WHEN I STUDIED ABROAD in London as an undergrad, I sat at an Indian restaurant eating pappadam while reading White Teeth, and my heart exploded. It was a moment among only a handful of such moments in my life. The world was rebuilt in front of me. I would stand on the corner of a street and observe people with a kind of fascination and affection normally prompted by drugs. I have loved Zadie Smith’s writing for years. I have loved Zadie Smith herself ever since I saw her read in Cambridge in 2003, at which point I developed a bit of a crush. I never understood why The Autograph Man wasn’t better received. When I had the chance to teach a course on contemporary black literature, we read NW alongside Fruitvale Station and the combination of the two narratives had me grieving the deaths of the black protagonists so acutely, I was reduced to crawling across the floor of my apartment.
That being said, it took me a full 400 pages to get into her new essay collection, Feel Free. And by “get into,” what I mean is that for the most part I did not feel any degree of identification with the author. Even though I too am a biracial essayist who loves museums and books and traveling with my father.
I try to read most of the book at a Best Western during a protracted layover in Texas, alone. But I struggle. Smith writes, in an exhibition review, “For us, the image-map that has been made of the world is not exactly the same as the territory itself, or rather, we can still remember — if only vaguely — a moment in time when the seams were still partially visible.” I put the book down. I ask myself: is the problem that I don’t like academic writing? But this can’t be it, because I was just devouring an academic book by Christina Sharpe, In the Wake, on the plane.
I keep feeling compelled to put on the TV, and a commercial plays for an Anna Deavere Smith show on HBO called Notes from the Field. As with her past work, Deavere Smith plays various characters involved on many sides of a civil rights struggle. The performance reminds me of the actor Sarah Jones, who plays the role of a Jewish grandmother, a Chinese mother, a Jordanian scholar during a TED talk, and more in her show Bridge and Tunnel. It occurs to me that Zadie Smith is as capable of inhabiting so many voices. At one point, she refers to this as one of the joys of fiction. But for a few hundred pages, it feels like I’m reading the voice of a character that I don’t particularly want to hear from at this moment in history: Howard Belsey, the white, academic father in On Beauty.
I bristle at an essay in which she tries to explain the trajectory of her emotional response to Joni Mitchell by talking about Kierkegaard. I wince when she talks about how at the movie with her kids there is nobody there who will want to listen to her talk about Schopenhauer. I don’t particularly mind when people bring up philosophers in essays. But there is a way of doing it that feels like an intellectual exercise, and there is a way of doing it that feels like it deepens my understanding of the world.
In the book Multiply/Divide, author Wendy S. Walters talks about how she tried to disguise her stutter by speaking in torrents at odd moments, purposefully boring the listener so they wouldn’t notice when her stutter prevented her from speaking later. I looked for clues of something similar at play in Smith’s book. Tactics. Proof that she was slinking around on purpose. Playing a game of hide and seek.
On the television, E.T. plays, and it takes less than five minutes before I start to cry. I pick up Smith’s book and the next essay I read mentions E.T., and I think, “Okay universe, I’ll keep reading.” I am a person who says the word “universe” in this kind of context, who looks for signs, which I don’t think Zadie Smith would very much appreciate.
In this essay, which refers to E.T., Smith talks about Spielberg’s fascination with screens: “[H]e saw that our technology was trying to tell us something through all that mesmerizing static. But what was the message?” I squint hard at the book and I wonder if and when I’ll get any sign of life beyond what amounts, for me, to a wall of white. A screen of static through which readers with tobacco pipes and elbow patches are being cajoled and seduced and delighted through her prose. When I think about who I know who loves Zadie Smith’s essays, I think of a white friend who loved Changing My Mind but took issue with me venting about a race-related incident on Facebook.
And perhaps it is the quiet presence of that kerfuffle that keeps me from enjoying myself as I read. It bugs me that Smith’s writing quietly encourages a sort of white liberal who prefers a dispassionate black writer to an angry one, who marvels a bit too much at the fact of Smith’s intelligence without caring so much what she’s talking about. Take a look at her blurbs. The Los Angeles Times states: “Smith shows herself in more ways than one to be a very old, empathetic head on ridiculously young shoulders.” Is this okay to say about someone in her 40s? Meanwhile her worldview as a marginalized person feels strangely elusive in this book. She reminds me, to be honest, of myself, at any point in time that I have felt self-conscious to be seen as irrational or excessively angry, without realizing that this politeness, this diplomacy, is a way of accommodating someone else’s ignorance. I feel it’s important to say: It’s not necessarily that I think she isn’t angry, or sad, but the spirit behind most of her writing feels at turns muffled, contorted, disguised.
In an essay about the Nicholas Brothers, Smith asks, “You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your ‘best self’? A representation? A symbol?” I wonder if Smith’s white readers understand just how much history and emotion is contained in the quotation marks that surround the phrase “best self.”
