Novelist Zadie Smith has got to be one of the most brilliant minds writing today. She burst onto the literary scene with the novel White Teeth in 2000 and has been a heavyweight presence ever since. I read that book and only retained from it that I liked it a lot – when it arose as a topic in a college class a year or so later, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it. I was relieved that several other people said exactly the same. What does that say about the book? I’m not sure.
In addition to her lauded novels, she’s prolifically written essays over the years, on a range of topics where she gets to flex her admirably developed muscles. Subjects in the essays collected here include art and film appreciation, aging, why Joni Mitchell finally grew on her, parenting and understanding one’s own family, politics, immigrant and expat experiences, and of course, literature. One topic that she writes especially deftly and accessibly on is race and race relations. She has a way of looking at complicated issues of race and identity and distilling them gracefully, meaningfully. I have so much respect for her writing style on these tense, weighted topics.
Born to a Jamaican immigrant mother and white British father, Smith grew up in London and explores the varied aspects of her heritage and upbringing in her work. She covers everything from her parents’ backgrounds to her life and the view from public housing in London, to life as an expat in Rome and half-yearly expat while working a semester as a professor in New York.
Her writing is so nuanced and intelligent, it’s like listening to the private thoughts of someone whose smarts and creativity you endlessly admire. I’ll share some of the selections that stood out to me powerfully, as I think they also give a good idea of what’s contained in this collection.
Her lovely, sentimental recollection of the expat experience is a recurring topic:
Logically it should be easier, when a person is far away from home, to take bad news from home on the chin, but anyone who has spent time in a community of expats knows the exact opposite is true: no one could be more infuriated by events in Rome than the Italian kid serving your cappuccino on Broadway. Without the balancing setting of everyday life all you have is the news, and news by its nature is generally bad…I can’t tell whether the news coming out of my home is really as bad as it appears to be, or whether objects perceived from three thousand miles away are subject to exaggerations of size and colour.
Here she is in Rome, meditating on that special expat frustration of being told you’re doing everything wrong by the country’s standards:
It was not an easy transition to move from its pleasant chaos [of the Borghese Gardens park] to the sometimes pedantic conventionality of the city. No, you can’t have cheese on your vongole; no, this isn’t the time for a cappuccino; yes, you can eat pizza on these steps but not near that fountain; in December we all go to India; in February we all ski in France; in September of course we go to New York…it is sometimes annoying that they should insist on all doing the same things at exactly the same time…In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy – the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language – without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment. She is free to delight in that astounding country on her own slovenly terms.
In “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” one of my favorite pieces, she confronts climate-change deniers: “It’s amazing the side roads you can will yourself down to avoid the four-lane motorway ahead.” This essay brings the house down, it’s a beautifully crafted, artful address to idiocy.
She writes several essays addressing her own work and its inspirations or autobiographical aspects, and which of these are significant or accidental. After describing one scene in On Beauty that was “strictly autobiographical” in “The I Who Is Not Me”, she analyzes why it may have ended up there:
Is it possible – I wondered, after the book was done – that my subconscious in some sense tricked me into writing this long novel, led me down the garden path, weaving all kinds of themes and narrative turns into its fabric, permitting me, its author, to think my book was about class or colour or American feminism or whatever I, in my innocence thought it was about, when all the time, she, my subconscious, had constructed the whole thing simply to create a convincing stage upon which to work through the traumatic memory of a single left hook from twenty years ago?
I found her considerations of her working process, conscious or otherwise, fascinating. What a powerful little piece of psychology that is.
Comparing her writing to Nabokov’s fiction, laced as it is with elements of personal experience, she writes, “I am myself less happy considering my fiction as a vehicle through which I force personal memories upon a wider public, like a Facebook bore who makes you go through all their old photos.”
On that topic – does she ever have some words for Facebook, exploring the dangers and excuses of social media in “Generation Why?”
A few of my favorites were those where she allows herself to be a cultural spectator, musing about popular entertainment like the comedy show Key and Peele and its eponymous creator/stars in the excellent “Brother from Another Mother”. She writes about an Italian dinner with Jay-Z in “The House that Hova Built”, the philosophical potential of Justin Bieber and his fandom in “Meet Justin Bieber!” (this one’s reaching, but she argues her ideas so well you can’t help but agree with her at least halfway.)
On her decision not to keep a diary in “Life Writing”: “I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it.” I connect with this simile so much, I can’t even believe it.
Describing a trip to Florence with her father in “Love in the Gardens”, including a stay in an old, no-frills pensione: “I was at that point in life at which sharing a situation, albeit a poor one, with a fictional character was pleasure enough for me.” She might lament her own memory, but that’s proof that something gets through. This made me pause and think about situations like that in my own life, and that’s something I find so powerful in good essay or memoir-writing – that someone else’s deeply personal experience can stoke something so personal in yourself, your own memory or experiences.
In the same piece, she calls up that universal experience again, writing of a later trip to Rome after her father’s death: “There is a sentimental season, early on in the process of mourning, in which you believe that everything you happen to be doing or seeing or eating, the departed person would also have loved to do or see or eat, were he or she still here on earth.”
From “The Shadow of Ideas”, about being expats in Italy with her husband and the strange melancholy of such a situation, effortlessly written yet depth-rich lines like this strike me as to why her novels are so popular:
“In memory, freedom is obvious. In the present moment it’s harder to appreciate, or recognize as a form of responsibility. Anyway, with my freedom I did very little, almost nothing…I only walked from square to square, often mopey, even a little bored, oblivious, waiting for something to happen.”
She’s also able to mix lighthearted observations in with more serious subject matter. In “Joy”, writing about how she seems to love uncomplicated food so much, I felt a soulmate moment with her: “I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example – any old food. An egg sandwich from one of those grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around.” No. Don’t even worry about that, Zadie. New York grimy food truck breakfast sandwiches are one of the greatest things on earth.
“Find Your Beach” is one of the collection’s better-known essays, in which Smith considers a beer ad she can see from her Manhattan apartment window and how its message relates to life in the hectic, tunnel-visioned, creative and inspiring but exorbitantly expensive city. It also contains another theme that runs through these pieces, that of age’s relentless progression. It’s not my favorite topic, yet I was comforted by Smith’s thoughts and musings, reasonable, sensible and calm as they are, even when she’s panicking.
If there’s a drawback here, it’s that she’s too smart for me. Smith is an academic with that skill many academics have of being able to excerpt, analyze, and contextualize anything. Sometimes her deep analysis of art, literature or films went over my head or the specific content felt somewhat too elite and intellectual to be something I could enjoy reading about.
I could have used this collection in college, when I didn’t understand but was trying desperately to learn that special focused, analytical but still creative and personalized way of looking at and writing about art and literature. What an incredible model Smith provides. Reading such selections now, I don’t like the academic style, but her intelligence is simply fierce.
Gorgeously crafted literary essays on culture, race, country, politics, art, education and experience by one of the preeminent writers working today.
Feel Free: Essays
by Zadie Smith
published February 6, 2018 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.