When Zadie Smith writes “Nowadays, I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own,” she was writing the essence of my own soul.
I’ve long been a fan of Zadie, although I’ve never actually finished any of her novels. I remember attempting to read NW but alas, to no avail. I felt disconnected with the story, although I relished the pieces she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker. But when I first heard of her new book Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound), I knew I had a chance to read Zadie in a whole other way, the same way that Roxane Gay said that her life story would be in good hands if Zadie wrote it.
Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is story of two young brown girls in London, with dreams of making it big as dancers. One is the narrator of the story whose life becomes front and center in the book, while the better dancer, Tracey, evidently disappears from the main narrative only to reappear at crucial points of the protagonist’s life.
It’s not uncommon for me to ride hard for the story’s main characters: I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in Adichie’s Americanah, felt for Cora in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and celebrated the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.
With Swing Time, I found it hard to even cheer for the protagonist. I found her lacking in personality, but still eager to read on to see what would anchor my time in her. I never reached that point until the final pages of the book.
But unlike other titles I could easily set aside (and pray that I’d find the will to finish someday), I stayed. I stayed not for Zadie, surprisingly, but for all the characters that are closest to the narrator.
Early on, I was intrigued by her parents’ relationship. Her mother touted the Black Panthers, read the Communist Manifesto while her father tried to keep up.
Looking after me, loving her, trying to keep up, reading The Communist Manifesto in his slow and diligent way. “Some people carry the bible,” he told me proudly. “This is my bible.” It sounded impressive – it was meant to impress my mother – but I had already noticed that he seemed to always be reading this book and not much else, he took it every dance class, and yet never got any further than the first twenty pages.
How far can love go in a relationship when the life of one is in the mind, while the other is in his hands?
Her mother “measured time in pages” while her father believed in the nobility of labor. I think of these aspects of her parents as timely, relevant as discussions about revolution are popping up almost everywhere around the world.
Theory spun from the actual and living experiences of the masses, specially those who toil the hardest, and raised to a consciousness that extols the virtues of the working class can create waves.
The story of the person reading the theory while another person lives it was almost too ironic.
Another thing that Zadie illustrated was the struggles of activists, their children and their families at home. When the protagonist found out that her parents were separating, a mild panic ensued:
We all three knew that in divorces the father left, but my father could not leave, there was no question of that. Who, in his absence, would tape up my knee when I fell, or remember when my medicine was to be taken, or calmly comb the nits out of my hair? Who would wash my stinking, yellow sheets the next morning? I don’t mean that my mother didn’t love me but she was not a domestic person: her life was in her mind.
The fundamental skill of all mothers – the management of time – was beyond her. She measures time in pages. Half an hour, to her, meant ten pages read, or fourteen, depending on the size of the type, and when you think of time in this way there isn’t time left for anything else, there’s no time to go to the park or get ice cream, no time to put a child to bed, no time to listen to the teary recounting of nightmare. No, my father could not leave.
The bookworm in me was both slighted and affirmed when I got to this part, that all I had left to do was heave a huge sigh. As a reader, all of that was entirely true. But as a mother, well, I really can’t say because I have no experience. Still, it was insight to always keep in mind.
Aimee is another character worth writing about, whom the narrator worked for almost an entire decade. Nestled in the comforts of her life as a celebrity, she embarked on a charity project in West Africa where she was built a school. The irony in this situation is not unfamiliar, as there are way too many stories of these that course through the media circuit.
I mean, really, it was the epitome of white savior complex, and there I was struggling with how the narrator — whose mother was all about black power — dealt with this and not have any remorse at all. Worse, she was complicit in all of the plans.
What started out as a charity project became a love affair, as Aimee fell in love with one of the locals. Things got muddled. The only saving grace perhaps in this whole fiasco is Aimee’s bodyguard Granger, the only one in her whole entire entourage who saw the village for what it truly was.
Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty – the opposite of the America in which he’d been raised. Where I saw polygamy, misogyny, motherless children (my mother’s island childhood, only writ large, enshrined in custom), he remembered a sixth-floor walk-up, a tiny studio apartment shared with a depressed single mother, the loneliness, the food stamps, the lack of meaning, the threat of the streets right outside his front door, and spoke to me with genuine tears in his eyes of how happier he might have been raised by not one woman but fifteen.
Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is not your typical read, but for what it’s it worth, it can prod the reader to do a little more work, to do a little more digging. I had to sit with a finished book for a few days until I finally realized what I appreciated about it, and it was only then that I also appreciated Zadie Smith and her work.
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Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.