When I went to graduate school for writing, I encountered a grumpy professor who called me out for doing something I didn’t realize at the time might be a problem: “It sounds like you’re trying to write for The New Yorker.” What I think he meant when he said The New Yorker was the larger project of caring exclusively to reach readers who are educated, mostly white, and not as liberal as they think they are. As I read Feel Free, I thought a lot about how when you’ve reached a certain point of prominence and people will publish anything that you write, you might start to forget what it is you meant to say. This seems to be an issue for essays in particular. The genre can be a bit of a catch-all.
It’s possible that my frustration is magnified by Smith’s frequent expressions of contempt for social media. Don’t get me wrong — I have reservations, too. I thought about her essay on the dangers of Facebook quite a bit after reading. But social media has raised the bar for a lot of our cultural conversations. For one: Philosophers and academics on Twitter bring rigor (and brevity) to pop culture analysis, making the premise for some of Smith’s essays feel stale. In “Meet Justin Bieber!” Smith begins, “I’m not on Twitter but quite often I find myself thinking of Justin Bieber. It’s not a sexual interest — at least, I don’t think it is. It’s more of a — bear with me — philosophical interest.” She writes as if Bieber lives “in” Twitter, and, more frustratingly, as if writing about pop culture and philosophy at the same time is a completely unheard of concept. Meanwhile, an account called “KimKierkegaardashian” has been tweeting Kim’s quotes along with those of Kierkegaard for the last six years.
But it’s not just that I feel annoyed by the image of New Yorker subscribers chuckling smugly about the word “Beliebers.” Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have brought to prominence voices of marginalized authors who would have been otherwise ignored by the publishers and editors who champion Smith. Again, my frustration toward this book has less to do with Smith than with what she is communicating to which readers. Can you make rich people laugh while simultaneously dismantling white supremacy? Some people can, but I don’t think that’s what is happening here.
Smith claims throughout that she is a fiction writer at heart. But with two essay collections to her name, this genre claims her, too. It feels as though she writes most of her essays (though not all) with a caveat, at a remove, obscured rather than freed by her own objectivity — as if neutrality were either possible or ethical. It is as though her approach to the essay takes the term “nonfiction” at its most literal: the opposite of fiction, what fiction can’t be, absent of the empathy or the magic that brings that genre alive for her, a kind of negative space. A genre for bathroom magazine racks. But nonfiction has long existed outside the shadow of the novel. Even the essayists that Smith speaks of with admiration — Sontag, Franzen, Foster Wallace — are interested in doing more with the genre than simply saying, as Smith accuses the personal essay: “Let me tell you what happened to me.” What would this 400-plus page book have looked like if she liked or trusted the genre a little bit more?
I have no doubt that part of my reactivity is rooted in, essentially, prejudice. Americans (though I should only speak for myself) have always had an inferiority complex when it comes to British accents, and Smith’s Britishness is very salient on the page — her intermittent emotional distance, her snide sense of humor (though I don’t mind this at all in her fiction). She herself admits that there are class implications for this manner of speaking. Opinions with which she disagrees are “infantile,” feminism is at turns “faux” and “furious.” This is all usefully parsed in an essay about Geoff Dyer in “The Harper’s Columns.” Smith quotes Dyer quoting a photographer: “It is not easy to be unpretentious, simple, direct, honest and yet intelligent.” She goes on, “this is what I find most remarkable about Dyer: his tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition — the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Smith pulls off this simplicity, this vulnerability, toward the end of her book. But much of the middle had the appeal, to me, of good calligraphy. A show of rigor.
Smith argues that Brits are incorrect in “mistaking an aesthetic choice for an ethical one” in writing. But I have to say, her tone becomes an ethical choice, especially when so many (though certainly not all) of the people of color she writes about don’t add up to much. Philip Roth, who has been taken to task for his misogyny, is given pages and pages of Smith’s praise, her benefit of the doubt, while the artist Hannah Black is reduced to a whiney biracial kid because she has advocated that a painting of Emmett Till’s body be removed from the Whitney Biennale. Smith suggests that Black is “overcompensating” for her own half whiteness and the fact that Smith, too, is biracial, seems to give her the authority to leave it at that. Here is why that hurts: I can feel the way this gives permission to a whole host of people to judge Hannah Black, instead of judging themselves.
At another point in the book, the author Danzy Senna, though admired for her work on biracial identity, is critiqued for rendering a New York mother with an air of judgment in one of her short stories. Smith utters, “On race, perhaps, we’re finally getting somewhere. But whatever became of sisterhood?” This sentence stopped me cold: How long ago did she write those sentences? What progress on race left Smith so assured?
