Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

















  Twelve - AT THE MULTIPLEX, 2006











  The Book of Other People (editor)

  On Beauty

  The Autograph Man

  White Teeth


  Published by the Penguin Group

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in 2009 by The Penguin Press,

  a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2009

  All rights reserved

  “Smith Family Christmas” was published as “Scenes from the Smith Family Christmas”

  in The New York Times, December 24, 2003. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company.

  Excerpts from “High Windows,” “The Literary World,” “Self’s the Man,” and “Water”

  from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin.

  Excerpt from “The End and the Beginning” from Miracle Fair by Wislawa Szymborska,

  translated by Joanna Trzeciak. Copyright © 2001 by Joanna Trzeciak. Used by permission of

  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

  Pages 298-99 constitute an extension of this copyright page.


  Smith, Zadie.

  Changing my mind : occasional essays / Zadie Smith.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-15146-4

  I. Title. PR6069.M59C’.914—dc22 2009023419

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

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  In Memory of My Father

  The time to make your mind up about people is never!

  —TRACY LORD, The Philadelphia Story

  You get to decide what to worship.



  This book was written without my knowledge. That is, I didn’t realize I’d written it until someone pointed it out to me. I had thought I was writing a novel. Then a solemn, theoretical book about writing: Fail Better. The deadlines for these came and went. In the meantime, I replied to the requests that came in now and then. Two thousand words about Christmas? About Katharine Hepburn? Kafka? Liberia? A hundred thousand words piled up that way.

  These are “occasional essays” in that they were written for particular occasions, particular editors. I am especially grateful to Bob Silvers, David Rem nick, Deborah Treisman, Cressida Leyshon, Lisa Allardice and Sarah Sands for suggesting I stray into film reviewing, obituaries, cub reporting, literary criticism and memoir. “Without whom this book would not have been written.” In this case the cliché is empirically true.

  When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—and in public. Changing My Mind seemed an apt, confessional title to describe this process. Reading through these pieces, though, I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith. As is a cautious, optimistic creed, best expressed by Saul Bellow: “There may be truths on the side of life.” I keep on waiting, but I don’t think I’m going to grow out of it.

  —Zadie Smith

  New York, 2009




  When I was fourteen I was given Their Eyes Were Watching God by my mother. I was reluctant to read it. I knew what she meant by giving it to me, and I resented the inference. In the same spirit she had introduced me to Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye, and I had not liked either of them (better to say, I had not allowed myself to like either of them). I preferred my own freely chosen, heterogeneous reading list. I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons. Spotting Their Eyes Were Watching God unopened on my bedside table, my mother persisted:

  “But you’ll like it.”

  “Why, because she’s black?”

  “No—because it’s really good writing.”

  I had my own ideas of “good writing.” It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly “lyrical” language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered “folk speech” or the love tribulations of women. My literary defenses were up in preparation for Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then I read the first page:Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

  Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

  It was an aphorism, yet it had me pinned to the ground, unable to deny its strength. It capitalized Time (I was against the capitalization of abstract nouns), but still I found myself melancholy f
or these nameless men and their inevitable losses. The second part, about women, struck home. It remains as accurate a description of my mother and me as I have ever read: Then they act and do things accordingly. Well, all right then. I relaxed in my chair a little and laid down my pencil. I inhaled that book. Three hours later I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale.

  I lost many literary battles the day I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I had to concede that occasionally aphorisms have their power. I had to give up the idea that Keats had a monopoly on the lyrical:She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-nearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.1

  I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good:

  Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him?

  My resistance to dialogue (encouraged by Nabokov, whom I idolized) struggled and then tumbled before Hurston’s ear for black colloquial speech. In the mouths of unlettered people she finds the bliss of quotidian metaphor:“If God don’t think no mo’ ’bout ’em than Ah do, they’s a lost ball in de high grass.”

  Of wisdom lightly worn:

  “To my thinkin’ mourning oughtn’t tuh last no longer’n grief.”

  Her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all:“Where y’all come from in sich uh big haste?” Lee Coker asked. “Middle Georgy,” Starks answered briskly. “Joe Starks is mah name, from in and through Georgy.”

  “You and yo’ daughter goin’ tuh join wid us in fellowship?” the other reclining figure asked. “Mighty glad to have yuh. Hicks is the name. Guv’nor Amos Hicks from Buford, South Carolina. Free, single, disengaged.”

  “I god, Ah ain’t nowhere near old enough to have no grown daughter. This here is mah wife.”

  Hicks sank back and lost interest at once.

  “Where is de Mayor?” Starks persisted. “Ah wants tuh talk wid him.”

  “Youse uh mite too previous for dat,” Coker told him. “Us ain’t got none yit.”

  Above all, I had to let go of my objection to the love tribulations of women. The story of Janie’s progress through three marriages confronts the reader with the significant idea that the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives. A world you share with Logan Killicks is evidently not the same world you would share with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. In these two discrete worlds, you will not even think the same way; a mind trapped with Logan is freed with Tea Cake. But who, in this context, dare speak of freedoms? In practical terms, a black woman in turn-of-the-century America, a woman like Janie, or like Hurston herself, had approximately the same civil liberties as a farm animal: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” So goes Janie’s grandmother’s famous line—it hurt my pride to read it. It hurts Janie, too; she rejects the realpolitik of her grandmother, embarking on an existential revenge that is of the imagination and impossible to restrict:She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.

  That part of Janie that is looking for someone (or something) that “spoke for far horizon” has its proud ancestors in Elizabeth Bennet, in Dorothea Brooke, in Jane Eyre, even—in a very debased form—in Emma Bovary. Since the beginning of fiction concerning the love tribulations of women (which is to say, since the beginning of fiction), the “romantic quest” aspect of these fictions has been too often casually ridiculed: not long ago I sat down to dinner with an American woman who told me how disappointed she had been to finally read Middlemarch and find that it was “Just this long, whiny, trawling search for a man!” Those who read Middlemarch in that way will find little in Their Eyes Were Watching God to please them. It’s about a girl who takes some time to find the man she really loves. It is about the discovery of self in and through another. It implies that even the dark and terrible banality of racism can recede to a vanishing point when you understand, and are understood by, another human being. Goddammit if it doesn’t claim that love sets you free. These days “self-actualization” is the aim, and if you can’t do it alone you are admitting a weakness. The potential rapture of human relationships to which Hurston gives unabashed expression, the profound “self-crushing love” that Janie feels for Tea Cake, may, I suppose, look like the dull finale of a “long, whiny, trawling search for a man.” For Tea Cake and Janie, though, the choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame. That Tea Cake would not be our choice, that we disapprove of him often, and despair of him occasionally, only lends power to the portrait. He seems to act with freedom, and Janie to choose him freely. We have no power; we only watch. Despite the novel’s fairy-tale structure (as far as husbands go, third time’s the charm), it is not a novel of wish fulfillment, least of all the fulfillment of our wishes.2 It is odd to diagnose weakness where lovers themselves do not feel it.

  After that first reading of the novel, I wept, and not only for Tea Cake, and not simply for the perfection of the writing, nor even the real loss I felt upon leaving the world contained in its pages. It meant something more than all that to me, something I could not, or would not, articulate. Later, I took it to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish.

  “So?” my mother asked.

  I told her it was basically sound.

  At fourteen, I did Zora Neale Hurston a critical disservice. I feared my “extraliterary” feelings for her. I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool. I disliked the idea of “identifying” with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she represented “good writing,” not because she represented me. In the two decades since, Zora Neale Hurston has gone from being a well-kept, well-loved secret among black women of my mother’s generation to an entire literary industry—biographies3 and films and Oprah and African American literature departments all pay homage to her life4 and work as avatars of black woman-ness. In the process, a different kind of critical disservice is being done to her, an overcompensation in the opposite direction. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is depressed by Joe Starks’s determination to idolize her: he intends to put her on a lonely pedestal before the whole town and establish a symbol (the Mayor’s Wife) in place of the woman she is. Something similar has been done to Hurston herself. She is like Janie, set on her porch-pedestal (“Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere”), far from the people and things she really cared about, representing only the ideas and beliefs of her admirers, distorted by their gaze. In the space of one volume of collected essays, we find a critic arguing that the negative criticism of Hurston’s work represents an “intellectual lynching” by black men, white men and white women; a critic dismissing Hurston’s final work with the sentence “Seraph on the Suwanee is not even about black people, which is no crime, but is about white people who are bores, which is”; and another
explaining the “one great flaw” in Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston’s “curious insistence” on having her main character’s tale told in the omniscient third person (instead of allowing Janie her “voice outright”). We are in a critical world of some banality here, one in which most of our nineteenth-century heroines would be judged oppressed creatures, cruelly deprived of the therapeutic first-person voice. It is also a world in which what is called the “Black Female Literary Tradition” is beyond reproach:Black women writers have consistently rejected the falsification of their Black female experience, thereby avoiding the negative stereotypes such falsification has often created in the white American female and Black male literary traditions. Unlike many of their Black male and white female peers, Black women writers have usually refused to dispense with whatever was clearly Black and/or female in their sensibilities in an effort to achieve the mythical “neutral” voice of universal art.5

  Gratifying as it would be to agree that black women writers “have consistently rejected the falsification” of their experience, the honest reader knows that this is simply not the case. In place of negative falsification, we have nurtured, in the past thirty years, a new fetishization. Black female protagonists are now unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid; they take the unreal forms of earth mothers, African queens, divas, spirits of history; they process grandly through novels thick with a breed of greeting-card lyricism. They have little of the complexity, the flaws and uncertainties, depth and beauty of Janie Crawford and the novel she springs from. They are pressed into service as role models to patch over our psychic wounds; they are perfect;6 they overcompensate. The truth is, black women writers, while writing many wonderful things,7 have been no more or less successful at avoiding the falsification of human experience than any other group of writers. It is not the Black Female Literary Tradition that makes Hurston great. It is Hurston herself. Zora Neale Hurston—capable of expressing human vulnerability as well as its strength, lyrical without sentiment, romantic and yet rigorous and one of the few truly eloquent writers of sex—is as exceptional among black women writers as Tolstoy is among white male writers.8

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