Intimations

Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas, feelings and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean it submit to a new reality – or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it?

Suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a slim, suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened – and what might come next.


The isolation of the pandemic has created a space for the mind that we’ve never experienced before. Or maybe I shouldn’t say created, maybe it was always there, but in the long-term suspension of anything resembling the sort of life we had always taken for granted has finally become un-ignorable. I think whether this is a good thing or a hellish thing probably depends on the day, and what sort of person you are – in terms of both privilege and disposition. In Intimations, Zadie Smith’s utterly absorbing series of essays about pandemic life, she describes us as being “Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure”, and Zadie, like us, has “almost no idea what to do with it”. So we sit and we think, or we try not to think, and in the grey space between those two goals we reach for books like this, which are like a fresh hot water bottle in a cold lap – they burn a little, but they comfort too.

Rightly or not, I tend to read essay collections with the hope they will ‘explain life’ to me, to unlock some previously unidentified truth that will make me ‘solved’ for having read them. The first thing I often do find, but I’m less sure about the second – I think perhaps that will continue to mostly evade me until I pluck up the courage to start writing it for myself. While I definitely went into Intimations with my usual attitude of teach me how to be, Zadie, the profound experience I had with this book – and continue to have when I pick it up from time to time to reread an essay as I have done since I first read it – shook me.

The past year has been a destabilising lurch into the unknown. Before now most of us – the lucky ones, I guess – never understood how living in a real-life disaster movie could be so boring. We’ve clung to routine, or no routine, great habits and maladaptive ones, obsessive scrolling and Netflix – our coping mechanisms in the absence of any roadmap instructing us How to Deal. This whole time, we should have just been reading Intimations instead.

I’m not saying you’ll finish these six essays knowing suddenly how to mark time in some way other than with whatever you’re going to eat next (just me?) – like I said, essays don’t tend to ‘solve’ you, much as you might wish them to – but Zadie’s words go some way towards lifting the emotional burden. I’m writing this the day after Alexandria Orcasio Cortez’s Instagram Live where she revealed the details of what happened to her during the storming of the capital, and before that, how her response to that trauma was informed by a previous sexual assault. During that video she talked a lot about trauma, and how doubt over the legitimacy of our own experience – stoked by the gas lighting of a society that hasn’t figured out how to face its own darkness – stops us from talking about it. And this is so counter intuitive, she explained, because research has actually shown that one of the ways that we process trauma is to talk about it, by telling people: This Is What Happened To Me.

That’s what Zadie Smith is doing in Intimations.

It’s been really hard to figure out how to talk about suffering during the pandemic, when so many of us are in such fortunate positions of privilege. When the entire world is going through the exact same thing, how can you talk about your individual suffering? I don’t know about anyone else, but there have been times in the midst of all this when I am having an especially bad day I have found myself berating myself along the lines of – so today you’re making a literally global pandemic all about you?

Yep. I guess.

As Zadie writes: “…it is possible to penetrate the bubble of privilege and even pop it – whereas the suffering bubble is impermeable. Language, logic, argument, rationale and relative perspective itself are no match for it.” It’s an essay that suggests rather than berating ourselves for this sense of our own suffering we might be better served by accepting it, feeling empathy for it – so that ultimately, we might give other people the same kindness.

Intimations is a collection filled with these small truths – the writing brings with it a sort of clarity that you want to sit in conversation with. It is a work that keeps informing your day to day long after you have turned the final page. It’s a conversation about quarantine, and time, and the murder of George Floyd – an essay that points towards the other pandemic, the one that has been slowly killing us without half of the headlines: contempt.

She writes: “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave-ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck, and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike!”

It is a time of trauma – not equally distributed – and none of us know what to do. We don’t know “what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it”, and it feels like our identities have been swallowed by that reality. Intimations doesn’t have the solution – though for a short while at least does answer the question of what to do with all that time. The solution probably, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist – or isn’t so much one achievable thing as a multitude of shifting and evolving goal posts. But it says something important, all the same.

This is what happened to me.

This is what happened to me.

This is what happened to me.

White Teeth

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.


Until recently I haven’t read a lot of British books, especially the really famous ones like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I suppose because my serious reading addiction began with YA, which is such a US-dominated market, before stretching in more recent years to authors like Stephanie Danler, Catherine Lacey and Jia Tolentino – your basic Belletrist book club reading list – not to mention how America-centric a lot of the TV we’re watching is…

Basically what I’m saying is as a young-ish, internet dwelling person you sort of end up adopting the US as the norm, which is something I hadn’t even really realised I’d done until I discovered how intensely refreshing I found books like Queenie, Girl, Woman, Other and Everything I Know About Love – books that look at the deep problems and deep silliness that I see in my own days.

White Teeth was a particularly powerful example of this. A novel that spans two(ish) decades, it’s a multi generational story of multiculturalism, immigration and racism that came out in 2000, but still felt very much like a contemporary novel. In it, Zadie touches on micro aggressions, white fragility and white saviourism – conversations we’re having in such depth right now (at least, I should caveat, on my feeds, though if The Social Dilemma has taught us anything its that what’s true for us certainly isn’t for everybody!) – but at the time of the book’s publication, at least among its white readers, I imagine were somewhat more fringe. I couldn’t decide whether this felt like progress (we’re having these conversations now!) or its opposite (we’re still having these conversations?).

