The essays in this book have been published before, mostly in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, but it is quite something to see and read them all together. One has the impression of a very talkative, precocious teenager who notices ceaselessly, has opinions on everything, and is curious what you think but wants to get her view out there first, in case you change her mind. The flexibility of her mind and her fluency is the remarkable thing.
Reviewers and other novelists will find this collection important for how Smith structures her arguments, what she chooses to focus on, what she says about point of view and novelistic structure. When one desires particularly bright conversation but doesn’t have it to hand on an ordinary day, this collection is just the thing to provide food for thought. I listened to the audio, produced by Penguin Audio and read oh-so-brilliantly by Nikki Amuka-Bird. This is a wonderful way to digest Smith’s ideas, the essay form particularly good for a commute.
It took long time to finish the collection, so some of my favorites come from the end simply because I remember them better. But I do remember one near the front called “Dance Lessons for Writers,” which had particularly beautiful descriptions of the dance moves of Michael Jackson and Prince, Baryshnikov & Nureyev. Here’s Baryshnikov on Fred Astaire:
“I was very star-struck, I hardly spoke. But I watched his hands all the time, they were like a lesson in themselves,—so elegant.”Smith discusses the comedy marriage of Key & Peele in “Brother from Another Mother,” the comedy duo who grew their audience during the Obama presidency. “…Subject to all the normal pressures of a marriage,” their routine has reached its natural end, but while it was going on it poked fun at attitudes of whites while raising issues faced by blacks. It led us into a more mature understanding and way of interacting by highlighting the ways “blacks” are often not black at all, but mixed and even mostly white. Time to drag one’s consciousness into the 21st Century, America.
There is a whole section called “In The Gallery,” in which Smith discusses art, including the first time she noticed art at her mother’s apartment and later, going to museums or to other parts of Europe in search of art. Her father, she points out, was always a natural viewer of art, not intimidated by the notion that an ordinary working man should not be able to comprehend art. He stood in front of a painting or sculpture and could say what he saw or how it affected him. He taught his daughter with her fancy education something about naturalness. She attributes some of that naturalness to her father’s love of John Berger and his 1972 TV show Ways of Seeing.
In “Love in the Gardens” Smith’s tells of inviting her father to Italy with money from her first book. He’d wanted to spend more time in France, she found out later, but she was young and insistent on Italy. They visited gardens and cities positively overrun with tourists. He hardly took a picture, and he was an amateur photographer. Later, after her father had died, Smith went to live in Rome and found a place he would have loved. Why hadn’t we spent more time in Rome she wondered, as she took in the beauty of the statutes and the women. He would have loved it here.
One of the best reasons to pick up the hardcopy of this book are the photographs reproduced. When Smith is discussing a particular piece of art, she may include a reproduction, or perhaps a photograph both she and her brother picked out of her father’s collection independently of one another, a photograph of a newspaper-carrying father kissing his toddler upon his return home from work, while the mother, wearing a skirt and pumps and a chignon, watches television expressionlessly. It is titled "The Family is a Violent Event."
One of the last essays is about Justin Bieber, the pop music star, and Martin Buber, long-dead Jewish philosopher. Smith imagines a meeting between the two and discusses both in the context of Buber’s 1923 I-Thou and I-It essay. Not being familiar with Buber’s essay, I listened kind of clueless and the very next day came across another reference to Buber’s essay, of which I could say quite a little bit, gratis Smith’s introduction.
And a real meeting of minds when, in “Getting In and Out,” Smith talks about how "black is now cool," and how "white people want to get inside & walk around in black skin." But she elegantly demolishes the notion of how one might “appropriate” experience by noticing it, by speaking of it, by writing about it. I had withheld my judgment on arguments about appropriation, all the time wondering how one can possibly NOT want people to understand, empathize, and yes, write about another’s experience as though it were their own. Smith makes the logical argument that a mixed person then cannot speak about the experience of someone with darker skin, though both have been labelled black, and what about someone who looks white but is, in fact, mixed? Will they have to pull out their credentials for all to make a decision whether or not she will have the right to speak of or even imagine the black experience?
I loved this book of essays and think England has got themselves a national treasure who can both write and think.