Swingin’ with Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is the writer who likes to say she learns more from dancers – Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, Baryshnikov, Beyoncé – than from writers and a young lifetime of reading. Author of the world-sensational White Teeth at the age of 24, she is tap-tapping again in Swing Time, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie from 1936, which syncopates the novel’s soundtrack.


Photography by Dominique Nabokov

Zadie Smith is more than ever the free, unshaken voice of fluid, hybrid identities in a place she has called “Dream City.” It’s a real-enough address, could be London, New York, any big town where lots of people grow up with parents of two complexions, two accents, from two countries, where the appropriate pronoun, starting with oneself, is “we” – not the singular “I.” Dream City is where the Kansan-Kenyan mind of Barack Obama was formed. Zadie herself was born in Dream City, to a Jamaican mother married to a working-class English man on the North side of London. She meets the high anxiety of cosmopolitans today with a fine taste for changes in the music, changes in the dance, but with humanity and laughter, closer to joy than panic.


Top Hat (1935)

Before her book event at the First Church in Cambridge, we’re “trading fours” and a few eights on any handy theme, starting on links and breaks between Elena Ferrante’s four-book saga of Fifties-girls in the darkest corners of Naples, and Zadie’s own story of brown and bi-racial daughters of Jamaican and English parents in London of the Nineties. Ferrante’s zone is the fire of intimacy, Zadie seems to say; her own is the mystery of power: how children are led to navigate the critical currents of class more than color. She reminds you she’s always rebelled against classifications of identity: your self is not something you start with, it’s something you come to know patiently in search and struggle.

We keep touching back on her remarkable hindsight on England’s Brexit vote, prelude to our Trump astonishment: the people’s choice had both rampant stupidity and touches of genius about it, but it was driven over 30 years by a merciless economic regime, ‘neo-liberalism,’ which degraded our language as much as our communities, and made people feel ‘you can do nothing to change it,’ until they did. She dreads the vacant, childish Trump, as she worries about the Brexit mood everywhere, but she sees lots of silver-linings especially in the organizational talents of her New York University. Spoiled liberals in London are still sobbing in their pillows; Americans seem to be roused for an overdue battle.


Illustrations by Susan Coyne

First and last, Zadie Smith riffs about black and white swing music — the cultural legacy of two great migrations, African-Americans from the Jim Crow South and Jews from Eastern Europe, that fused in a treasury of genius that still inspires. Nobody tells the story with more zest than Zadie Smith.



Zadie’s List of Happy-Making Musical Numbers: Top Hat, Begin the Beguine, Stormy Weather

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  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    Thank you ROS team for yet another extraordinary program, delightful conversation, and great guest.

    I define neoliberalism as a political philosophy that prioritize the concerns of financial capital above all other concerns, including human resource (source of innovation and intellectual property) and natural stocks i.e. the wellbeing of the commonwealth and a flourishing ecosphere. Neoliberalism dictates the world be governed by elites — and commanded by force (war) when necessary — for the financial benefit of private equity and bond bearers. Its doctrines manifest as the concentration of political power, and distribution of productivity gains and wealth into the hands of its uber-rich patrons and their increasingly insular minions.

    Matthew 7:15-16. 15) Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16) By their fruit you will know them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Neoliberal dogma conflates ‘free markets’ with ‘deregulation’ thus its prophets are false prophets.

    Chris Hedges’ notes the basket of fruit neoliberals provide in his recent article We Are All Deplorables on Truthdig. “Human history [is] defined by class struggle. America’s [neoliberal elites] successfully fused the two major political parties into a single corporate party, one that seized control of electoral politics, internal security, the judiciary, universities, the arts, finance and nearly all forms of popular communication, including Hollywood, public relations and the press. There is no way within the system to defy the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry or war profiteers. And Trump is about to remove whatever tepid restraints are left.

