Zadie Smith: Helping us Shape Herstory

Easter eggs, those cheeky winks in various media to those in the know, are indescribably rewarding to so many of us media consumers.

When I read Zadie Smith’s passing mention of the buck-toothed Irie in her 2017 novel Swing Time, I felt as if I were part of an elite group – those privileged enough to know Irie from Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth.

Yet, I was likewise pleased to see Smith included by the New York Times in its list of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century” ( for her 2012 novel NW.

It’s obvious that despite my smug insider feelings, I desperately want the rest of the world to appreciate the literary contributions of a woman author whom I also believe is shaping the way we read literature by women – and anyone – in the 21st century. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to make a promise to discover (or rediscover) Zadie Smith as she both looks to our shared past and present a sharp current commentary.

Friends have wondered why I feel so strongly about Smith because on the surface, the mixed-race Londoner has little in common with this white native Illinoisan. I would explain that perhaps I feel an affinity with Smith because she comes from a working class background (as do I), she’s firmly Generation X (as am I), and her rendering of the Northwest Side of London was not unlike the Northwest Side of Chicago in which I was living. But that’s just a surface level reading of Smith. Her themes are much more universal (socio-economic class, race, culture, friendships, marriage, parenting, women’s issues…) and she tackles our assumptions without hitting us over the head. And her writing – oh her writing – is so much more than a simple blog or a short conversation can ever convey.

Case in point: White Teeth was The book to read among much of my reading circle in 2000. How could this young woman develop such complex characters with intertwined lives in a very stratified London society without falling into cliches and overused tropes? She did, and she did it with the intriguingly and surprisingly strong female character emerging in the aforementioned Irie. Irie perhaps does not wholly triumph, but readers know she is going to be okay, despite the well-meaning efforts of her Afro-Caribbean mother and some self-proclaimed enlightened middle-class white feminists.

Smith continues the discussion of intersecting lives with 2005’s On Beauty, which takes cues from E.M. Forster’s classic commentary on class Howards End and moves the narrative to the United States. She avoids allowing Kiki, the black American wife of a white British professor, to fall into becoming a character written for Oprah to play but instead shows a woman who is seeking to understand why she feels conflicted about her figure, her place in society, her skin color in an East Coast university town, and her role as a wife and mother. In another testament to Smith’s ability to appeal to the broader population, when I taught On Beauty with Howards End to my mainly Hispanic students at a community college on Chicago’s Northwest Side, most gravitated toward discussing Smith’s characters and Smith’s themes before delving into Forster’s admittedly less familiar territory. To those students, Smith made the class distinctions, disparities and dysfunctions more apparent, more real.

Realism would be a tactic Smith would continue with NW. Smith chose not only to be more experimental but also to show us a character in Natalie who, despite being professionally successful, feels what we can describe as the Lacanian ‘lack,’ caused partially by her role as a woman of color. Smith has cited Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as an inspiration, and certainly, Smith’s take on fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narratives show that influence. Our takeaways are that Smith knows not only her characters but us – all of us women – who are trying with all of our might to fit in to this world that long as seen us as Other.

The questioning continues in last year’s stellar and touching Swing Time. For the first time, Smith uses a first-person narrator (unnamed) who, like many of her other female characters, does not make the best choices but is somewhat self-aware of her own role in her world-making. Also like her other female characters, this character is less aware of how her own society has shaped her decision-making abilities. Have what we women consider “opportunities” actually placed more firmly in the realm of the stereotype. Smith’s narrator takes what seems to be a successful job as the personal assistant to a Madonna/Lady Gaga type figure named Aimee. It all ends badly, but it is difficult for readers to say why. Aimee is not horrible but she certainly is not a role model. The narrator also negotiates throughout the novel her failed friendship with her childhood bestie Tracey. Tracey, too, is not horrible but is not fault-free. Nor is our narrator. The result is a protagonist who seems maddeningly limited by her society and simultaneously self-liminiting in her choices.

Even for those of us who may bristle in categorizing authors according to gender, Smith has become firmly ensconced as one of the most important and influential writers of the 21st century. And I haven’t even begun to discuss her essays; Maria Popova does a great job of that on her blog Brain Pickings ( Smith has an astute sense of what holds us back and why we allow it. Reading her work helps us extend that crucial practice of looking to our histories (personal and political) to help shape our present and future.

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Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches writing at the University of California, San Diego and copyediting at UCSD Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum. She presented at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2015.


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