Table of Contents
ALSO BY ZADIE SMITH
The Book of Other People
The Autograph Man
THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2009 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2009
All rights reserved
“Smith Family Christmas” was published as “Scenes from the Smith Family Christmas”
The New York Times
, December 24, 2003. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company.
Excerpts from “High Windows,” “The Literary World,” “Self’s the Man,” and “Water”
by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin.
Excerpt from “The End and the Beginning” from
by Wislawa Szymborska,
translated by Joanna Trzeciak. Copyright © 2001 by Joanna Trzeciak. Used by permission of
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Pages 298-99 constitute an extension of this copyright page.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Changing my mind : occasional essays / Zadie Smith.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15146-4
I. Title. PR6069.M59C’.914—dc22 2009023419
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In Memory of My Father
The time to make your mind up about people is never!
The Philadelphia Story
You get to decide what to worship.
—DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
This book was written without my knowledge. That is, I didn’t realize I’d written it until someone pointed it out to me. I had thought I was writing a novel. Then a solemn, theoretical book about writing:
The deadlines for these came and went. In the meantime, I replied to the requests that came in now and then. Two thousand words about Christmas? About Katharine Hepburn? Kafka? Liberia? A hundred thousand words piled up that way.
These are “occasional essays” in that they were written for particular occasions, particular editors. I am especially grateful to Bob Silvers, David Rem nick, Deborah Treisman, Cressida Leyshon, Lisa Allardice and Sarah Sands for suggesting I stray into film reviewing, obituaries, cub reporting, literary criticism and memoir. “Without whom this book would not have been written.” In this case the cliché is empirically true.
When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—and in public.
Changing My Mind
seemed an apt, confessional title to describe this process. Reading through these pieces, though, I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith. As is a cautious, optimistic creed, best expressed by Saul Bellow: “There may be truths on the side of life.” I keep on waiting, but I don’t think I’m going to grow out of it.
New York, 2009
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
WHAT DOES SOULFUL MEAN?
When I was fourteen I was given
Their Eyes Were Watching God
by my mother. I was reluctant to read it. I knew what she meant by giving it to me, and I resented the inference. In the same spirit she had introduced me to
Wide Sargasso Sea
The Bluest Eye,
and I had not liked either of them (better to say, I had not
myself to like either of them). I preferred my own freely chosen, heterogeneous reading list. I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons. Spotting
Their Eyes Were Watching God
unopened on my bedside table, my mother persisted:
“But you’ll like it.”
“Why, because she’s
“No—because it’s really good writing.”
I had my own ideas of “good writing.” It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly “lyrical” language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered “folk speech” or the love tribulations of women. My literary defenses were up in preparation forTheir Eyes Were Watching God
. Then I read the first page:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
It was an aphorism, yet it had me pinned to the ground, unable to deny its strength. It capitalized
(I was against the capitalization of abstract nouns), but still I found myself melancholy for these nameless men and their inevitable losses. The second part, about women, struck home. It remains as accurate a description of my mother and me as I have ever read:
Then they act and do things accordingly.
Well, all right then. I relaxed in my chair a little and laid down my pencil. I inhaled that book. Three hours later I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale.
I lost many literary battles the day I readTheir Eyes Were Watching God.
I had to concede that occasionally aphorisms have their power. I had to give up the idea that Keats had a monopoly on the lyrical:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-nearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.1
I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good:
Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him?
My resistance to dialogue (encouraged by Nabokov, whom I idolized) struggled and then tumbled before Hurston’s ear for black colloquial speech. In the mouths of unlettered people she finds the bliss of quotidian metaphor:
“If God don’t think no mo’ ’bout ’em than Ah do, they’s a lost ball in de high grass.”
Of wisdom lightly worn:
“To my thinkin’ mourning oughtn’t tuh last no longer’n grief.”
Her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all:
“Where y’all come from in sich uh big haste?” Lee Coker asked. “Middle Georgy,” Starks answered briskly. “Joe Starks is mah name, from in and through Georgy.”
“You and yo’ daughter goin’ tuh join wid us in fellowship?” the other reclining figure asked. “Mighty glad to have yuh. Hicks is the name. Guv’nor Amos Hicks from Buford, South Carolina. Free, single, disengaged.”
“I god, Ah ain’t nowhere near old enough to have no grown daughter. This here is mah wife.”
Hicks sank back and lost interest at once.
“Where is de Mayor?” Starks persisted. “Ah wants tuh talk wid
“Youse uh mite too previous for dat,” Coker told him. “Us ain’t got none yit.”
Above all, I had to let go of my objection to the love tribulations of women. The story of Janie’s progress through three marriages confronts the reader with the significant idea that the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives. A world you share with Logan Killicks is evidently not the same world you would share with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. In these two discrete worlds, you will not even think the same way; a mind trapped with Logan is freed with Tea Cake. But who, in this context, dare speak of freedoms? In practical terms, a black woman in turn-of-the-century America, a woman like Janie, or like Hurston herself, had approximately the same civil liberties as a farm animal: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” So goes Janie’s grandmother’s famous line—it hurt my pride to read it. It hurts Janie, too; she rejects the realpolitik of her grandmother, embarking on an existential revenge that is of the imagination and impossible to restrict:
She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.