    Oswald Spengler in “The Decline of the West” predicted that, as Western democracies calcified and died, a class of “monied thugs,” people such as Trump, would replace the traditional political elites. Democracy would become a sham. Hatred would be fostered and fed to the masses to encourage them to tear themselves apart.” ~EOQ~

    Until neoliberalism gets checked, the commonwealth will continue imbibing grapes of wrath.

  • Ashlie Kontos

    Where could I find the interview with Zadie Smith regarding White Teeth? A portion of that interview was included on this episode, and I would really like to go back and listen to it. Thank you.

  • Potter

    Zadie Smith is so articulate, and creative; it’s such a pleasure to listen to her and read what she writes. She’s a good sociologist and philosopher, an observer of how people relate to each other and the times. It’s a helpful view and good to emulate during this disconcerting time.

    In my early life, trying to deal with family dysfunction,I managed to escape along with my best friend into Fred Astaire’s world: the movies, dancing which mesmerized us. We loved his sure voice, his timing, the upbeat sunny mood, floating over it all. It was one with his footwork. There has been no other like him,

    I loved the tapping sound of feet in this artfully produced show. Thanks too for replaying the piece from “White Teeth”. Beautiful!

    • Potter

      more thoughts… my father would have been a Trump voter too I think. He was sure angry and white, no college, worked with his hands. That’s become an identity lately too. We were middle class and also not moving in a time when many were actually able to. I had free college in NYC.

      My thought is that people move towards identity politics when class mobility is stuck; it’s an exit out of the lower classes.. It’s what’s available.

      Trump, for me, is more specifically a well seasoned ( rough and tumble, pushy) New Yorker of a type than an American voice (from your show: he “speaks like an American”) if there is such a thing. The NYC “melting pot” is more like a salad, and, at that, parts not tossed too well, rough and tumble. The more wealthy or “upper” and mostly white (and successful Asians) have moved to the suburbs or fancy sections of Brooklyn. Queens seems more lively with it’s multi-ethnic immigrant populations. Zadie’s description of African Americans stuck in Starbucks behind the counter ( or nanny jobs) seemingly forever says it perfectly. People rub elbows more than ever, but I don’t see real mixing. You can tell me otherwise, but it’s not my experience growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, and not since or now from visiting often. It’s the same trajectory So I have come to feel it’s a phony NYC pride. Sotto voce, at times you hear the real story with some. But go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Saturday and you see the salad in all it’s glory. It’s still wonderful anyway

      Zadie Smith makes beautiful, the stuff of art, what many are running away from. She lets us in on her inner deliberations.

      Thank you once again for a well produced show.

  • Pete Crangle

    Jean Tinguely “Homage to New York” 1960

    Between a fiasco and a vortex

    I am listening to coyotes tonight. A fever pitch of yapping. A fresh kill? A warning? A greeting? Playing? Mating? I wouldn’t know. I treat it like music and wild entertainment, a primitive amusement that barks out from distant darkness. My dogs are riled by it, growling disapproval and domesticated menace. The alpha, a shepherd+cattle dog mix, is especially focused. For her, it is an ancient threat, or perhaps, a potential opportunity. I am unconcerned. I am of a species that dominates this planet as the wildest and most successful of all animals. From the human vantage point, nearly everything is either domesticated or an externality. It is microbes, mosquitoes, time, and members of the species I share DNA membership that concern me. That is what I tell myself. Hubris, I suppose. Or, stupidity. Is there any difference in that mirror image?

    Titanic sinks in REAL TIME – 2 HOURS 40 MINUTES

    As I listen to the darkness, considering the current cultural temperature, I am reminded of a futile idea that occasionally recurs. Why did they name that ship ‘Titanic?’ Would not ‘Sisyphus’ have been a far better name for that damned vessel. Imagine: “Sisyphus,” starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Finally, it makes sense, though it wouldn’t improve the story nor make it any more delectable. We love to celebrate our hubristic failures. It is box-office bait. “The Big Short,” and other examples of collective mania, indicate this. There is an endless supply of sequels and prequels. Romance and cautionary tales are archetypal honey.

