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.

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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