Read IN BED: Feel Free
Words & Images by Hannah-Rose Yee
“When I was eight years old my family moved out of a council estate and into what seemed to me a mansion. From the front it looked like a whole house; Inside it felt like one too. We had the front door to ourselves and if you looked out of the back windows you saw a big, square, overgrown garden, which also appeared to be entirely ours… We each had our own little fiefdom. Inside we had four bedrooms. Clearly we had risen in the world. We had, for the first time, these nonessential spaces.”
You might already be a fan of Zadie Smith’s work courtesy of her award-winning, bestselling, heartbreaking novels including On Beauty, White Teeth and NW.
But the London-born, New York-based author’s essays and reviews remain underrated, if you ask me.
I remember many years ago when I first read Changing My Mind, Smith’s collection of criticism and longer essays, particularly on the subject of pop culture. There are film reviews, pulled from her body of criticism for British publications, and musings on Katherine Hepburn and George Clooney. There are pieces on the effect that certain writers – EM Forster, for example – have had on her life, and those on the visceral, Proustian memories of first discovering a book, a record or an episode of television that changed everything for Smith.
Feeling Free, Smith’s brand new collection of essays, is half this and half something new. Smith is a fan of culture, someone for whom reading and watching and listening is an integral part of existence and, then, creation. So there are essays on Jay-Z and pieces on dance studios, musings on the directors Charlie Kaufman and Orson Welles, and even an investigation of criticism in relation to her own works.
But this book is bolstered by something new, Smith’s essays are rooted in a sense of time and place. In 2016, when Brexit had just passed, Smith wrote a much-shared piece in the New York Review of Books about the disastrous precipice upon which her home country had found itself. There are essays, too, on what it was like to live in America under the Obama administration. The piece that opens the collection is an elegy of sorts to North London, where Smith grew up.
A lot of these writings have been published before, particularly in the New York Review Of Books and the New Yorker, where Smith is a frequent contributor. The last section, entitled ‘Being Free’, is where you will find some of the most recent and original work. It’s here that Smith gets personal, charting how she loathes diary writing, about the house her family moved into when she was a child, about – my favourite – the fulcrum of her obsession with Justin Bieber and Jewish psychology. (Seriously!!)
This is Smith’s particular gift: Marrying our sweet, saccharin, fizzy pop culture obsessions with the high-concept theory that surely works furiously behind them in the background. It’s why her essays on mega-superstars like, say, 50 Cent, Marilyn Monroe and, yes, Justin Bieber, are so fantastic. You’ll never listen to What Do You Mean in the same way again.