    Coyotes, Titanic, human failure, and a distant pitch darkness are what I am considering right now. And as I compose this comment, this is apt. It is now starting to become clear that the twenty first century died stillborn at its very beginning. In spite of an endless supply of apocalyptic, zombie related drama, to show us where we don’t want to go, this century has yet to shake itself loose and resurrect itself into something life affirming. It has been much more Thanatos than Eros, much more Apollonian than Dionysian. Perhaps, we need to franchise Burning Man? Bring it to Branson, MO and Atlantic City, NJ.

    This century got off on the wrong foot. This is not only because of the psychological wound of nine eleven that has hamstrung our optimism, nor the absence of coming to terms with its karmic antecedents that our professional spooks call ‘blowback.’ It is because we are in a era of extremity, and we are mired in anxiety and petty loathing. We draw upon this deeply as if by collective osmosis, and we are perturbed by the associated frustration and a wayward sense of grief. Worse yet, we either pretend the temple isn’t crumbling, or we sit in our poop filled britches and cry over our beers. Even worse yet, some are taking their shadows out for a stroll to stomp upon the pernicious ‘other’ with an unbridled fury; or chomping at the bit to do so. This can be managed, painful and brutal as it is. However, once the collective shadow takes us out for a stroll, it’s game, set, match. That will be the moment that reality will say to us: Buh bye, Felicia.

    History, eh? Did anyone else notice that the Berlin Wall fell and we never did get our promised cold war peace dividend? That is yet another bummer that rolls by our selective amnesia upon a train of broken promises. I don’t hear much in the way of cultural memory these days, unless I dive into fertile pockets. Social media is perhaps more amenable to a “… and so on, and so forth” means of understanding history. In 50 years from now, no one will be left who can talk in first-hand accounts about the cold war, duck-and-cover drills, residential underground bunkers, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, or the Panamanian Invasion for that matter. In 100 years, no one will be left to speak in first-hand testimonials about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It is not even clear there will be human existence in 100 years. It’s always up for grabs.

    The times have wrestled us to the ground, and time is dancing on top of us. Not Fred and Ginger. Something a bit more primitive and much less graceful.

    We live in a time of the relentless fiasco. I offer no apology to Tom Hanks, or others who may share his good intentioned, though somewhat Pollyanna POV, as I point out that measuring the current moment against a previous era of tumult, say, the 1960s and 1970s is not only counter-productive, it is historically naive. I am a bit younger than Mr. Hanks, grew up in roughly the same geographical location, and have some demographic overlaps — until he became a superstar, that is. So yes, I too remember how it was back then from a similar vantage point. This moment seems different, and not because I am no longer a little kid. It seems different because back then the promise and the accomplishments could pretend to balance out the liabilities and criminal flaws. There was not only hope, there were reasons to have it. The new frontier probably died during the Tet Offensive, or at the massacre of My Lai, or the killings at Kent State, or the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X, but the boldness of the new frontier informed us that perhaps, once out of the bog of quagmire, it might be possible to salvage some aspect of it. And, the constitution would likely still be intact. We have the 1960s and 1970s in our historical rear view mirror, which that time period didn’t, and that is not insignificant difference.

    The Big Lebowski – Scattering Donny’s ashes

    Watergate and the Vietnam War were brutal affairs, cementing distrust for some of us, forever. I occasionally run into a Vietnam Vet, and I am always struck dumb by how many of these Vets still suffer in isolation from PTSD and Agent Orange exposure, and have absolutely no use for politics or world events. They simply walked away from it, making a sane and strategic retreat from American culture. Their reasoning is understandable and legitimate: their country stole their youth, broke their hearts, and brutalized them physically and emotionally for an unnecessary cause. They were sucked into the vortex of fiasco. Death blew across Southeast Asia, and then it blew across the American heartland from thousands of miles away. Anyone watching the 1968 Democratic Convention understood, and understands, that things had taken a turn for the worse.

