I♥ Zadie Smith and "Swing Time"


I got Zadie Smith's "Swing Time" for Christmas and devoured the whole book in less than four days. It's one of these books that makes me happy and grateful to live in the times we live, despite all the doom and gloom. Zadie Smith belongs to a new generation of brilliant, political authors of Color who write about their experiences, both in fiction and non-fiction, opening up ways into worlds (neighborhoods, identities, existences) that previously were only written about by outsiders and thus rarely transcended clichés, myths, and negative headlines. But here came Zadie Smith and smashed "White Teeth" in our faces in 2000 (which was showered with literary honors and praise), and so much has happened ever since.


The story of the girl Tracey and her friend speaks about race and class, marginalization and inclusion, hope and despair, childhood and adolescence, woven beautifully into the story of the two protagonists. The two brown girls grow up in a marginalized neighborhood in north-west London. They attend the same community dance classes and eventually become friends. They are an unlikely pair: whereas the unnamed narrator is quiet, diligent, and well-behaved, Tracey is rebellious, gifted, out-going, and prematurely sexual. It becomes clear early on in the book that they are heading towards utterly different lives.


Despite her young age, the narrator is very aware of the different worlds that she and her friends inhabit. At the dance classes, there is another girl who deeply fascinates her: "Lily [...] 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 bedroom wall."

Lily only plays a minor role for the actual plot but the narrator mentions repeatedly how gentle and sweet she (Lily) is ("always gracious, always friendly, always kind"). Although she is not yet 10 years old, she draws that connection between whiteness, wealth, and being a sweet, likeable girl. 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, drunk and high. This is Tracey's life, Tracey who is passionate and bright and to the brim full of life - but at times shows a brutal and sneaky side, hardened by the world around her.

The story reminds us that it is easy to be a sweet and considerate person when this is how you are treated by everyone. This goes for all the Lilys of this world. It twists the saying You get what you give, and proves that more often than not, the opposite is true: You give what you get (an argument brilliantly made in the movie Parasite: "They are rich. But they are nice" says the driver of a super-rich family, upon which his wife laughs: "Don't you understand? They are nice because they are rich!") People who face the world with aggressiveness, contempt, and rage usually mirror the way they have been treated. The story of Tracey made me think of the myth of the "Angry Black Women". Zadie Smith does not simply reject that narrative. Instead, she tells the story of a woman who has suffered violence and marginalization from the moment she was born, so when she actually becomes bitter, angry, and cynical, all we feel is empathy.


“People aren’t poor because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because they’re poor.”

The narrator, on the other hand, pursues an odd career: she becomes the assistant of a (white) world-famous singer and travels around the world as part of a global jet set. The singer does what many stars do: she goes to Africa to help. Our narrator accompanies her and is confronted not only with the absurdities of humanitarian work and development aid but also with her own black, European identity.


Swing Time paints a nuanced, vivid picture of the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect. The story contrasts not merely white and black existence but illuminates subtle (but crucial) differences within a community: two brown girls from the same working-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood, two best friends who go to school together, attend the same dance classes, and hang out in their free time. It may seem unlikely that they end up living such different lives, however, the book does an incredible job revealing how important categories like race, class, and gender are — and how limiting they can be.

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!!

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