A Novelist’s Call to Freedom Through Her Essays
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because freedom to think is necessary in a world guided, increasingly, by extreme ideologies.
In 2014, while reading the Paris Review online, the voice of a corset-shopping drag queen from New York reached me in Molete, Ibadan, in Nigeria. That voice in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” was my introduction to Zadie Smith, and it led me on a mission to read everything Smith has written. Through stories set in Willesden and Kilburn in London; New York; and near Boston, I would soon discover that Miss Adele is just one of many voices Smith is skilled at channeling. The mind behind those voices is revealed in Feel Free, Smith’s second collection of essays.
Smith is an America-dwelling British expatriate, book connoisseur, hip-hop head, mixed-race mother — all characters she’s channeled in her fiction. Over 31 essays written in eight years, Smith moves nimbly over a variety of subjects — displaying expertise in many, admitting ignorance in some and covering all with a rigor that is supposedly de rigueur for essays, but isn’t always present in a world where partisanship often overrides thought.
In the time covered by her writing, the world has gone from a place of apparent hope to one of persistent despair.
As in her first essay collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, an insistence on the ability to shift positions about art, the world and her own experiences — described in its foreword as “ideological inconsistency” — carries over into Feel Free. She blends interview with criticism and appreciation, flattening the differences between forms and content to project how she really feels, right now. The now, of course, changes. In the time covered by her writing, the world has gone from a place of apparent hope to one of persistent despair.
Convictions and anxieties are clearly expressed in essays about her homeland, Britain, and the aftermath of the referendum to leave the European Union. In examining the cause of Brexit, Smith criticizes the “irresponsible behavior” of politicians that led to the referendum. She also considers her own experiences of the polarizing effects of the extreme inequality that these politicians exploited to their own ends.
Smith is as eager to chronicle the transformation in her homes on both sides of the Atlantic as she is to consider the causes and effects of her own changing mind. She goes from hating Joni Mitchell’s music to not being able to listen to her “without being made transparent” and shedding “uncontrollable tears.” And after 20 years of writing fiction exclusively in the third person, she has now embraced the “thrill and dread of writing in the first person” and written a whole novel (Swing Time) in “I.”
The concern with self-absorption is brilliantly depicted in “Generation Why,” an essay about Facebook and how it encourages superficial connections in an environment created in the image of Mark Zuckerberg. To Smith, Brexit, too, is an “extraordinary act of solipsism.” And to this tendency toward preoccupation with our own thoughts and desires, she responds with openness, a reluctance to “dismiss anything out of hand,” similar to what she observed in a profile of comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
Smith describes herself in Feel Free as a “casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a nonexpert — not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted.” In the annals of the world’s greatest understatements, this ranks quite high. If we, however, take her at her word, her essays represent a continued expansion of the freedom that results from a lower-middle-class upbringing in England and vocation as a novelist skilled in speaking through the voice of others. And to the lower-middle-class Nigerian I presume myself to be, Feel Free offers a vision of keeping the mind open and a liberty to let language lead the way in a quest to understand my life and relationship with art and the world.