in the book – and you have lived your life, had your adventures, experienced your own highs and lows. My pretend life story in Swing Time ends with ‘my’ mother dying. When I gave it to my very much alive mother I wondered what she would make of it.”
Permeability of personhood is also the focus of Smith’s review of David Fincher’s The Social Network, in a review which is part of a series grouped under a separate section along with reviews of other movies like Anomalisa, sketches of Keegan-Michael Kay and recent Academy Award winner Jordan Peele. For Smith, the inevitability of Facebook’s future obsolescence lies in its minimal standards of engagement, not in its hyper connectivity:
“The more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.”
Open to the world
Smith’s novels are not centred on ideas, though the diffused presence of ideas as symbols in her work is much discussed. The characters of Smith’s novels sometimes hold views on art and politics that are strikingly opposite from the writer’s. Yet, there is always a reconciliatory mode of understanding which streams through the narrative. The same can be said about the essays collected in this book, written within a time range of profound professional and personal change. They are not situated within a specific locus of ideas, but are reflective of a shifting instinct: an ability to open oneself to the world.
Even a deeply felt and personalised essay like “Love in the Gardens” is not confessional. The fragilities of collective self-esteem in democracy are well articulated as the central concern in “Fences: A Brexit Diary”, but Smith goes even further in the essay in exploring the legacy of welfare in British society, the distortions of power and even the limits of empathy.
It would be reductive to attribute such clarity of thought only to stylistic genius. Rather, there is a relentless honesty in Smith’s essays that recognise both the artifice and the truthfulness in writing as a political act in itself. While the artificiality is a technical accomplishment (and a necessary one) the truthfulness reveals itself in its sheer commitment.
From Lynette Yiadom-Boakye through Balthasar Denner to Jay-Z, the subject matters of her essays display an astonishing range, but they are not at all about the virtues of difference. There is a consistent conversation in Zadie Smith’s writings about the relation between aesthetics and power, and it is timely as well in an age when judgment of beauty as a political tool is rightly challenged more often than not. However, these essays also bring out a transcendent vision of beauty that is both discerning and heartfelt.
Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton.