This is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.
Zadie Smith’s nonfiction collection, Changing My Mind, is subtitled “Occasional Essays,” and, according to the forward, was “written without [the author’s] knowledge.” Subject matter ranges from Franz Kafka to her experience of Los Angeles during Oscar weekend. This is all to say that there is nothing in particular which binds these essays, no deliberate through-line. Sure, the pieces are divided into categories (Seeing, Being, Remembering, etc), but lacking a cohesive subject matter, what truly unites the works contained in the book is the voice of its author. Through her wonderful gift for the phrase and a slightly non-standard approach to punctuation (the use of colons in particular is delightful), Smith suffuses these essays with a voice that is at once intelligent and self-conscious.
The voice is the product of a two-part upbringing, working-class North West London and the more polished Cambridge. In the piece “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith laments that Cambridge has supplanted NW London; she had hoped to add her new voice to the old. The manner in which she reconciles the old and new voice infuses her writing with a discernible level of uncertainty; Smith reads as though she’s still coming to terms with the change. She has examined how her voice has changed, and how that change affects how others view her, how she views herself, how others view her viewing herself. The tension in her voice comes through in other essays; indeed, suffuses all her writing in Changing My Mind. It is this tension which lends itself to a thorough (obsessive?) examination of all facets of a book, movie, or whatever else Smith sets her eye on. The tension manifests itself even structurally in these essays. The pieces are often divided in half, with two related but disparate subjects (Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo, Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov, etc), and in each, Smith does little to connect the two, leaving that work to the reader. We are left with two discrete elements, and must find some way to reconcile them outside of the text. It’s a brilliant move that matches the tension in her authorial voice. Smith’s voice (and that accompanying tension) is clearest in two particular essays: a travelogue of sorts from a week spent in Liberia, and a tribute to the late author David Foster Wallace.
On a week-long trip sponsored by the NGO Oxfam, Smith sets out to understand what is actually happening in Liberia. Or rather, she very quickly realizes that she’ll never understand Liberia in a one week NGO sponsored trip, and instead writes about the feelings of inadequacy that permeate such an endeavour. This is most apparent in Smith’s conversations with Liberian schoolgirls, who are whip-smart and frustrated. Smith asks what sound like good opening questions (“Do you enjoy studying?” “Is the typing pool useful?” “Do you have books in your house?”) but which are rendered absurd by the schoolgirls. One student makes clear that Smith is asking the wrong questions; the girl, Evelyn, wants to be in school more, but economic and familial conditions make full-time studying impossible. Smith is just the latest in a line of people who have questioned Evelyn, hoping for answers in a 20 minute interview. In response to Smith’s questioning, “there is the sense that she is trying hard not to scream. This is in contrast to the other girls, who only seem exhausted. … Evelyn blinks slowly, gives up.” There is a photo shoot for Smith’s piece, which Evelyn “submits to as a politician might to a humiliating, necessary photo op.”
Smith ultimately becomes self-conscious of herself as visitor, and conscious of the lenses that have been placed over her eyes by the NGO. She is not able to get to the central node of the problems in Liberia, because those problems are so huge and interconnected that there may not even be such a node. So instead, Smith writes about how her own search for answers is part of the problem. The tension between searching for answers and knowing the search itself to be problematic is heartbreaking, but Smith’s depiction of it is masterful.
The final essay in the collection is a remembrance of David Foster Wallace, perhaps the best written tribute to the author. Smith doesn’t recount personal interactions with DFW, or talk about what his body of work means. Instead, she approaches his book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men as a both a committed reader and fellow author. She speaks beautifully about the joy in reading difficult fiction:
“He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed [i.e.-the speed necessary for a newspaper-printed book review] any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music–the gift of the work–over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.”
It’s a beautiful analogy, and the 40 pages that follow are some of the most cogent and intelligent interpretations of Wallace you’ll ever read. It’s a gorgeous tribute from one author to another, in their shared language. In this piece, as in the rest of Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith establishes herself as a prodigious musician as well as a master composer in her own right.