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Zadie Smith Sets Herself Free in ‘Feel Free’

4 Stars

By Mila Gauvin II

In the foreword of “Feel Free,” Zadie Smith admits to feeling “anxiety [which] comes from knowing I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist.” She is selling herself short, of course: She has taught fiction at both Columbia and New York University and has frequently contributed to both magazines and newspapers, as this book later confirms. What’s more, her five widely-acclaimed novels, numerous short stories, and essays—some of which are amassed in her previous non-fiction book, “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essay”—have already solidified her as one of the greatest writers of our time. In the newest addition to her bibliography, Smith covers topics as political as Brexit and gentrification, as personal as grief and love, and as unexpectedly philosophical as Jay-Z and Justin Bieber. Spanning the eight years of Obama’s presidency, the collection of essays is more than a call against library closures or a social critique of people’s obsession with social media, both being issues she raises throughout the book. As she delves into the intimacies of her life, Smith reveals an underlying vulnerability beneath the confidence with which she writes, resulting in a letter to those she’s both loved and lost.

The book is organized into five different parts: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf,” and “Feel Free.” Though Smith’s writing is consistently strong, her voice is weakest in the first part of the collection. “In the World” is the shortest, in which she most directly engages with her political opinions, and rightly so due to the section’s lack of strength. Her writing verges on the prescriptive: She is speaking at us, not to us. Her views are informed, but feel insipid. Smith delivers a lackluster take on crucial and timely events. “I bore myself with these stories,” she admits, alluding to the reasons why she opposes the systematic library closure campaign plaguing both the US and the UK. They are “boring” because she barely articulates her stakes in any given situation, an absence that soon becomes glaringly obvious in her subsequently deeply evocative and personal musings.

Her insecurities reveal themselves most frequently in her unveiled aversion to aging. The first hint comes in “Generation Why?” as she betrays her own weariness of people her age: “You want to be optimistic about your own generation. You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand,” Smith says. Later in “Alte Frau By Balthasar Denner,” in which she deconstructs the aforementioned painting, she worries she is projecting her own insecurities onto the woman depicted in the work of art: “Whatever concerns I may bring to her—I’m forty-one! I’m scared of aging!—it’s clear she’s heard it all before.” With aging, though, as is apparent with Smith, comes a certain latent wisdom about life the author is newly becoming aware of: “Oh, right, I get it now! This is what Mum and ‘Auntie’ Ruth were like; and this is why, after about 6 p.m., they stopped telling us what to do, and we got to stay up an hour or two hours later… I get it now,” she says of having a glass of wine with her best friend Sarah, while watching her kids.

For all her fears of aging, the universally experienced process of growing older has—in addition to her increasingly apparent sagacity—given her an important perspective and recognition of her privilege, which frees her from the many financial constraints her parents had at her age. In “The Shadow of Ideas,” she remembers feeling “too big to fail” as her apartment building burned down: “I understood at last what it means to have money… Everything lost can be replaced.” Smith asks: How will she raise her children to recognize their own privilege in comparison to how Smith was raised? How will she ground herself when, “under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world”? The answers lie in the very medium she uses to articulate and share these concerns: her writing.

Though not a self-proclaimed philosopher, Smith’s contemplation about the significance of joy in her closing essay, “Joy,” encapsulates her philosophy about relationships peppered throughout the collection. Smith makes the distinction between joy and pleasure, and why she would—contrary to popular belief—much rather experience the latter on a regular basis. For Smith, to feel joy is to love something or someone beyond words, and with that comes the definite devastation their loss would inflict on her: “You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.” Pleasure, on the other hand, is much easier to find, sustain, and appreciate regularly. The joy she feels comes from her relationships, and manifests itself in her motherly worrying about how she wants to raise her children, her grief for her father and the moments they shared together before he passed away, her drunk shenanigans with her best friend, and her time in Italian parks with her husband.

“Feel Free” is more than just a collection of essays. It is a letter to her loved ones. Smith bares herself to the world, leaving it all out in the open. But a fool she is not. Curious, humble, and wise, Smith reminds her readers once again that her nonfiction is just as powerful as her fiction.

—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at

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