Zadie Smith Helps Us Find Our Light in Swing Time


ZADIE SMITH is a British-born literary sensation. A novelist, short story writer, and essayist, she has won the Orange Prize for Fiction, been on Granta’s list of the top 20 young writers, and now teaches in the Creative Writing program at New York University. She has recently been featured in many magazine articles as Swing Time, her latest novel, was released earlier this month. Her earlier novels include White Teeth, On Beauty, and NW, and have been met with much critical and literary acclaim.

Smith, now 40, is a confidently quiet writer – sly and witty and acid sharp – who always draws a world that looks like the real one; it’s a welcome skill set in the often monochrome world of UK publishing. — Bim Adewunmi

Smith’s writing, which examines topics like race, desire, and identity, is therapeutic and meditative, certainly for the reader, and probably for her. Reading her fiction raises questions, brews thoughts, and soothes aches without necessarily bringing healing. Her characters and their situations, like the Belsey family and their lives in On Beauty, focus on race and class, revealing truths, uncertainties, and secret concerns. She isn’t afraid to leave the reader without answers, or to unearth an issue without exploring it directly, because nothing she writes seems unfinished. She does some of the work, leaving her readers to do some of their own if they like. She presents people, not necessarily causes, and knows we can find them for ourselves within the setting, narrative, and characters she writes into every novel.

But I do feel, as I think people do feel when they’re up against it, that you get tired of trying to represent your people to other people, and expect their sympathy and understanding. At a certain point you just want to defend your people for yourself and for them, and become less externally facing because there doesn’t seem to be so much point.  — Zadie Smith

Honesty and openness make Smith stand out as a writer and literary mind. She doesn’t pretend to be anything she isn’t, or to understand anything that doesn’t make sense to her. In interviews, she seems to think as she talks, unafraid to explore ideas as they come to her. What we get from her is not always a polished, prepared response, but honest musings that are often brilliant concepts we can quote time after time.

We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. — Zadie Smith

As a writer, Smith shares details that remind us that she is a whole person, like us, and writing is one part of her life. In a recent Slate interview, she shared how motherhood has changed her writing habits. She no longer has the luxury of writing in a certain room at a certain time of day, and jokes about writing time being whenever the nanny comes over and she can grab a few hours. Finding time to read has also become more complicated, the author shared in a New York Times profile. When asked how and when she prefers to consume literature, she replies: “Any medium and in any order. But morning reading — like morning newspapers, morning sex, morning lie-ins and morning running — is the luxury of childless people.”

Smith also talks openly about the challenges of writing, and the mechanisms that help her to keep going. One of them, she recently mentioned, is therapy. She writes for up to four hours per day, and doesn’t push beyond 500 words, and admits to the anxiety she sometimes experiences, belaboring a particular sentence or phrase.

Smith has always written fiction in third-person, and Swing Time is the first novel she chose to write in first-person. She noted, in an interview with her friend Jeffrey Eugenides, that she had to fight self-consciousness during the writing process. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to consider, since she seems free, uninhibited, and effortlessly funny.

“Our thing would be striding into literary parties looking severe while wearing very fine hats, followed by getting drunk, followed by getting food in Chinatown at 2 in the morning.” — Zadie Smith, on choosing Zora Neale Hurston as the author she would most like to befriend

While she is a seen as an intellectual, she is quick to say she doesn’t consider herself a political mind. She is most interested in the intimate lives of people. In the aforementioned interview for Slate, she said: “Sometimes people’s intimate lives reflect the political world, but my first concern is always people.” This common thread weaves itself through her body of work, and is integral to Swing Time.

Swing Time has been party to complimentary reviews since its November 15, 2016 release. The story of friendship, passion, time, and locale moves from one time period to another. In one, the unnamed mixed-race narrator is a pre-teen and teenager who forges a friendship with another mixed-race girl she makes a point to meet at dance class. With completely different backgrounds and experiences, the girls share a passion for dance, though only one of them has the talent to make it. In the other, the narrator is personal assistant to a pop star and travels the world with little time for a life of her own. She spends some time in West Africa as the pop star is building a school there, and the story takes on a different pace. Throughout the novel, there are moments of self-reflection, spurred on by the narrator’s own revelations. We root for more than one character, relating to each one differently, hoping they all find their light. Perhaps, in writing this novel, Smith wanted to help reveal our own light to us: “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

Get your copy of Swing Time by Zadie Smith from Charis Bookstore, one of the last independent feminist bookstores in the United States.