Originally published in This Recording, 8 October 2012. Read at This Recording.
Who is Zadie Smith, exactly? Better to start with the inverse: who is Zadie Smith not? By all accounts: not male, not white. By her own, Smith offers in her various writings and interviews: not working class, not a member of the elite, not a “great writer,” not young, not old, not like the other kids at Harvard, not so much like Salman Rushdie, not a “rentaquote.” We know she is a woman. We do not know she is black, really—we know she is brown, with a smattering of freckles across those Hollywood cheekbones, but the heterogeneity of race in her novels inspires us to add a little asterisk, which says: half-black, biracial, multicultural. It’s likely only a single Zadie springs from the thousands of Smiths in a London phone book, but even the author’s name is a denial of sorts—Zadie is defiantly not Sadie, the author’s given name. And her hair, that most faithful of disambiguating signifiers, only further confuses things: Smith most often smoothes its kinks (not-afro, like it was once) or tucks it under a turban (not a symbol of conventional femininity).
Here’s Smith in the first paragraphs of “Generation Why?”, ostensibly a review of Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network about the rise of Facebook, a tool which seems forever inclined to stuff its users into boxes (I am this or I am that): I suppose I am a member of Mark Zuckerberg’s generation, but I don’t feel like I belong here; I never really was a part of the Harvard crowd; I have different priorities than the social-networkers, and I’m worried for them, and also I’ve opted out of their lifestyle. In response to James Wood, the critic who coined the term “hysterical realism” and slapped Smith under its heading alongside Rushdie and Don DeLillo, Smith snapped back like a hand on a hot plate: I don’t write for a genre or read for the sound of my own voice, and then with (at least attempted) humility, I’m not a real writer, maybe not much of a writer at all. Smith flits between playing the social wallflower—the cliqueless junior-high girl who nobody asks to dance—and adopting a cool, sometimes icy reservedness—the one with better weekend plans. At this point, twelve years after White Teeth’s publication, she may own up to being one of Wood’s “real” writers, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be lumped in among them.
At a lecture given at the New York Public Library titled “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith stated that she learned to speak using two voices: that of Willesden, the London suburb in which she grew up, and of Cambridge, where she studied, the voice of the lettered people. Yet now, she writes, her “double voice” has left her, and she remains univocal: “This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose—now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not.” It’s with a sense of regret that Smith confesses her life in literature has compelled her into using only the refined dialect of the educated upper-echelons, likening herself to My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle, “with one voice lost and another gained, at the steep price of everything she was, and everything she knows.” Indeed, this singularity of voice is one of if not the single singularity to which Smith admits, and still the author denies that the voice is hers alone.
NW, Smith’s latest novel, expands the notion that a place saddles its inhabitants with a singular voice—for better or for worse. The language of the novel, a stylistic departure from Smith’s other, more exuberant texts, mimics the voice Smith gives her inhabitants of northwest London: stuttering and sighing, blathering and blistering and stumbling to sudden halts. If this is the voice Leah and Natalie have inherited, we can certainly sense its boundaries; Smith’s pointillist prose coolly and with remove gives voice to a cast of characters who struggle to connect the dots.
“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me,” says a voice on the radio on the first page of the NW; Leah copies it out on the back of a magazine. She’s in her mid-thirties, white, works in the public sector, is married to a gorgeous hairdresser of French-African descent, and is so desperate to hide her disinterest in motherhood that she procures an abortion she keeps secret from him. “Overnight everyone has grown up,” Smith writes. “While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.” Leah has instead grown into hating her best friend, Natalie, a barrister raised in the same council estate who changed her given name (Keisha) upon entering university (“It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have,” Leah’s husband notes wryly).
If Cambridge is Smith’s Henry Higgins, the mocking, high-and-mighty know-it-all who strips Holly of her authenticity, NW is Natalie’s Pygmalion, Galatea’s very creator. Leaning on her status in the lettered class to bring her into herself, she snuffs out any evidence of her unglamorous provenance. As a result, she comes fully to life neither as Keisha nor as Natalie. Despite having secured good jobs and adoring husbands, Leah and Natalie slowly sabotage their marriages and themselves, solely by virtue (or lack thereof) of their own dissatisfaction.
