In her first essay collection, 2009’s Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith made an art of ambivalence. In essays whose subtlety of thinking evoked the work of Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Virginia Woolf, Smith squirmed out of given categories in search of something to accommodate the multiplicity that she takes to be every person’s basic state. Although the collection dealt only sparingly with politics, it was telling that among the procession of figures she examined as exemplars of this art, she included Barack Obama. Her essay “Speaking in Tongues,” adapted from a talk that she gave shortly after Obama’s election in 2008, revels in the emergence of a president for whom “cross[ing] borders and speak[ing] in tongues” was a necessity for expressing the multiplicity of his experience.
For Smith, Obama’s most important attribute as a historical figure wasn’t necessarily his blackness, but his status as a man who must negotiate allegiances to different worlds—for example, those of his white Midwestern mother and black African father, or of black America and a broader national audience. With Obama, the fact of human multifariousness had migrated from the realm of art into the halls of power. A representative of what Smith calls “Dream City”—a heterogeneous world of overlapping and slippery identities—had taken over the White House.
Obama’s ascent also seemed like the validation of an idea that Smith has spent her entire career as a fiction writer mining. In White Teeth, On Beauty, and Swing Time, she has dedicated herself to describing the constant, churning exchange of cultures that renders any concept of identity ultimately unstable. To Smith, identity will always lapse into the impurity of cultural exchange. The hard work is to construct meaning out of that disorder once you realize that the myth of cohesive identities is a crutch. “You can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags,” she wrote in 2005’s On Beauty. “Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.” “Speaking in Tongues,” then, read like a victory lap: With Obama, the in-between space that Smith had previously been able to envision only in fiction had migrated from the margins to the center of political culture.
It was a nice dream while it lasted. Smith’s new collection, Feel Free, arrives amid a reactionary upheaval whose explicit goal is to uproot this vision. Though the assumptions that Smith took to be true are under assault, she’s responded with a collection that reiterates her belief in what she calls life’s “radical contingency.” In part, this is because most of these essays appeared over the course of Obama’s tenure, and the world they take for granted is very different from the one we live in. Smith’s consistency is also a testament to the strength of her intellectual commitments: For her, the one given in our world is that human beings and the world we live in are constantly shifting, forever subject to change.
Because of its timing, the result is a book that is intriguingly out of step with contemporary cultural criticism, a collection whose value lies in its belatedness. “I realize,” Smith admits in the book’s mock-sheepish foreword, “my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written…during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world.” Feel Free offers us an anachronistic provocation. In a moment when ideological surety is the order of the day, it asks us to remember that another mode of thought is possible.