If narrative and storytelling are among our most essential tools for making meaning of the world — and I believe they are — then periods of upheaval can be especially fertile for writers.
Zadie Smith makes that much clear in the foreword to her newest essay collection, “Intimations,” noting: “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts.”
“Intimations” isn’t one of those books. Drafted soon after “the global humbling began” and completed in the days after George Floyd’s murder, the book is “above all personal essays” that capture the author’s reflections during a time outside of time.
Smith burst onto the literary scene 20 years ago with her stunning debut novel, “White Teeth.” Since then her prodigious output has included four additional novels, a novella, and a short story collection. “Intimations” is the third and slimmest of her essay collections, at 100 pages, but its psychic heft is substantial.
In six essays that feel as intimate as a long walk with an old friend, Smith takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time, including police brutality and economic injustice. The book is grounded in inquiry far more often than in certainty, however, and the collection is one that probes, exploring everything from the relationship between privilege and suffering to the nature of isolation and what it means to be confined with the people we love.
The opening essay, "Peonies," questions the concept of writing as a "creative" endeavor. "Planting tulips," she notes, "is creative. Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department." Of course, part of the nature of crises is that they tend to undermine our sense of control, leaving us all to wrestle with, and perhaps ultimately accept, "the complex and ambivalent nature of 'submission'."
Even though Smith has long split her time between New York and London and has taught in the U.S. for over a decade, she retains an outsider's capacity to observe the country from a afar. This perspective is perhaps most evident in "The American Exception." In it, Smith quotes the president's yearning for the good old days when "we [Americans] didn't have death." She doesn't mark that statement as an obvious falsehood, however, drawing a distinction between the dead and death. "We had dead people," she notes, "We had casualties and we had victims. But, in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead." Not so with "the kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position."
Smith's initial assumptions about "the democratic nature of plague" are ultimately, she decides, inaccurate. She concludes the essay recognizing that the pandemic would not, in fact, be the great equalizer, coming to rich and poor alike. In the end, "American hierarchies, hundreds of years in the making, are not so easily overturned. Black and Latino people are now dying at twice the rate of white and Asian people. More poor people are dying than rich. The virus map of the New York boroughs turn redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings."
In "Something to Do," Smith takes on time in the age of the coronavirus, when "there are essential workers — who do not need to seek out something to do; whose task is vital and unrelenting — and the rest of us, all with a certain amount of time on our hands." Never one for self-importance, she takes some comfort in a now broadly shared "manic desire to make or grow or do 'something,'" while noting that "the people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art."
If “Intimations” opens with an inquiry into the nature of the new plague upon us, it ends with a searing indictment of the plague that has haunted this land since colonization. (Technically the final entry is “Intimations,” a listing of those Smith owes debts to and has learned from.) “Screengrabs” is a series of seven scenes that ends with “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus.”
There is no gentle questioning here, but instead a direct assault on the centuries of injustice in this country. In it, Smith takes on contempt, "less flashy than hate," but far more harmful because "in the eyes of contempt, you don't even rise to the level of a hated object — that would involve a full recognition of your existence." It was contempt then, not hate, at work in the murder of George Floyd. Smith writes, "You'd have to hate a man a lot to kneel on his neck until he dies in plain view of a crowd and a camera, knowing the consequences this would likely have upon your own life. But this was something darker — deadlier. It was the virus in its most lethal manifestation."
Smith lists inequity upon inequity, noting how hard virus carriers work "even now, in the bluest states of America to ensure their children do not go to school with the children of these people whose lives supposedly matter." She emphasizes the economic nature of this virus, accepting that fearing "the contagion of poverty is reasonable. To keep voting for policies that ensure the permanent existence of an underclass is what is meant by 'structural racism.'"
Easily the most powerful segment of the collection, it is not an optimistic one. After all, this plague goes back centuries, when "patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion — contempt — from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created."
The success of the essay, just like the success of those that precede it in the collection, is in its clarity and honesty. Smith has taken a mirror and reflected us back to ourselves during the earliest moments of this crisis. It is up to us to change if we don't like what we see.
Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.
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