NW is a prolonged, somber meditation on the act of claiming one’s own identity, the result of which is—spoiler alert—complicated and inconclusive. As a reader of any of Smith’s other books might have guessed. White Teeth, the novel that shot Smith to fame at the age of twenty-five and which she penned while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, ruminates in lush detail about the cultures and histories that define us without our input—often without our even being born—and which are rewritten without end. In On Beauty, Smith again addresses the phenomenon that places bestow on their inhabitants distinct, singular voices. “Depressing as it is, the truth is these people won’t respond to an appeal to their consciences in any language other than Wellington language,” laments the poetry teacher Claire Malcolm to her student Zora Belsey. “And you know Wellington language, Zora.” Leah Hanwell wonders aloud in NW, “I just don’t understand why I have this life.” A childhood crush has met a bad end; Leah’s problems, by contrast, are entirely self-wrought, and this is a source of terrible shame. “Because we worked harder,” Leah’s best friend Natalie Blake replies. Because we were smarter, says Natalie, because we wanted to get out, because we wanted it badly, because we got what we deserved. Yet Natalie, who tries harder than anyone in Smith’s novel to escape, also knows better than anyone the impossibility of the task.
More than any of the books preceding it, Smith’s newest novel is littered with enough biographic detail to suggest Smith’s own meditation on the subject of self-inquiry. The setting itself, the northwest corner of London, is Smith’s birthplace. Leah and Natalie, both university-educated women from modest backgrounds, were presumably born, like Smith, in the mid-seventies. Like her other novels, NW contemplates—and refuses to answer—questions of class, race, and multiculturalism (somewhere Smith is rolling her eyes, having only deigned to use the latter term in the ironic “safety of quote marks,” but there you go), all of which recur as themes in Smith’s own narrative. Lest NW’s modernist-inspired prose fail to evoke a vision of this heterogeneous—and yet, highly singular—place, its publisher, Penguin, offers a virtual tour on its website, complete with a photo of the author’s own Willesden Lane. There’s no hiding for Smith in Queen’s Park, London, anymore—NW has outed her once and for all, a drop pin in what once seemed like a vast international “multicultural” map. Smith has no doubt worked hard, and she perhaps has gotten what she deserved. She has not, of course, gotten out.
That is not to say that you can pin the author down. Like a magician’s sequined assistant who smilingly submits to being sawed in two, deftly concealing that she was in fact more than one to begin with, Smith spares herself with her multiplicity. In an interview with Canada’s National Post, the author universalizes the Willesden Lane pictured on the Penguin website as smoothly as a politician inflates the notion of Main Street. “When I was thinking about the book,” Smith says, “I was thinking of north-west, for sure, but also nowhere.” Here we go again. If Smith’s voice is singular, it is also meant to speak for everyone, indiscriminately—lettered people, maybe, but white and brown lettered people alike, the male lettereds and the female lettereds, the rich lettered and the ones who got their letters on scholarship. Like Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls, whose references to her “liberal-arts college” are meant to betray the inexorable limitations of her point of view, Smith’s singular voice resigns itself to being, if not for her entire generation, then at least “a voice, for a generation.”
In “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith offers a few remarks on her chronic multiplicity. Like Obama, the author was born to one white parent and one black, and so she says she and the President come from “a place of many voices”:
When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin—well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. […] It’s the kind of town where the wise man says ‘I’ cautiously, because ‘I’ feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun ‘we.’
If not-Sadie Zadie defines herself by negation, maybe that’s because it’s easier for a resident of Dream City to issue vetoes than to continue to horde characteristics and contradictions. Smith, who recognizes the singularity of her voice, simultaneously denies classification—I am not just this or just that—and so assumes her multiplicity—I am all of the above. NW simply extends the borders of Dream City, incorporating not only multiplicity of race, class, and education, but also of gender and personhood. To Leah and Natalie, a room full of laughing women designates “some shared knowledge of their sex” to which they are not privy. “Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were of the belief that people were willing them to reproduce,” writes Smith. “Relatives, strangers on the street, people on television, everyone.” To Leah, the desire to have children is silent; to Natalie, the desire not to fall short is deafening. In Willesden as well as Dream City, the seeds of identity are planted not in what one knows, but what one knows one is not. And with personal and private histories that fail to match the women they became, or are becoming, or may or may not ever grow up to become, Leah and Natalie feel as uncomfortable classified into types of people as Smith does seeing her novels categorized by genre.
Which brings us back to the question: who is Zadie Smith, really, besides everyone and no one? Certainly not Sadie Smith, now or maybe ever—certainly not any person she was merely born into being. But “hysterical realism” notwithstanding, Smith has found a few classifications she can live with. “I’m not proud to be female,” the author says, “…I am not even proud to be human—I only love to be so. As I love to be female and I love to be black, and I love that I had a white father.” Finally, a resounding yes! Yes and yes and yes. Prodigious, finicky Zadie Smith learned long ago to quit asking “Who am I?” and start asking “What suits me?” If only her characters were able do the same.