In the book I was devouring on the plane, Christina Sharpe, a professor at Tufts, posits that black people around the world still live in the wake of the slave ship. Sharpe talks at length about Zong, from which slaves were thrown overboard so that insurance could be collected for their loss. In one of Smith’s essays, a review of a book about Jamaica written by a white Scottish author, she states of Zong that “all 470 slaves on board perished,” when sources I’ve read claim that it was closer to 142 people who died. In the Wake argues that black death is taken as inevitable in our culture, even by our black president. The ease with which we can imagine 470 as opposed to 142 black deaths illustrates what Sharpe calls the “terrible calculus of the inability to ‘save every black life,’ an awful arithmetic, a violence of abstraction.” This number may seem like a small thing to quibble with, but I’ve read two books now (Sharpe’s and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!) that spend such deliberate time tending to, listening for, and reanimating those who were lost in the wreckage; three hundred and twenty-eight feels like a lot of lives to overlook. Especially if, like Smith, your kin could be among them.
Smith asks, “Why must either life or work be perfect?” Listen. I don’t want her to be perfect. In fact, I want her to be less perfect. I wonder what it would feel like to read her work if her intelligence was more invested in something, a little sloppier, a little more feverish.
I walk through my Arizona neighborhood and imagine what her last few years of work might have looked like if she hadn’t moved to Cambridge or New York — rather, some place like Montana or Tucson, places where white supremacy cannot be abstracted because it’s a pick-up truck driving past you in traffic with a huge American flag; it’s an ICE truck being blocked by the body of an activist who refuses to let somebody’s father be taken into detention.
In “Getting In and Out,” where Smith writes dismissively about Hannah Black, she writes too about Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out. I remember thinking, around the time that Harper’s published this essay (and it was very poorly received), that the black characters in the film, Walter, Georgina, and Andre, symbolized a version of blackness that Black Twitter saw in Smith’s essay: a blackness that has the potential to betray you, to bolster whiteness with its demeanor and its loyalties, to be somehow void. It pains me to know that Smith doesn’t mean for her work to be read this way.
Walter, Georgina, and Andre harbor a twinkling, urgent, inner self, a self that weeps out of nowhere, that bleeds, that barks out a warning — a glimmer in the static. Smith, too, sends out plenty of flares. Where most of the book she speaks in an objective voice, toward the end she is suddenly all about the “I.” She admits to sitting in Rome, staring at a statue of a Moor, and thinking:
I saw myself as some kind of decorative Moor, the kind who does not need to wrestle dolphins or anything else, a Moor of leisure, a Moor who lunches, a Moor who needn’t run for her livelihood through public squares. A historically unprecedented kind of Moor. A late-capitalism Moor. A tourist Moor. The sort of Moor who enters a public square not to protest or to march (or, in an earlier age, to be hanged or sold) but simply to wander about, without purpose. A Moor who has come to look at the art. A Moor who sits on the lip of a fountain and asks herself: “What, if anything, is the purpose of the artist today?” A Moor with the luxury of doing that.
In this essay, Smith watches as African men selling fake purses are chased by the police. She makes note of them in the same tone she uses to make note of the statue. I wonder whether she might adjust her category in the wake of this new world order: if this Moor might decide to be a bit less decorative.
Later, she writes, “I see afresh the huge privilege of my position. It reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.”
Later in the book, she recalls the words of a Negro spiritual.
Later, she admits to burning down an entire apartment with a halogen bulb. Finally, I feel like I’m looking at the person who had the power to move me to the point of tears so many years ago. Who sees her status the way it actually operates in this world, like a bulb: passively idle, until it has the power to burn everything down.
It is only by the last essay, “Joy,” that I notice Smith’s actual, audible voice in my head, as she peels back so many more layers of herself, retelling an ecstasy high. She talks about staying at a museum overnight. Replays a conversation with her husband in which I can actually picture them standing there, in the kitchen, two humans. Her voice doesn’t seem to be throwing itself now.
By the end she has won me over and I’m a little bit annoyed about it. For the first time in this 452-page book, I write down a quote because it moves me. I wonder about structure: why the essays I like the best are situated at the very end.
I was instantly curious to read Feel Free because the title is a phrase that I’ve written in my own writing, specifically, in quoting a film, 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis. In the film, a widowed man from the Caribbean lives with his biracial, adult daughter in the suburbs of Paris. He is a subway conductor, spending much of his time underground. His daughter cooks him dinner at night. She goes to classes where they talk about Frantz Fanon: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” At one point, the father holds his daughter’s hands in his own and says, with a mixture of hope and exhaustion: “Feel free.”
When I saw Smith’s title, I wondered whether the feeling I had while watching that film — the gray world of Paris’s banlieue, the weight of hope in a world that cannot see you — would somehow manifest as the heart of Smith’s book. But the title made less and less sense the more I read. Smith knows this — she mentions the dissonance in her introduction, noting that the title now chafes against the idea of our new administration. But I can’t see how this book was ever about freedom. Whose freedom? Freedom from what?
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. This fall she will be a Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.