I got Zadie Smith's latest book for Christmas and I enjoyed reading it a lot. In fact, I devoured the 450 pages within 4 days. One has to be a at least a little bit in love with Zadie, don't you think? I definitely am. Reading her books, looking at her, listening to her voice... Never can get enough of that! Excellent reviews of the book have been published, amongst them Taye Selasi for The Guardian.
The story of the girl Tracey and her friend speaks about so many really important things, woven beautifully into the story of the two protagonists. One point Zadie makes really hit me which is strange because it's nothing new really. But I think it was the first time that I came across it in a literary context. Now it may seem odd that the story of two fictional characters gets me more emotionally involved as let's say a blogpost or something that pops up in my newsfeed. But that this is the power of storytelling!!
So anniways, these two brown girls grow up in a rather marginalised neighbourhood in north-west London and attend the same community dance classes. There they meet another girl who fascinates the narrator from the beginning. Her name is Lily Bingham and she is introduced to us like this:
"Lily was gangly, a foot taller than everyone else. She had long, perfectly straight blond hair, pink cheeks and a happy, open nature that seemed, both to Tracey and me, the direct consequence of 29 Exeter Road, a whole house [...], a private garden, a giant jam-jar full of 'spare change' and a Swatch watch as a big as a human man hanging on a bedrom wall." (pp.16-17)
Lily only plays a minor role for the actual plot but there is a few more times where the girl narrator emphasises how extremely gentle and generous Lily is ("always gracious, always friendly, always kind"). And although she is not even 10 years old, she draws that connection between whiteness, privilege, and being a sweet, likeable girl. Because obviously, Lily doesn't have to live in fear of an alcoholic, violent, sexually abusive father, nor does she spend lonely afternoons in front of the TV, waiting until the unemployed mum comes home late and totally wasted. This is Tracey's life, Tracey who is passionate and bright and talented but at times also brutal, sneaky, and ruthless, hardened by the social misery around her. The story of the two girls unfolds and from the beginning, there are hints that Tracey's life will take a tragic turn at a young age, typical for the body and the place in socierty she inhabits.
Zadie does a great job reminding the reader of a very important truth: Of course it is easy to be a sweet person and treat everyone well when it's completely natural for you that this is the way you are treated by basically everyone else. This goes for all the Lily Binghams of this world. But this implies that it should be equally obvious that you might treat your surroundings, and certain people in particular, with suspicion, contempt, and anger if this is how you've been treated all your life. The story of Tracey made me think of the debate about "Angry Black Women". This article unpacks the myth of the Angry Black Woman excellenty. Without feeding in any way into this racist discourse, Zadie manages to tell the story of a black female that has suffered from violence, neglect, and racism from the moment she was born so that in the end, when she actually becomes bitter, angry, and cynical, all we feel is empathy, sadness, and anger at this fucked-up world.
This is just one of the many many things I learned (and was reminded of) by reading Swing Time. If anyone wants to get a better understanding of intersectionality, I highly recommend to read this book! I think Zadie does a great job at making the reader understand how race, class, and gender decide about our place in society. But apart from all that, it's just a wonderful read, brilliantly written and really hard to put aside once you've got sucked into the story. Zadie, Zadie, so much love!!