Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s new collection brings together eight years of eclectic cultural essays written ‘during the eight years of the Obama presidency’.
In her foreword, she is specific about this period, and how it shaped her work: specifically, the ‘ambivalence’ it explores, about life, art, and what the intersection between the two tells us (or attempts to discover) about being human. As she suggests, it’s already a reminder of a time when public intellectuals could afford to wrestle with ambiguities.
There’s a typically revealing reflection on Get Out. (‘Peele has found a concrete metaphor for the ultimate unspoken fear: that to be oppressed is not so much to be hated as to be obscenely loved … in place of the old disgust comes a new form of cannibalism.’) The text of the inaugural Philip Roth Lecture takes us inside the art of novel-writing, and the place of ‘I’ within it – the ‘clean bullets of lived experience’ buried in even the most unautobiographical fiction. She channels Billie Holliday (exquisite!) and communes with Joni Mitchell. In one of my favourite pieces, Smith fangirls over Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and how it influenced her reading and writing. ‘I didn’t know you could speak to a reader like this, as if they were your equal – as if they were a friend.’
It’s a privilege and a thrill to be invited in to these moments of connection and reaction. It’s the kind of writing that inspires you to seek out or revisit what she’s engaging with, but also to take her myriad observations and apply them to your own reading and writing. Feel Free is like a series of amazing conversations about culture at your favourite pub, with that smarter-than-you, cooler-than-you friend who speaks with you (never at you) as if you were their equal.