Picked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction...morePicked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction to Zadie Smith, whose fiction I have always heard all manner of raves about. But I was looking for something in a non-fiction narrative vein--seems to be the mood I am in right now--and a number of the essays in this collection seemed intriguing. I may not read the whole collection, but given the variety of subject matter that she covers, I think I'll make notes on some of the essays as I read them.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”
This essay opens the collection and I really just flipped to it because I wanted to get a quick feel for Smith's writing style. I tend to actively avoid essays about books I haven't read (and I have not read Hurston as of yet)--I find that authors' examinations almost never bring you into the text (or relate the text outward) in a rewarding way if you aren't already familiar with the storyline of the book they are discussing. But there's so much here for the unfamiliar reader: for one, it definitely convinced me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God in the near future. This isn't just a discussion of a wonderful, important book that Smith loves (and its fascinating author), however: it is one which examines the nature of readership (the common aspiration of many readers to be 'objectively neutral' in their assessment of a book, and why allowing ourselves to personally relate to a literary work and understand why particularly touches us is actually important), the idea that a book or an author can only be (or should only be) the province of a particular group (here, Black women readers), and of course, the titular idea of "soulfulness" (although I think the other topics are actually the focal points of the article). It's a wonderful piece and one which I think would even merit a second read.
“That Crafty Feeling”
This essay is a version of a lecture that Smith gave for writing students at Columbia, and is--like much of her writing, I'm finding--a wonderful mix of personal reflection and intelligent criticism. And she's also very, very funny. When done right, a writerly essay about writerly things is almost always enjoyable for me, and Smith's piece is no exception.
"One Week in Liberia"
This essay is heart-wrenching, and I'd like to know where Smith originally published it, and why. She paints an unflinching portrait of Liberia and its present situation (I say this, of course, as someone who is very unfamiliar with Liberia, its history, and its people) and her portrait of Evelyn, one of the young women she met, was heartbreaking. The essay ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although not without a certain knowing despair. This was a tough one.
"Speaking in Tongues"
This essay was delivered as a lecture shortly after Obama's election in 2008. It deals, elegantly, with the idea of having two 'voices,' two identities, which coexist harmoniously. Smith saw Obama as being a particularly hopeful figure because he was able to so fluently and effortlessly slip between worlds and voices. "He doesn't just speak for his people. He can speak them...The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral, it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural." It's a hopeful piece, albeit a cautiously hopeful one: "A lot rests on how this president turns out—but that's a debate for the future." So now, in the midst of Obama's second term, or perhaps even after it, it would be very interesting to read Smith's response to herself in this piece, looking back.
"At the Multiplex, 2006"
Smith wrote film reviews of mainstream films for The Sunday Telegraph for the 2006 season, and the resulting reviews were edited into this piece. Reading these, I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly. This isn't necessarily film criticism with a capital "C," but Smith is an intelligent person reacting to art (or sub-art, as the case may be), and the result was very enjoyable to read, even when I didn't agree with her assessments. Some highlights:
-"Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is to ghetto movies what Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it...I Love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialog...I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated."
-"I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure."
-Regarding The Weather Man: "As I see it, this film's central concept is the aversion most right thinking people have to the actor Nicholas Cage. And he accepts this mantle so honorably and humbly in this film that I think now maybe I quite like him."
"Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend"
Another essay I'd like to know the publication origin of. This was an enjoyable read, and certainly not the expected Oscar-fare—Smith pointedly avoided name-dropping ("What if you got assigned to write about the Oscars and you didn't mention a single actor? You know, as a demystifying strategy?"), although she does, in fact, name drop Bret Easton Ellis. I enjoyed this essay, enjoyed the portrait that she paints of a jaded, exhausted, overly-polite, and rather paranoid Hollywood. It wasn't life-changing, but then again, neither are the Oscars.
"Smith Family Christmas" / Dead Man Laughing
I'm discovering that Smith handles personal reflection really elegantly: she gives you a frank window into her life, but keeps the subject matter tight and well-curated. Her reflections are relatable, but don't sprawl endlessly outwards in that Everything-Is-Connected, Let's-Appreciate-the-Grand-Moral sort of way that I, at least, find extremely irritating. Her essay on her deceased father and their shared love of humor (as well as her brother's foray into the world of comedy) was touching, and sincere, reflective, and quite funny.
On "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," by Dubravka Ugresic:
I picked this collection up because of an essay it contains by Dubravka Ugr...moreOn "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," by Dubravka Ugresic:
I picked this collection up because of an essay it contains by Dubravka Ugresic (I'll be reviewing a new essay collection of hers shortly). The essay, called "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," is fantastic. Ugresic discusses nationality, nationalism, identity, authorship, and more both imaginatively and incisively. It's a short essay--if you have any interest in any of the topics above, I highly recommend you read it--it also provides useful a context/parallel for much of Ugresic's other writing. A particularly stand-out quote:
"Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and--without asking me--the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport...The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill...With my new Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired "homeland" and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo.
At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it."