    During this period of great unrest, which Mr. Hanks is correct, it was unhinged, civil society creaked and groaned under the various stresses and manifestations of domestic security and military overreach. Citizens were at each others throats; literally, seriously, riotously, and primitively. It splintered families. It waylaid communities. There was the very real possibility that the institutional forces that held sway over people’s lives were going to buckle and then unravel.

    And yet, economic expansion and the success of World War II were still fresh. We could point to the moon shot, or civil rights accomplishments, or color television, or the integrated circuit and calculators, or the amelioration on food insecurity; at least in the US, and con ourselves into a belief that holding steady would get us through the storms and stresses. We could point to an ascending standard of living for the working class, and their poorer brethren. There were still bumpers on the bumper cars that crashed around on Wall Street. People talked about the Peace Corps as a means to work against global scarcity, though the CIA had different ideas about such things. Father Berrigan and Thích Nhất Hạnh demonstrated that old belief systems could update themselves within the brutality, and reach beyond their institutional barriers.

    We could buy the world a coke, and teach it to sing harmoniously. Yes, it was a con, but it was a con rooted in the zeitgeist of its time. After all, humanity had touched the moon, and Dr Christiaan Barnard performed a somewhat successful heart transplant … anything might be possible.

    The possibilities were not always effervescent. The storms and stresses were certainly epic, costly, and monumentally lethal. American reputation began its slide that has not since recovered, and maybe never will. Those events still haunt us. Yet somehow, we could Forrest Gump our way into a bit of denial with our consciousness still somewhat functioning, at least in pretend mode. We could tug on the rhetoric of The Great Society, even while understanding it was a cardboard sham when measured against the colossal criminal adventure of the Southeast Asian War; a conflict that deployed mass industrial violence in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The body counts mattered, but didn’t add up when one saw those pictures of flag draped coffins, or nude children fleeing a napalm run, or a human being having his brains blown out, up close and impersonal, in summary execution. Numbers seemed the wrong instrument for which to measure such madness.

    The fog of war? Sure, but it’s probably not the whole story, though who can really say about such matters? It was certainly the lesser angels of the human condition run amok, brought to the world in living color on broadcast television. The contemporary version of Reality TeeVee, was not invented in a corporate media enclave in the 1990s, it was discovered in the news reporting of the Southeast Asian War. The difference being, this reality meant death, or its threat, not a reality of being shunned, fired, humiliated, or voted off an island. Viewers tuned in nightly, drawn into the psycho-drama sandwiched between advertisements and jingles for ‘plop plop fizz fizz’ and floor cleaners and women’s hosiery and automobiles and cigarettes; American lowbrow, but beautiful in a way, if you didn’t spend too long considering the landfill and other implications.

    The US emerged from this with a sort of collective thousand yard stare. Dazed, confused, watching the likes of Tiny Tim singing ukulele flower songs, and some strange guy named Steve Martin who walked around playing the banjo, while ignoring an arrow stuck through his head. Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, future tragic figures, helped in the battle of race. The country tore at its seams, and then decided to escape into disco, fashion, sex, drugs, sports, financialization, and Ronald Reagan’s Daddy Knows Best routine.

    It was time to unlimber ourselves from the safety valves of the past, and play a lower stakes game of living with risk. Who needs a Union when the market can answer problems? Government had given us failure. It had lost wars, bankrupted major cities, and sunk itself into a compromised corruption. Business had given us capital expansion, which seemed to be leapfrogging The New Deal cautions. The choice was not so difficult, no matter how ill-considered. It was time for The Big Chill boomers to push things along. Cocaine and music, banking and deregulation, this was the wild new frontier of an always expanding life of endless possibility. The nightmares of the 1960s and 1970s needed to be buried, and Ronald Reagan and the ‘me’ generation put their effort to the task. Preppy became a thing, and Saturday Night Live became a staple.


