Zadie in Zurich
About “Swing Time”, Zadie Smith in Zurich, and finding your meaning
Zadie Smith held a reading and a discussion of "Swing Time” at the Schauspielhaus Zurich (Zurich Theatre) on 5.10.2017. I have annexed parts of her interview answers from this event into my own analysis of the book. Her views are always indicated as such.
I remember that when I was a teenager, there was a joke making the rounds among some young people at my school. Whenever one of them wanted to throw away leftovers, let’s say an unwanted final piece of pizza, another person would say ‘you know that in Africa children have nothing to eat’ so that the pizza devourer could respond ‘then I’ll mail this piece of pizza to Africa’. I didn’t find it funny, not because I had the moral compass of Christ, but because I was an Albanian teenager at a fine grammar school in an idyllic Austrian village. I knew what it meant to have nothing or little to eat, I had seen the horrors of poverty with my own eyes and experienced a world of constant lack and civil unrest, while the Austrian kids lived, in my opinion, in a paradisiac environment. And yet, when I think of it in retrospect, not only did those kids have no idea what their ignorant joke actually meant for others, but also that I, myself, connected it solely to my country, my experiences, and left Africa out of the equation. I wasn’t wealthy but I was mozzarella white and when I went to study to a city with a more international population, I noticed that being white meant another kind of wealth. I was never stopped at bus stations and searched for drugs, I didn’t carry my passport and visa with me at all times, I was not a threat to the old ladies on the tram and so on. Students of colour told white foreigners like me that we were damn lucky.
Zadie Smith goes one step further in her latest novel "Swing Time” and examines not only the impact of race and skin colour in multicultural London, but she also sends the narrator, a mixed-race woman, to West Africa to supervise the construction of a school for girls in a Gambian village, which in turn is being paid by an Australian pop star. It’s complicated. The nameless narrator, a young woman from North London, has a white English father and a black mother from the Caribbean, so she, the brown girl, has problems of identification. She feels that she’s too dark for white people and too light-skinned for black people. In London she’s lower middle class, in the Gambia she’s a rich girl who has no clue about real life. As a little girl, the narrator meets another girl at a dance class and what connects the two instantly is that they have exactly the same shade of brown. Tracey is also of a mixed-race and working-class background, but while the narrator is a ‘nice girl’ who plays by the rules, Tracey is wild and unpredictable. Tracey turns out to be one of those children that have ‘dancer’ written all over their bodies, which makes her less talented friends from the dance class quite envious. This mixture of adoration and envy accompanies the turbulent friendship of the two girls from childhood to adulthood.
I couldn’t help but compare their friendship to Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels. Elena, the ‘good girl’ that climbs the class ladder despite the quite impossible circumstances of her poor neighbourhood in Naples, and Lila, the bright and imaginative girl, the one that can seduce everyone to then suffocate under the ignorance of her environment. Tracey is also a natural leader; she’s brisk and feisty, but she is raised by a burnt-out working-class mother (English) and ignored by her in-and-out-of-prison father (Jamaican). The narrator’s father, on the other hand, is a doting parent and while her mother is a tad narcissistic, she is a role model as an intellectual and a strong, self-made female politician. Zadie Smith interconnects cleverly once again the themes of race, class and gender with that special fluidity and sensitivity that has become her trademark.
The holy trinity of these themes define Zadie Smith’s work, says also Mikael Krogerus in the introduction to the reading of "Swing Time” at Schauspielhaus Zurich. The moderator of the sold-out evening and editor at ‘Das Magazin’ looks glad that Zadie has accepted the invitation to present the book herself. Finally. The organisers have been trying for 10 years to get Zadie to Zurich, says Mr Krogerus. I’m sitting somewhere in the middle of the audience and can feel the joy and the impatience of those around me to see her and hear from her. She proves to be like those cool female adults that she describes in her books. A beautiful, intelligent woman with a great presence on stage, the colourful dress, the deep, warm voice… And she’s made it from the working class to the comfortable middle class, she says at some point. Asked if she is a good wife, she answers that her approach to many things in life is to take them seriously. Sometimes it’s difficult to say whether you’re good at what you’re doing but the important thing is to take your many roles seriously and women have a couple of complex roles. The role of the mother, for example, which is central in "Swing Time”. The two little girls meet in the early eighties, their transformation into womanhood takes place in the nineties and after the year 2000 they are again totally different people. They are different to what they thought they would become and they differ from one another just like their mothers are completely different types of women.
