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Dancing with Zadie Smith

Sisonke Msimang on the playful call and response of dance and writing

Sisonke Msimang

“I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head. As a kid, I was ashamed of it.”—Zadie Smith

When White Teeth came out almost twenty years ago I was eager to read it. I remember looking at Zadie Smith’s photo on the back cover and deciding — pretty much on that basis — to buy it. She was beautiful, chic and we were the same age. She was black — like me — and so I assumed I would relate to her story.

I believed in our kinship despite the fact that Smith was born to a Jamaican mother and a white Englishman and had grown up in London, while I was the child of a Swazi mother and a South African and knew little of London beyond Big Ben. For all the wrong reasons, I thought I would recognise myself in the pages of White Teeth.

Predictably — given my misguided expectations — I hated the book. It was full of people I did not even vaguely recognise. The black people Smith described were Jamaican and ate ackee fish, a dish I had never heard of. They put the letter ‘k’ at the end of words that ought to end with a ‘g’ — saying ‘somethink and ‘anythink’. To top this off, the story was about old men.

I put the book aside, unable to finish it. Where were Toni Morrison’s lush sentences? Where was Alice Walker’s soulful prose? I had no framework for understanding this strange sort of black writer whose main characters were not black, and who seemed as though she wasn’t that interested in slavery or even freedom as I had come to define it. To be honest, the very idea of black Britishness was new to me. What did that even mean? I am ashamed to admit it but the world of literary blackness I could recognise was achingly shallow.  

Freedom is both a necessary and difficult thing for a black writer. Remarkably, Smith has sustained her quest for freedom while simultaneously experiencing a measure of it.

With the certainty of a fool I convinced myself that Smith was not a very good writer. Worse than this, I convinced myself that I was qualified to be the judge of her talents.

Others disagreed. According to reviewers, Smith’s arrival on the scene heralded a new kind of black writing. The condescension was heavy. Smith “is young, she is half-Jamaican and she wrote the novel in quiet moments while revising for finals at Cambridge. But it would not matter if she were a he, white and the wrong side of 40: Smith can write.” Zadie Smith was as good a writer as any man. The comparisons were enthusiastic — and pointed: Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, et cetera.

The literati were right about Smith’s literary talents, even if they did not yet have the full measure of her politics. In the two decades since White Teeth was published, she has established herself as one of the twenty-first century’s finest novelists and non-fiction writers. Smith has achieved this stature by producing high quality work at an impressive pace. She has garnered respect because of her insistence on being free to write what she likes in the manner and form that she likes. Her literary career is a study in trying to get free.

Freedom is both a necessary and difficult thing for a black writer. Remarkably, Smith has sustained her quest for freedom while simultaneously experiencing a measure of it. She revels unabashedly in the idea that writing and thinking are ways to be free even as she controls an argument. One particular essay in which she describes the difference between brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas, black dancers who gained fame in the 1930s and 40s, captures her philosophy on freedom:

“Fayard seems to me more concerned with this responsibility of representation when he dances: he looks the part, he is the part, his propriety unassailable. He is formal, contained, technically undeniable: a credit to the race. But Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back. Between propriety and joy, choose joy.”

She is as comfortable discussing old books as she is assessing contemporary ideas. Smith’s writing — whether short stories, essays or novels — captures the zeitgeist. There are few living writers who can describe the absurdity and anchorless-ness of the early twenty-first century with as lucid a combination of humour and genuine terror.

She is also adept at writing in the vernacular of the moment — a recent short story is called Mood. Yet she is not shy of the classics. A single paragraph in a recent Smith essay Fascinated to Presume: In Defence of Fiction draws dizzying comparisons between Walt Whitman, Anna Karenina, Zora Neale Hurston and Patricia Highsmith.

The constant churn of ideas and wordplay that runs through her work has been described as a sort of “breathless trying on.” Her first collection of short stories, Grand Union has been described as a mixed bag — a generally brilliant ensemble containing some sour notes. Yet Smith seems not to mind publishing work that people will neither like nor fully understand. It is increasingly part of her oeuvre.

In an age of distraction, when being liked and understood are a powerful currency, Smith seems totally uninterested in the popularity of her views. Perhaps this is because her quest is for freedom rather than mastery. Smith doesn’t want to be your best friend, she wants to argue. This is not because she is argumentative per se, but because she wants to try on so many of the ideas she encounters. As the narrator in her short story Downtown says, “I tried on four different outfits and then just went ahead and wore them all.” This observation — wry and dauntingly true — is quintessential Smith.

Dancing with Zadie is not easy until it is. At first, it’s awkward and experimental...But then you loosen up.

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?

See Zadie and Sisonke in conversation in the Concert Hall on Sunday 10 November.

Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer whose work focuses on race, gender and democracy. She has written two books: Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandelaboth out now via Text Publishing.

Find more about Talks & Ideas at the Opera House