After the success of her bestselling novel, Swing Time (published in November 2016), Zadie Smith is back with her second essay collection, Feel Free. Those who have read Smith’s earlier essay collection, Changing My Mind, or any of her many magazine and newspaper articles (many of which are reproduced here in Feel Free) will be familiar with what constitutes a Zadie Smith Essay. As the book’s title, and her earlier collection’s title, suggest, Smith’s essays are an exercise in intellectual freedom. The scope of Smith’s subject matter is swung wide open as she effortlessly moves from wrestling with the political fallout of Brexit to an interview with Jay Z, to examining black consciousness in Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out, to the symbolic ramifications a second bathroom has to the British middle-class, to meeting Justin Bieber.
Despite the effortless quality of Smith’s writing, each essay is sharply honed, structured, and crafted: perfectly self-contained yet outwardly looking. Her voice is empathetic, self-aware, and full of warmth and wit.
In the introduction to the collection, Smith writes about her insecurities as a writer. Although she has a degree from the University of Cambridge, Smith is not a professor, critic, or journalist nor does she have a masters or PhD. Perhaps it’s due to this lack of academic training that Smith has been described as a writer who straddles boundaries: high and low culture, the art gallery and the multiplex cinema, literary fiction and the plot-driven novel. This observation isn’t quite accurate though: Smith isn’t dividing herself over these binaries; instead she is existing and writing wholeheartedly in plurality. In her essay on Get Out, Smith writes about her personal experience of being biracial: “To be biracial at any time is complex […] it feels like something’s got to give. You start to yearn for absolute clarity.” Later in the essay, Smith dismantles this binary thinking – black/white, self/other, them/us – as a falsehood used to establish segregation. Rather our histories, identities, and cultures are intertwined. In these essays, she embodies this plurality: everything is embraced, no subject is too big or small for her.
It’s a pleasure to witness a writer at the height of her power. Although every essay has its own merits, highlights include: her meeting with Jay Z in ‘The House that Hova Built,’ her complicated relationship with Joni Mitchell, her reckoning with her early resentment to J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and perhaps her most personal and emotional final essay on joy. In Feel Free, Smith more than proves that she has joined the ranks of those great classic English essayists – Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, George Eliot – as one of Britain’s best writers.
Photo courtesy of Dominique Nabokov.
Feel Free is out on 8th February 2018 published by Penguin Randomhouse.