By Elizabeth Helen Spencer
“Intersectional” is a popular adjective in contemporary political discourse, especially feminist theory. It simply means the study of overlapping identities and it’s a theme in all of Zadie Smith’s work. Swing Time, her fifth novel, is the finest rendering yet of Smith’s intersectional vision.
The novel follows the lives of two girls whose friendship begins at age 7 when they meet in a dance class. The unnamed first-person narrator adores Tracey, who is the more talented dancer, but the narrator is the one who finds success as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like pop star named Aimee. The book is divided into seven parts that move back and forth through time from the intensity of the narrator’s childhood friendship with Tracey to the separate paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood. We follow the narrator from her North London neighborhood to the global existence she leads while working for Aimee. About half the story takes place in a West African village where Aimee builds a school for girls.
That’s right — the novel features a white pop star with a passion for African charity work — a plot line that could have easily become caricature. But Smith is an astute observer of the world whose characters are believably contradictory and nuanced. She is able to tell a political story without falling into pedantry. Swing Time belongs to the tradition of literary masterpieces, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which “a novel is a mirror carried along a high road,” as a professor once quoted Stendhal in The Red and the Black. It reflects the entirety of its time and place, from the superficiality of pop culture to the legacy of slavery. And Smith is equally talented at describing her characters’ inner lives as well as the physical and cultural environment they live in.
But of all the novel’s relatable characters and situations, my favorite theme is motherhood. It’s not a major part of the story — the narrator doesn’t have children — but when she writes about mothers, I sensed Smith’s own experience of being a mother and a daughter. In an early chapter she writes: “What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission.” This is an obvious truth, but Smith’s decision to tell it from the child’s perspective makes the insight seem fresh. It renewed my empathy for my young children, and made me remember longing for my own mother’s undivided attention.
The narrator’s mother, a Jamaican immigrant who met the narrator’s white English father at a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, is politically conscious and intellectually ambitious. Unlike the other mothers in the London housing estate where Tracey and the narrator grow up, she holds her daughter to high and demanding standards. Eventually she finishes college and is elected to parliament. Every mother-daughter relationship is fraught with conflict and Smith captures the dueling need for closeness and separation that characterizes the coming-of-age process. At first the narrator views her mother as “a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood,” but eventually their roles shift and after a bad fight over her future as a dancer, the narrator realizes “this was exactly the time of my life when I could finally take a step away from her, many steps, I was almost twelve, I was already as tall as her.”
Although the narrator tells Aimee she never wanted kids after watching her own mother struggle with the confinement of the role, she still experiences “the dopamine that floods through people in love…a drowning” when she meets a newborn baby in the village. Tracey becomes a single mom of three kids, fulfilling the predicted destiny of many girls in the neighborhood. But here again Smith avoids stereotypes. Whatever other disappointments Tracey has suffered, and however she may fail as a parent, she loves her children. When the narrator visits her old friend toward the end of the novel she’s struck by the family’s warmth with one another as they sit down to lunch.
Zadie Smith is infamous for her avoidance of smartphones, claiming that the temptation to check email and Twitter is too distracting. So it’s not surprising that she describes our fraught relationship with technology so accurately. In one of my favorite passages she describes the force with which we get caught up in surfing the web as time disappears and we feel we are experiencing the world without actually being in it. The narrator is supposed to attend one of Aimee’s concerts but stays home instead:
“I got on YouTube, skipped from dancer to dancer….And still the option of going did not seem lost or completely closed until I looked up from my aimless surfing and found eleven forty-five had happened, which signified we were now in the undeniable past tense: I hadn’t gone. Search Aimee, search venue, search Brooklyn dance troupe, image search, AP wire search, blog search. At first simply out of a sense of guilt, but soon enough with the realization that I could reconstruct–140 characters at a time, image by image, blog post by blog post–the experience of having been there, until, by one a.m., nobody could have been there more than me. I was far more there than any of the people who had actually been there, they were restricted to one location and one perspective–to one stream of time–whereas I was everywhere in that room at all moments, viewing the thing from all angles, in a mighty act of collation.”
Every family is haunted by its own stories. For the narrator and her family, those stories include the history of slavery and the African diaspora. They arise throughout the novel, from the narrator’s recounting of The Zong Massacre to Aimee, who blithely responds, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” to the narrator’s visit to Kunta Kinteh Island, a former slave trade hub, where a “desperate guide with few teeth” admonishes the tourists not to give money to a crowd of begging children. “All I wanted was a minute’s quiet to contemplate where I was and what, if anything, it meant,” the narrator thinks. In the epilogue the narrator’s mother delivers a beautiful speech on the legacy of slavery: “…we were taken out of our time and place, and then stopped from even knowing our time and place–and you can’t do anything worse to a people than that.”
Amidst the nationalist fervor of our current political moment, Zadie Smith’s intersectional and global outlook is even more relevant. As I read the last sentence of Swing Time I felt sad. How long will we have to wait for the next book, and what will happen in the world between then and now?