Author Zadie Smith explores identity and belonging with students

Author Zadie Smith explores identity and belonging with students

September 20, 2019

The narrator in Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel “Swing Time” exists within two different identities, belonging to neither. Quiet and introspective, the book’s main character goes unnamed throughout the novel, observing the lives of her friends, family and coworkers as she struggles to define herself. At the Brandeis New Student Book Forum on Thursday, Sept. 12, Smith explored the same ideas of chance, identity and belonging presented in her novel in a discussion with Professor John Plotz (ENG) followed by a Q&A session with students.

“Swing Time” tells the story of two best friends who grew up in London. Both are mixed-race and dancers, who meet at a church dance class in 1982. Tracey, the narrator’s best friend, has a white mother who buys her everything she wants. Tracey’s father, Louie, spends his daughter’s formative years in prison, leaving Tracey with the lie that he’s one of Michael Jackson’s backup dancers. The narrator’s mother is Jamaican. She is a student of African cultural history and a dedicated community organizer—who sometimes spends more time working than raising her daughter. The narrator’s father is white and from a working-class background.

The story traces the narrator’s journey from her childhood to her thirties, culminating in her time as an assistant for “Aimee,” an international pop star. When Aimee attempts to build a school for girls in the West African nation of Gambia, the narrator feels torn between her mother’s Jamaican heritage and her father’s English identity and watches her life diverge significantly from Tracey’s.

The novel expertly navigates the confusion of living without a sense of belonging, an idea that Smith discussed repeatedly at the book forum. Answering Plotz’s opening question about the origins of her desire to write, Smith said that she was inspired by Jamaican Anansi stories, particularly moral fables about a trickster spider that she heard as a child. She talked about writing like a ventriloquist, using multiple voices and perspectives. “I wanted to do something with the voices in my head. We work in voices,” she said, referring to her brothers Doc Brown and Luc Skyz, both of whom are rappers.

Born in London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father, Smith graduated from Caimbridge in 1997. She earned numerous awards for her first two novels: 2000’s “White Teeth” and 2002’s “The Autograph Man.” Today, she teaches creative writing at New York University.

The diverging destinies of the narrator and her best friend in “Swing Time” bear a striking similarity to a story that Smith told students at the forum about her childhood. She recalled seeing homeless people from her neighborhood that she went to school with, emphasizing the period of remarkable wealth inequality that we currently live in. She said she aimed to “humanize” this phenomenon with her book. 

The inequality that afflicts our world is partially determined by random chance—a “contingency” that Smith said quietly determines all of our lives. “The things I most strongly believe would have been different if I had been born next door,” she said. As a result, national pride sometimes feels trivial to her. “Extreme feelings of patriotism I find hard to take seriously given the accidental nature of birth,” she said.

Smith’s willingness to explore the perspective of a character disconnected from their identity and surrounded by culture makes her novel fascinating to read. Her narrator feels out of place in England, not “completely” white like her father, nor “completely” black like her mother. In Gambia, the locals identify her as being from London, treating her like a child who cannot deal with the difficult living conditions in their reality.

Yet Smith does not judge her narrator for not knowing where she belongs. During the Q&A, Smith applauded those who grapple between different identities. She said that negotiation between places is a part of life, and those who are completely sure of their identities can be a danger to the world.

Returning to the subject of inequality, Smith expressed her disbelief at the world’s wealth gap. While doing character research for Aimee, she described reading about pop stars and bankers who are worth more than entire countries. One student asked about the novel’s references to the Illuminati, a conspiracy theory about a small group of powerful people controlling the world. Some Gambian characters in the book believe in the group’s existence. Smith explained that we all tell ourselves stories to rationalize the misery in our world, whether we learn them in a college course or read them on the internet. “We all need ways of explaining power to ourselves,” she said.

In the absence of a personal or cultural identity, Smith said that we can define ourselves by our relationships with others. In response to a student question about character development, Smith said that after we pass away, people gather to remember their memories of us. As the class of 2023 embarks on their college journey, Smith’s words can provide advice for dealing with hardship, since we are all guided by random chance. She encouraged students to improve as people over time. “We’re very attached to the idea of sameness and consistency,” she said, explaining that personhood is a constantly changing series of relationships, evolving over time as we meet new people and grow.
Zadie Smith’s novel “Swing Time” is an excellent deep-dive into identity and loneliness, which was complemented by her thought-provoking discussion at the New Student Book Forum. Her short story collection, “Grand Union,” will arrive in early October 2019.

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