It’s difficult to summarise Smith. She wants freedom and chafes against strictures. Yes, she is black but not bound by her blackness. But these are generic traits. Perhaps the best way to describe her importance is to quote two of her simplest and most compelling sentences:
“My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you?”
The rhythm reminds me of dancing. The questions they contain are reminiscent of call and response, the most recognisable idiom in the black tradition.
“I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you?”
Smith is asking whether the reader cares to dance. Smith is asking, can I get a witness?
The reader who keeps reading; the reader who does not abandon the book responds by saying, yes, I would love to dance, yes, you have a witness.
Dancing with Zadie Smith is not easy until it is. At first, it’s awkward and experimental. A strange playlist shuffles songs randomly: Bach, Prince, Bob Marley. But then you loosen up. You decide not to worry about the moves and instead you focus on the rhythm. Soon, you notice that each time a new song comes on Smith shouts above the music and the crowd and the dancing bodies. If you lean in you can hear her clearly. She is saying, I feel this—do you?