What were you doing when you were 21? My 21 is synonymous with weight loss-inducing brokeness, the end of my tertiary educational cycle, explosive romances and happenstantial trysts, and the Emiliana Torrini song Unemployed in Summertime*.
(*Unemployed in summertime / I’ve only just turned 21, I’ll be ok / Unemployed in summertime / Don’t need money ’cause we’re young / I’ll just stay awake till the morning / With make up all over my face)
At age 21, Britain’s literary sweetheart Zadie Smith had penned her debut novel, White Teeth. Time spent hoping to catch up with six decades of Harold Bloom and Derridean theory on all and any topics distracted me from such novels. I failed to read anything “contemporary,” focusing on so-called modern classics instead. As such, it isn’t until I escaping the shackles of literary academia’s pantheon of writers and thinkers that I found my way to the excellent living writers out there. (Not to discredit the formative years spent in plenary rooms ogling the odd chestnut-haired English lit majors while trying to find the 50-page section of this week’s canonical segment I had indeed read to offer a commentary intended to boost my “attendance” mark).
When I did come to Zadie dimples formed on my chubby cheeks. My eyes sparked. I had read her essay “Joy” – after a misguided attempt at David Foster Wallace’s “Girl with Curious Hair” and related romantic entanglements cut short – and some other short form nonfiction prose and loved the irreverence they offered and raw honesty in the case of “Joy”. But this: a woman of colour, unafraid of writing with wit, writing about complex issues beyond the constraint of what people of colour and even more so women or colour are expected to read… Her biting voice, depiction of London, and ability to jump in and out of the skins of a panel of characters was revelatory for me.
First having intended to run through her bibliography chronologically, I jumped from one bookend to the next, reading White Teeth (2000) then Swing Time (2016). Except for not centring white characters or romantic love as a theme, those two books have little in common. While I had my favourites in White Teeth and therefore found the different perspectives to be frustrating at times, I loved the space afforded to the narrator’s comments and the idiosyncratic voice it assumed throughout. I loved being able to imagine if not the body of the narrator, a smirk on their face. I loved reading what partially felt like a thoroughly-researched history of the Windrush generation.
Swing Time, however, is written in the first person. We do not know its protagonist’s name, but She steers the boat throughout. The narrator inhabits a similar position to Zadie Smith. Her father is English, her mother of Jamaican descent; She is, arguably, fully British. We follow the story of her and her best friend Tracey (a dancer by blood) as they grow up in North West London, one to a white single mother indifferent to decorum; the other to a Caribbean mother for whom bedtime reading means “I can finally get my Pluto Press books out,” rather than “bedtime story for my daughter” (the protagonist’s future line of work as an assistant to a diva feels like corrective care for her mother’s lack thereof). The “two brown girls” live in close quarters on neighbouring estate blocks but their lifelines diverge significantly. The premise feels so appealing – in part because I have had a friend of this ilk.
Smith depicts a believable tale. Strained friendships, romantic false starts, and invisible crossroads that one experiences in life are so relatable. The competitiveness some female friendships (don’t males have those too?) sometimes contain, the boy-magnet best friend, racial microaggressions. All of that felt so truthful, reading like something close to a memoir (something discussed in a NYT interview with Jeffrey Eugenides).
Yet, I missed the mocking distance of the narrator, the jibes and jabs, the at-times obsessive contextualization, the wit. But perhaps that is simply what can happen with an “I”. The “I” from Swing Time (the first in her fiction) has the flaws and humanity a third-person voice can so often lack and a complexity rare in the representation of Black women. Months after reading this book, I entertained the possibility that this time Smith wrote for herself, that she wrote in spite of our expectations. And why shouldn’t she? With Swing Time we are exposed to the every thought and whim of our protagonist, forced to investigate and see her whole, with all her linguistic (verbal) or emotional limitations and self-doubt.
Upon finishing this read, I wasn’t left with the sense of possibility, wonder, or arrival that beloved works of literature usually inspire in me. The protagonist goes to London, New York, and West Africa (presumably the Gambia) and we follow. Still the sentiment I was left with was the realisation that sometimes someone travels the world over but can remain just as they were when the journey began – perhaps my only Odyssean takeaway. This is an intimate book, packed with snippets of truths about friendship, womanhood, emotional labour, and identity. Where Smith’s voice at 21 rang so loudly across a cast of characters, 20 years on the protagonist-narrator of Swing Time feels like this unnamed She has yet to find herself.
But perhaps sometimes the real lesson in life is letting go of closure.