    “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” — Bergen Evans, “The Natural History of Nonsense”

    But, as zombie tales tell us, that which is undead, buried or not, will rise again. Nowadays, we are drowning in our liabilities and criminal flaws. Henry Kissinger, and other war criminals, still roam free, while whistle-blowers are prosecuted, Chelsea Manning sits in prison, and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin are still dead. It is as if the US has become a ball club that can no longer put together a winning streak, so we flail. We cannot seem to put behind us what we are facing: a criminal legacy of our making that the future will be forced to pay. What looms over the future is ecocidal damage that has closed doors, and will continue to close doors, that may never open again. Global climate change. Resource exhaustion. Endless wars, and war criminality. A domestic security crisis that will escalate. Monumental economic asymmetry. And, a Mayan guarantee of end-times that never quite materialized, but actually seemed plausible at the time; it may yet. It seems we can’t count on anything except a growing tenuousness, and our dis-ease about it.

    The twenty first century was born in the anxiety of the Y2K problem. Some truly panicked about this and went into full survivalist, paranoia mode. The corporate media loved the story. An actual, maybe for real, Frankenstein was turned loosed upon ourselves. Revenge of the Luddites? The Y2K problem was the forecast that told us our technological tethers were going to bring us to heel, and stalk us into the future. Bill Joy’s Wired article sat on top of us, like a hyena from a distant Kilimanjaro, at least for those of us who had read it, and thought about it. We bought crap online, auctioned off our memories of youth on eBay, and learned the threats of identity fraud. Malware and hacking crept into our vocabulary. Email and blogs gave us something new to do.

    We added the term ‘hanging chad’ into our lexicon, as we watched the Bush v Gore election debacle. This was followed by the inevitable bursting of the dot-com bubble, as corporations large and small were not only allowed to fall on their collective asses, but were ridiculed for selling empty boxes of market nothingness, using sock-puppet spokesmodels to do so. C-Level executives were indicted and prosecuted. Ken Lay kicked off the mortal coil, and Bernard Ebbers still sits in a low-security portion of a Louisiana prison complex. And it wasn’t only US corporations. Just what did happen to that Nortel bankruptcy? Financial Services analysts and underwriters, also known as, talking head con artists and economic boondogglers, squeaked by fairly unscathed, of course. Microsoft lost an antitrust case that was wrapped in a browser war. Bill Gates began to consider a philanthropic mode of existence, while Steve Jobs made his comeback as Apple blew by everyone, giving us consumer goods we loved, and suicide nets for those who made them, and continue to do so.

    The War on Terror clawed into our collective amygdala. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have put us squarely in the land of bleak options. We now live with a rolling quagmire, suitable for the streets of Paris or the fertile crescent — that region where Gary Johnson misplaced his basic geopolitical knowledge. Hurricane Katrina broke our hearts. Abu Ghraib put our souls through the wood chipper. Jobless recoveries became a cyclic fixture and career abattoir.

    The collapse of the housing market was brought to us by the Masters of the Universe, and a curious lack of regulatory oversight, or observance of the tale of the Titanic. The financial services and insurance sectors sliced and diced their novel financial instruments into a multilevel marketing scheme that could be sent into a high speed transaction, quant nirvana. Some people found out their residential property titles sat not in county, governmental repositories, but were owned by private third parties accountable to a vastly unregulated market mechanism. Reverse mortgages blossomed into another vampire squid that preyed upon granny and grandpa.

    And what about that market? The NYSE moves an average of about $169B dollars daily, as reported in 2013, with a market cap of $19.69T — larger than the US GDP. And because? Why? And perhaps the cherry on top to all this chicanery, a tax payer funded bailout for Wall Street while the foreclosure business kept up its grueling pace of mowing down lives. Where did all that fungible wealth go? It’s out there. Buried in luxurious portfolios of the enemies of Warren & Sanders.

