When Vanity Fair asked her greatest regrets, Zadie Smith answered, “Letting my father go to voice mail the day he died. Not having children earlier. Not being able to live two completely different lives simultaneously.”
Feel Free, Smith’s new collection of essays, demonstrates the writer’s ongoing fascination with the power of self-creation and transformation. Smith writes gracefully and incisively about the range of topics—from Brexit to stereotype-twisting comedians Key & Peele to the billboards outside her Soho apartment—but she seems most engrossed by shapeshifters, boundary-breakers, the ambivalent and the irreverent.
Smith’s biography explains some part of this fascination. Born in 1975 in diverse northwest London, she grew up straddling cultures as the child of a Jamaican mother and a white father. She moved between social classes, too: her family was lower-middle-class, but with the help of the once-generous British welfare state, she was able to study at King’s College, Cambridge. “From now on,” she vowed, “I was going to live for love, and art, and food, and silk and nipples and redheads and sleep–lots of sleep.”
While still at Cambridge, Smith sold her wildly successful first novel, White Teeth. Set in the northwest London of her childhood, it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Book Award, and praise from former Times critic Michiko Kakutani. She followed it with five other novels, and a 2009 nonfiction collection called, appropriately enough, Changing My Mind.
Smith has both a personal and aesthetic interest in the mutability of identity. “This to me is the primary novelistic impulse: this leap into the possibility of another life,” she writes in her lecture on the work of Philip Roth, given at the Newark Public Library in 2016. She takes from Roth’s novels—and Hanif Kureishi’s, and many others—the “gift of freedom,” a counter to the “narrowness” of identity in real life.
“He’s written things down that seemed unsayable, impossible, and in taking this freedom for himself, intentionally or not, passed the freedom down,” she writes. “The offer was: Portnoy exists! Be as you please.”
Smith’s insistence on “the fictional status of identity itself” is sure to attract charges of being woefully out of touch. “Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them,” argued critic Pankaj Mishra in a review of Changing My Mind.
In the face of such critiques, it’s helpful to remember that Mishra and Smith may be talking about different kinds of freedom—a word that necessarily, healthily, has a multitude of definitions. While Smith defends the welfare state and its programs of social uplift, she doesn’t seem primarily concerned with political or economic freedom, or how one might change the conditions Mishra refers to to help us get free.
Instead, as her title spells out, she’s trying to make us feel free, even while carrying race, history, and class along with us. The ambivalent state she aims for is perhaps best summed up by the book’s enigmatic epigraph from Zora Neale Hurston. “People can be slave-ships in shoes.”
Smith doesn’t pin down what the phrase means to her, but to my mind it carries at least three interpretations. When you see a black person you should remember that they may be carrying the hidden but enormously painful legacy of slavery; those with other skin colors may be burdened with their own set of historical traumas. It may be a critique of those who live with the psychological mindset of slaves, though they have been freed. Or perhaps the emphasis is on the mobility offered by shoes: A person can carry such a legacy, but still have the freedom to walk through the world in their particular shoes.
The freedom to walk through the world is never absolute, as Zora Neale Hurston, born in Alabama in 1891, would have known well. But it’s not nothing: in a letter to Countee Cullen, she speaks with apparent pride of her “nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”
Smith’s ambivalent vision of freedom is attractive because it is generous, aesthetic, and joyfully irresponsible toward a politics of purity. It insists on the primacy of the individual, which means abandoning what poet Terrance Hayes called “the tonsil of Negro Duty”—a feeling of responsibility to represent one’s race.
In an essay about British-Ghanian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Smith insists that artists of color be considered, first and foremost, as individual creators: “The keenness to ascribe to black artists some generalized aim—such as the insertion of the black figure into the white canon—renders banal their struggles with a particular canvas, and the unique problem each artwork poses.”
Smith seizes the aesthetic freedom she grants her subjects for herself, too. She’s engaged in the heated debates over appropriation of black pain and culture, delving deepest in her piece on Dana Schutz’s notorious painting of Emmett Till. “A people from whom much has been stolen are understandably protective of their possessions, especially the ineffable kind,” she acknowledges.
So there’s something a little naughty about writing. In her essay “Dance Lessons for Writers,” Smith writes, “Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was ‘not theirs’ brings about new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drumbeat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat.”
Far from critiquing David Bowie or David Byrne—both white men—for making use of black dance styles, she praises their reinventions. She says that they taught her something new about what belonged to her. And she does it in a long, sleek, sinuous sentence. She uses assonance to link the surprising ideas of “the curve of a drumbeat” and “harmony and heat.” She makes music from the repeated sounds of Ms and Vs and the rhythmic surprise of ending this snaky sentence on the monosyllable “heat.”
It’s an aesthetic defense of an aesthetic choice. She passes on the opportunity to stake an overtly political, critical claim—making, it could be argued, an irresponsible choice in what she acknowledged are “the darkest political times I have ever known.”
To my mind it would be far more irresponsible to turn down the gift of freedom Smith offers—something like, Zadie exists! Be as you please.