‘Fiction messes with our sense of what is possible to do with our judgements. It usefully suspends our great and violent desire to be in the right on every question, and creates an unholy and ungovernable mix of the true and not true simultaneously: the ultimate impossibility’.
When I first began reading Feel Free, I felt such a sense of familiarity. Being a fellow ‘Londoner’, Zadie Smith’s observations about our city tugged deep at my heartstrings. Having lived away from London (and the UK) for over three years and now that even my parents have left for a new life in the countryside, I often feel homesick for this beautiful, multi-cultural, cosmopolitan capital (not that I could afford to live there anytime soon). However, at the same time, like in ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, Smith makes me wonder and question whether what I remember about London is just an idealised version that no longer exists and maybe never existed as I like to remember it. As her nuanced, and perhaps unpopular, analysis of Brexit shows, although the fact that the majority of the UK voted Leave, the aftermath of this decision has thrown a floodlight on aspects of British (or mostly English) society that we would rather ignore or pretend doesn’t exist. And that includes our capital, London. More than ever before the gap between different groups of people is becoming wider and wider.
‘The truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighbourhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black, are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave’.
‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’
After gaining a lot of distance and some perspective on my hometown over the years, whenever I’m able to revisit London I am always a lot more aware and critical of its negative sides than I ever was when I was in the thick and thin of it. Although London will always have a special place in my heart, I just find it such a frenzied, uninviting place where people are too stressed out and busy to enjoy the uniqueness it has to offer. As Zadie Smith explores in some of these essays, books can be a catalyst for opening our eyes to a place we think we know inside out (just as J.G. Ballard’s Crash does when she is just starting out as a writer in her early twenties) and so can distance and time.
However, Zadie Smith’s essays don’t just focus on London and the fate of the UK, post-Brexit. Through categories such as ‘In the Audience’, ‘In the Gallery’, ‘On the Bookshelf’ and ‘Feel Free’, Smith explores varied and eclectic topics from Blockbuster films – my favourite being her exploration of cultural appropriation in Get Out, directed by Jonathan Peele – to Jay Z and Justin Bieber to books on insects and art installations in Italy. Even when I am unfamiliar with the films, music, exhibitions, paintings or books she’s discussing I find myself intrigued, wanting to find out more about these works of art she has so carefully and wittily deconstructed.
I now have a long list of catch-up to do, which includes (but is not limited to): listening to some Billie Holiday songs, checking out YouTube videos of famous dancers from Fred Astaire up to Beyonce as well as sketches of Key and Peele, watching Anomalisa by Kaufman, googling the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, reading some Ursual K. Le Guin and Danzy Senna, the list goes on. But instead of feeling overwhelmed or disinterested by these many things I don’t know much – if anything – about, Zadie Smith has a way of exciting an interest in the reader (or in me, at least). Although she claims not to have the time to be a connoisseur, she sure comes across as one at times.
However, her writing is also personal and touching. I love how she includes anecdotes of her youth, her parents or her kids. She isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself – as she does in ‘Flaming June’ – and she isn’t afraid to explore topics that worry her, of which she doesn’t have an answer to – such as the discussions of being biracial, as she is and as her kids are, that is brought about by the fury and protests surrounding a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till’s open casket at the Whitney Biennial. With every essay, Smith’s presence is undeniable. She is clever, witty, serious and fun all at once.
‘Early on, for better or worse, I chose whose child I wanted to be: the child of the novel. Almost everything else was subjugated to this ruling passion, reading stories’.
‘Feel Free’ by Zadie Smith was published on the 8th February. Thank you to Penguin Books, via Netgalley, for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.