Tracey’s mother is poor and mostly out of work. Her daughter sleeps in a pink room, eats unhealthy food and can watch as much TV as she wants. This seems like total freedom to her friend, whose mother is very strict and neglects her daughter for other reasons: she wants to study and is thirsty for knowledge, and she is the type of person who puts the community before the individual. She’s the prototype of the leftist idealistic intellectual. This is the difference to feminism today, says Zadie on stage. That generation of women had to be strict and fight a bitter war in order to do what they wanted to do. Now men share the load in childcare, in the house etc. And yet, she answers to the question if she treats her children, a girl and a boy, differently, she tries to treat them equally but she can’t control how the world reacts to them. The baby girl was often described by visitors as cute and lovely, the boy as energetic. The parents can only try to counter it, but also forbidding all that is considered feminine is wrong. It is still the case, according to her experience in observing her daughter and other girls, that a girl has a certain self-consciousness in taking up space as a woman, while a boy won’t question his space.
Class poses the same challenges. Being working-class doesn’t mean one doesn’t have values, says Smith. Middle class means less worries, of course. Less financial worries but also less worries about the future of your children. The probability of teenage pregnancy, drug addiction or not pursuing higher education is a lot smaller. Tracey thinks that she is being treated like a second-class citizen because she is a coloured woman living in a poor neighbourhood. She feels neglected by the politicians and echoes the opinions of others like her, but when the narrator's mother sets up a community centre for discussions and counselling on all possible topics, none of these people take part voluntarily. There are some parallels between these parts of London and the Gambian village. Poor but proud people, young women with many children, absent men. The men usually take the so-called back way, the path to a wealthy European country and seldom come back. There is a passage where the narrator enters an internet café in one of the Gambian small towns, which is filled with young men skyping with older British women. Smith achieves very well the distanced, non-judgemental observation of situations that find themselves daily in Western discourse. She makes the readers aware of the many grey areas in life, that nothing is actually black and white. Aimee, for example, the superrich white megastar who invests in a school for girls in West Africa, is blunt, misinformed and often politically incorrect, but she is also a woman of action. Her next step is the sexual education of the village girls. Everybody around her tells her to go easy with these sensitive topics in that country. Aimee, who comes herself from a very poor district of a town called Bendigo in Australia, responds:
"Look, it happened to me in Bendigo, it happened to me in New York, it happens everywhere. It’s not about your ‘local context’ – this is everywhere. I had a big family, cousins and uncles coming and going – I know what goes on. And I’ll bet you a million dollars you go into any classroom of thirty girls anywhere in this world and there’s going to be one at least who has a secret she can’t tell. I remember. I had nowhere to go. I want these girls to have somewhere to go!”
Sometimes I wonder if people don’t want freedom as much as they want meaning, says Fernando, the Brazilian school project manager who holds a PhD and works for Aimee. In the end, everyone wants to mean something to themselves and to others; so many people wish to leave a legacy. Striving for happiness, on the other hand, is seen as an ‘American’ objective by the locals in the village. Happiness is a fleeting thing. Even when you have everything, says Smith in Zurich, you cannot ‘unhave’ a violent father or a narcissistic mother. These things will haunt you your whole life. What does she associate with Zurich? Wealth, obviously, she says. Later in the discussion she adds that to come out of a life of extreme hardship you have to be a genius, while in a place like Switzerland to have a comfortable life you just have to choose a good school and have parents with some means – which is of course not a rare situation in Switzerland.
There is a very powerful thing that has always connected cultures, places and people: music. Dance, song and music in general form a red thread in "Swing Time”. Tracey is a talented dancer, the narrator loves to sing and Aimee is a Madonna-like pop star, who has the iron will to discipline herself to do both. The early Hollywood musicals, which influence the two London girls, figure prominently in the book and so does Michael Jackson, the megastar that shocked the world with the change of his skin colour. Then there are Jackson’s ancestors, in both the world and Hollywood. For the people in the Gambian villages, where some of the modern dance moves have originated, dancing is soul food. The first black musical stars like Bojangles and Jeni LeGon fought against the overt racism in Hollywood and paved the way for today’s celebrities. Zadie Smith says that she had not been aware that Michael pops up a lot in her work until someone pointed it out to her. Obviously, his colour change caused a trauma in the communities of coloured people, she confirms. Later she professes her love to sing. Zadie comes from a very musical family. Unfortunately we don’t have the pleasure to hear her singing voice. She has to leave, but swing is here to stay.
Follow Busy Ines