    Looming over all of this is the corrosive shadow of nine dot eleven. In my opinion, the JFK assignation, the MLK, Jr. assignation, and the Pearl Harbor moment of our era. I remember where I was, what I was doing, and what I was thinking about when the news reports began to filter into my early morning, still adrift brain. It turns out I was tangling with a kitchen garbage disposal that somehow had ingested way too much uneaten pasta. It happens.

    I turned the radio on, went to work on the clogged garbage disposal, and then stood up as soon as the reports started coming in. Having no television, I went to my nearest neighbor, people I had never met nor exchanged more than a ‘hello,’ and invited myself in to watch the unfolding tragedy. We couldn’t look away. Eventually, streams of footage of Pearl Harbor came to mind, and I then understood: we would be at war, probably for a great amount of time, with forces of a murky, nebulous nature. Sure, oil and other fungible assets would be at stake, but it wouldn’t be the driving force. We would be at war with an idea, and the brunt of our wrath would be dished out upon people who had nothing to offer us other than the satisfaction of humiliating their ideological beliefs, and pounding their noble failures into dust. Or, that was the hopes those waving flags promised that flew down the streets upon SUVs. All of this would play an important and convenient role as the replacement part for the cold war, defense economy. All so our military industrial academic complex could hum along at its status quo pace. It was as though shock waves of deep sea quakes from the twentieth century had finally started making landfall with a tsunami force. Blowback. Karma. The long twilight. Mission Accomplished. Thom Friedman and Francis Fukuyama had pie and egg on their faces. Journalism and politicians fell into complete discredit. So did we all. So do we still.

    Life jackets

    Our War on Terror strategy has had the consequence, intended or unintended, of enabling a fringe fundamentalism to morph itself into a global movement, with a growing census. It has also let the air out of various cultures that now pour out migrants and refugees at unprecedented, post World War II magnitudes. And let us not forget that a large, but immeasurable part of this, was done by our own policies. I have little doubt that the Islamic State would not exist if Iraq v2.0 hadn’t been done. But don’t worry, it’s on the ropes, and will morph into something else soon enough.

    I will now commit a sin of omission. I’ll leave off commenting much about Barack Obama. The timeline is too close to parse for me. But suffice to say, from my perspective, Obama worked the gig well if you were grading him as an Imperial Manager tasked with keeping the wolves at bay, whilst keeping the threat hot enough to keep the war machine humming along. It is an interesting footnote that Defense Contractor annual revenue growth has been in decline since 2010, while the War on Terror still purrs along at a costly rate. Revenue has modestly increased for the sector, but its growth rates have been declining. It would seem Obama embraced the McNamara/Rumsfeld bean-counter ethos of cost containment. The promise of a a more streamline military footprint that can increase its global reach, and delivery lethal payloads with a nimble alacrity. This has been a bureaucratic tug of war goal for decades. It is no accident that a procurement specialists is running the show. Frederick Winslow Taylor would be impressed. So, would a garden variety CFO. Although, we must pretend to ignore that $1T Nuclear Weapons modernization expenditure that the Obama administration has concocted. It doesn’t do any good to ponder such matters too much, nor Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

    As for other thoughts about President Obama? Many missed opportunities will be teased out of his legacy. His fault? His team’s fault? Our fault? Congressional obstruction and carelessness? Candidly, given what we now face, I don’t give a damn, one way or the other, about him or his legacy. Sentimentality that serves the political class isn’t particularly fruitful under normal circumstances, let alone the situation we currently face. I’ll ring my hands over it in 2024 if I’m still here, not wasting away in a detention center, or stuck in a yurt hidden behind cloud cover, or simply hunkered down trying to survive a wave of martial law decrees. Regardless, I hope there are dogs around me and coyotes in the darkness. It’s good to have friends no matter how badly things break.