Review by Amber Lascelles
Review: Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (St Ives: Penguin Random House, 2018)
Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection, Feel Free, accompanied me on the train to London en route to a Black British Writing conference at Goldsmiths. Opening its azure blue cover, I read ‘North-west London blues’ as the train sped through Watford Junction into the centre of the city. How fitting, then, were Smith’s wistful words about gentrification in the London borough where she grew up, writing about Willesden Bookshop, soon to be turned into a block of luxury flats. She assuredly states that the owner (a formidable book-worm named Helen) ‘gave the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted’. For Smith, the bookshop’s carefully curated collection of ‘radical’ ‘weird’ and ‘classical’ fiction was an antidote to the market-driven logic of neoliberal capitalism currently driving small, community-focused businesses out of London. Smith is masterful at stressing the local and the personal whilst mapping her thoughts onto a global world of shifting politics, economics and injustices. Indeed, this first essay is reminiscent of a blues song; an elegy dedicated to the ghosts of Britain’s state-supported libraries and independent businesses buried in the graveyards of inner city London which luxury apartment blocks and Instagrammable cereal cafés perch upon. Gentrification is certainly bleak, but Smith suggests we can find glimmers of hope if we look closely enough. Above the tiny library that replaced the Willesden Bookshop a beautiful local museum has taken up some of the property developers’ precious space. For culture to survive within the consumer-materialism logic of late capitalism, we must advocate its value and its relevance. This is what Feel Free seeks to do, carefully considering the value of cultural forms in the world and in our lives.
Although Feel Free is Smith’s second authored work of non-fiction, she remains best known for her novels. Her award-winning debut, White Teeth (1999) is a tale of multicultural Britain that draws inspiration from Greek epics as it chronicles the intertwined lives of a Bangladeshi and a mixed Jamaican-English family. In the early 2000s, White Teeth propelled Smith to the centre stage as the young voice of multicultural Britain. This label has remained problematic for Smith, particularly in light of Britain’s constant denial of its imperial history in tandem with a diversity agenda which obscures the realities of life for people of colour, especially under its pro-Brexit Conservative government. In Feel Free, Smith subtly challenges the fiction of Britain itself. The essays are organised under fitting sub-headings. In Part I (‘In the World’) Her meditations on Brexit and the ‘fencing off’ of communities as the nation continuously erects borders in both public and private spaces, and the Wordsworthian language considering England’s changing seasons due to climate change, lament what modern Britain seems to have lost. But this is Smith, and the hopeful, convivial vision of White Teeth is not yet lost, even within the decidedly bleaker genre of critical non-fiction. Part of Feel Free’s redemptive vision of the world lies within Smith’s attention to beauty, to art, and to reimagining the everyday spaces and places we inhabit. Notably, Smith quotes quotes Zora Neale Hurston in the epigraph: ‘People can be slave-ships in shoes.’ Feel Free is a container, a mass, and a plethora of ideas with the ability to spark infinite possibilities in the mind of its reader.
Throughout the essays, Smith crosses genres effortlessly to explore what seemingly disparate art forms can learn from another. In Part II (‘In the Audience’) Smith considers the relationship between writing and dancing, and the lessons of ‘position, attitude, rhythm and style’ that writers can learn. If Fred Astaire portrays the aristocracy and Gene Kelly represents the proletariat through their specific styles of dance, this appears to Smith as a choice between ‘the grounded and the floating’. Here dance sets up a dichotomy between the ‘commonsense’ language of the everyday, loaded with intent, versus the language of the surreal and the transcendent, which leads us to questions rather than answers. Whilst Beyoncé commands armies of fans with her covetable brand of female empowerment (her body obeys her, like her male dancers and her fanbase), Prince appears like a mirage on the stage, fleeting and mysterious like a secret. It is interesting that different responses to culture, positionality, place and space breed different forms of creativity.
At times, the essays in part III (‘In the Gallery’) feel a little idiosyncratic due to their particularity; some pieces are perhaps most relevant to the direct consumers of the particular painting or film the essay focuses on. Speaking personally, I found some of the essays about books I have not yet read or films I’m not familiar with slightly alienating. However, the range of the collection means there is something everyone can engage with. It is also worth noting that whilst care has been taken to make the essays flow coherently, the constraints of certain writing styles are sometimes evident. The Jay-Z interview, published in The New York Times, is one example of this: we miss Smith’s presence in this piece, and we are left wondering if the rap mogul was indeed able to reach Smith’s high expectations as a self-confessed ‘hip-hop head’. A stand-out essay is Smith’s response to American photographer Jerry Dantzic’s photographs of Billie Holiday. She chooses a form of ventriloquy to interpret an image of Holiday in lipstick and pearls, adorned in a fur jacket outside a grocery store. Holiday reads like a captivating fictional character. Smith’s words, in the second person, are simultaneously dark, satirical and playful (‘You boil an egg in twinset and pearls’) as she attempts to articulate the black pain and joy in Holiday’s music. Yet, she is still illusive to us, and Smith obscures as much as she reveals, just like the photograph.
In the final section (‘Feel Free’), ‘Love in the Gardens’ comforts us, suggesting that despite the fences being erected across Europe we can still find solace in some public spaces. After Smith’s father died, she moved to Rome in a moment of grief-stricken spontaneity. She meanders through the memories of trips to Italy with her father to deliver a nuanced point: borders can open up to people in the form of public gardens. Smith moves from the impossibly perfect, yet inaccessible beauty of the English country garden, to the Borghese Gardens in Rome where tourists and locals alike abandon Italian sensibilities in a cosmopolitan space. These are her ideas of freedom: ‘In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden.’
In the foreword, Smith humbly mentions her writer’s anxiety that came with stepping out of her fiction comfort-zone. She is not an academic or a trained philosopher; her ‘evidence’ is ‘intimacy’, the quotidian moments that spark a thought or feeling about the world. There is something tongue-in-cheek in this, as there often is in Smith’s prose: isn’t all writing simply thoughts and ideas on a page? In this sense, Feel Free invites us to think about our own ways of seeing the world. In the foreword, she notes that the essays were written in a pre-Trump world but the book has been published in a post-election landscape. Smith is very much in dialogue with her readers, as she offers a final word: ‘To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays – to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!’ It is this humility, rare to find in writing charged with such political and emotional relevance, that makes Feel Free a blue-sky antidote to these dark times.
Amber Lascelles is a PhD student at the University of Leeds researching neoliberalism, black feminism and the body in the works of four contemporary black women writers.