In her latest novel Swing Time, Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty) captures the conflict embedded in the 21st century’s search for identity and our tribe.
Swing Time follows the life of an unnamed narrator as she comes of age. She’s a self professed British-Jamaican “half-caste” living in public housing in the wrong side of London. She and her best friend Tracey who is also half black and half white, go through childhood wanting nothing more than to dance like the black girls they see in the classic musicals. They want to become professional dancers.
Last year I was crazy about musical films, so I was stoked when our first glimpse of the narrator sees her enjoying a clip from the classic Fred Astaire musical, Swing Time. Through her obsession with musicals we see that to her, song and dance are more than entertainment, but a legitimate form of communication. The narrator’s friendship with Tracey started long before they spoke with one another - they danced together first.
The nonlinear structure of the novel swings between the narrator’s childhood in England and her adult life in West Africa, where she finds herself working as a personal assistant to an Australian pop star. Here the narrator’s connection with communities in West Africa is solidified in her ability to move and dance like her new friends - a shared language.
She struggles though. West Africa is unfamiliar and she doesn’t desire their way of life. Tracey has become the professional dancer that they dreamed of becoming and the narrator fights her own jealousy with her friend’s success. But more than anything, she yearns for her friendship with Tracey. She wants a tribe. She wants somewhere to belong.
Are we surprised that the narrator and those around her look to song and dance as a means of telling their stories? The poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo comes to my mind. If she read the novel, she might have said the narrator, as part of the British-Jamaican diaspora, felt “too foreign for home / too foreign for here. / Not enough for both.” Song and dance give the narrator a way of expressing herself in a world that is increasingly confusing. It gives her an escape. And isn’t that what song and dance give all of us?
I couldn’t get my head out of this novel, so I took it with me everywhere. The physical book is sizeable, but I managed to cram it into my handbag. My captivation in Swing Time might have something to do with the fact that Smith wrote (for the first time in her career) in the first person. It gives the characters refreshingly genuine identities.
The narrator is an observant fly-on-the-wall. That’s not to say she doesn’t have meaningful reflections on what she sees, but she lacks the usual epiphanous moments experienced by her contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, the book has copped some flak for the way the narrator “floats” through the story. As if in anticipation of this, the narrator notes on her visit to an art gallery, that many people like to use women of color as a “moral fig-leaf”. Smith refuses to let us have that fig-leaf, by not presenting the narrator as some all-wise, all-knowing oracle.
That’s the thing about the narrator in Swing Time. Without a name or any real purpose, she starts to look awfully unsympathetic. Although our narrator is older than most of her Gen-Y audience, she fits perfectly into a canon of self-absorbed Gen-Y protagonists. In her search for herself, she burns all of her bridges - even failing to notice the ill health of her own mother.
But did we care when Hannah Horvath of HBO’s Girls failed to meet our expectations of pleasantness? Wasn’t it Juno’s meanness that made her so cute and quirky? With the turn of the century, we have seen more and more women anti-heroes in film and literature. It was about time we saw one that wasn’t white.
As Swing Time’s stories progress, the narrator’s past and present swing closer and closer together and eventually, her past catches up with her.
Swing Time, in its themes and its structure, reminds us that in times of confusion, of discrimination, of struggle, it’s important to look back in time. It helps to look back in order to make sense of ourselves and what we want to be in the future. And if we don’t look back, the past will find us anyway.