It’s a book that is deeply concerned with questions of identity, particularly immigrant identity and how that is formed in a country that is often either hostile, or ignores you altogether. The book comes from a multitude of perspectives and two different families, parent and child, which means you experience this from so many different angles. For Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who immigrated from Bangladesh, so much of that identity is bound up in loss. From the loss of their one-time home to watching their children grow up and reach, it seems, ever further and further away from their heritage with every passing year, there is a sense of grief that often expresses itself in ways destructive to their family.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”

Equally for their kids there is a sense of loss from growing up in a country that so often excludes them, stereotypes them, perpetuates violence against them.

I’ve written about this a lot lately, but here in the UK we quite like to pretend that we don’t have ‘a race problem’, that all that is – going back to my previous point – ‘an American thing’. In this novel Zadie dispenses with the myth completely, representing multiculturalism for what it really is – enriching, joyful and filled with opportunity, but also complex, fraught and rife with the problems of systemic racism we still refuse to tackle.

It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all that, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.”

It’s also an intensely funny novel, filled with unexpected dramatic irony in how it all unfolds. There are no words wasted. Every moment of this story leads to the dramatic – and utterly ridiculous – finale, highlighting how each decision we make ripples outwards in ways we cannot foresee. Much as it is a novel about loss, it is also a novel about the past, and its refusal to stay back where you left it. You carry every piece of your life with you, for better and for worse – and even though it’s often maddening and painful, there’s something hopeful in it too, I think.

I truly haven’t read anything quite like this before. I have since become completely obsessed with Zadie Smith, seeking out her podcasts, essays, interviews – there is something about her intellect that is simultaneously comforting and challenging.

I might be in love with her.

I’m okay with it. In this shittiest of years, she might be one of my best discoveries.

(I know it sounds sort of ridiculous to talk about ‘discovering’ Zadie Smith cause I know she’s really famous, but whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m late to the party! But I am here now. With bells on.)

It’s Black History Month, so I’m dropping in with an accountability check for my fellow white readers in particular. How diverse are your bookshelves? When did you last pick up a book written by a person of colour? If your answers to those are ‘not very’ and ‘um…’ then you need to do something about that. Not sure where to start? Hop over to Instagram and follow @bookishandblack, @theblackbookblog1 and @novelallure to get started building your reading list. Also pick up Zadie Smith. Seriously. I can’t believe I lived my life this long without her.

Swing Time

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey wants to make it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighbourhood far behind, travelling the world as PA to famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one per cent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey – the same twists, the same shakes – and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the musical of time.

swing-time

Swing Time was actually my first Zadie Smith novel. I studied her short story (which is actually pretty long) The Embassy of Cambodia for a class I took at university and always intended to delve further into her work but never got around to it for some reason. When I read her conversation with Lena Dunham in Lenny, I realised the time had come. I also had a gift card left over from Christmas perfect for buying myself a beautiful but painfully expensive hardback. So I went for it.

Swing Time is a novel consumed by questions of race, class, motherhood, success and female friendship. Smith explores these themes using the parallel experiences of the unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend, Tracey. Both girls grow up on the same London estate but go on to radically different adult lives. Tracey, the dancer, never leaves the estate and finishes the novel a single parent with mental health issues. The unnamed narrator on the other hand, after leaving the estate for university and becoming the personal assistant to world-famous musician Aimee and travelling the world with her, ends up publicly disgraced, unemployed and only a few miles from where she started.

Both women would probably regard the other as having the worse deal.

‘I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.’

One of the aspects of this novel that intrigued me the most was the way we imagine the lives of other people. The most obvious and in many ways most pressing example of this was Aimee’s mission to ‘help the children of Africa’, which she did with no regard to the political situation of Gambia (they were getting into bed with a regime that was not interested in the wellbeing of its people) or even the needs of the small community the school was built to serve (her school was for girls only – the incorrect assumption being the boys were already taken care of). The end result of the school was the village suffering even more financial hardship than before, as the government viewed it as being taken care of by Aimee’s foundation, and consequently removed the little financial aid it had in place. Aimee was doing nothing to break the cycle of poverty, but despite the narrator’s (frustratingly few) attempts to make her see the truth she remains stubbornly disinterested – consumed with Lamin, her Gambian lover, rather than the school that brought her to the country in the first place.

Even after witnessing this, the narrator is not immune from similarly grand fantasies. In the final chapters of Swing Time, when she’s finally back in London and confronted with Tracey’s fractured mental health and poor family, she imagines a world in which she adopts Tracey’s children as her own as if that were anything like a solution.

All of this imagined good is contrasted with snippets into the life of the narrator’s mother. The narrator holds a great deal of resentment toward her mother, who spent her childhood buried in books rather than taking her daughter to dance class. What it resulted in, though, was an adult life as a crucial pillar of the community, a member of parliament who spent her career communicating with her people and working to make life better for them based on their requests rather than some imagined scenario. Our impression of the narrator’s mother is so consumed by her resentment toward her that it’s difficult to see her work for what it is, but when you peek around all that anger and resentment she is revealed as the most active character in the novel.

While I enjoyed most of the story, Swing Time was difficult for me in places. What the narrator says of herself at the beginning, about attaching herself to the light of others rather than creating her own proves true, resulting in what is at times a main character who is oddly disengaged from the events of her life. She doesn’t seem to really seek deep feeling and cuts those who produce it from her – mostly her mother and Tracey, although also latterly her father – from her life. There are some moments of great sadness in the novel that are glossed over, as if she is somehow numb to them, or has perhaps numbed herself deliberately. The effect of this on me was to make it difficult to feel as I wanted for her, and her experiences. There were parts of the book that left me a little flat, which frustrated me.

Overall though, Swing Time is a rich and interesting novel, and one that despite my issues with it, I can see myself returning to in the future.