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The coloured woman’s burden

January 01, 2017


AWARD-winning novelist Zadie Smith needs no introduction, having catapulted to fame with the publication of books such as White Teeth and On Beauty. Her most recent novel, Swing Time, focuses on the bildungsroman adventures of an unnamed female narrator who is ethnically part-Jamaican, part-white. The title takes its name from noted dancer Fred Astaire’s acclaimed film, and the general themes of Smith’s story are dancing and entertainment, especially as they relate to the coloured community in the United Kingdom and the developing African nation of The Gambia. Underlying the surface concerns are the deeper issues of race, gender, and class from which Smith can now rarely escape since the literary niche she appears to have carved out for herself would dissolve into nothingness were she to turn her back on these matters.

Not that there is any apparent reason for her to turn her attention to anything else. A woman of colour herself, she attempts to write with sensitivity and some measure of grace on the difficulties faced by immigrants in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. The narrator befriends a girl named Tracey who, like herself, is of mixed ethnicity; however, in Tracey’s case it is her mother who is white and her father black. The narrator appears to hero-worship her own strong-willed mother, who “looks like Nefertiti” and who commands respect from people ranging from her physically and metaphorically colourless husband, to the constituents of Kilburn who eventually elect her to be their MP. Tracey and the narrator attend dance class together, but while Tracey possesses admirable talent, the narrator is mediocre at best. This does not prevent them from developing a close, albeit complex, relationship that affects the narrator on multiple levels throughout the book.

Although she does not need to spell it out, Smith implies that Tracey’s talent stems from the natural rhythm with which a number of coloured dancers are gifted. Tracey’s generally absentee father dances as part of Michael Jackson’s team. In a fiercely competitive world Tracey manages to acquire some well-deserved international recognition and the passion with which she dances is ably, at times beautifully, conveyed to the reader. The narrator, in spite of her dominant novelistic voice, plays second fiddle to Tracey throughout the book and becomes a personal assistant to a music megastar referred to simply as Aimee. Originally of Australian background, the talented but egomaniacal Aimee decides to “philanthropically” use some of her copious fortune to build a girls’ school in The Gambia. Aimee remains a self-serving character throughout; even her adoption of an African baby is done primarily to further her own interests as opposed to those of anyone else. The latter portion of the novel dwells on the narrator’s ostensibly sincere attempts to serve Aimee’s overseas schemes in a manner that is both dedicated as well as culturally sensitive.

A tale of migrants, mixed marriages, and a surfeit of cultural stereotypes

But whereas Aimee appears to succeed in aggregate, Smith does not. Too much of the Africa-based portion of the book is bogged down by exhausting stereotypes. These relate to religious members of the Tableeghi Jamaat (on whom just one background source is cited in Smith’s acknowledgements), underprivileged parents willing to give up their children for adoption for a song, and uneducated and disenfranchised native men and women who range from being manic to constantly depressed. The novel also suffers from its almost rude emphasis on satire of the African government that is neither particularly funny nor, one suspects, particularly accurate.

It is worrisome to watch how Rudyard Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ of the 19th century appears to have metamorphosed into Smith’s ‘coloured woman’s burden’ of the new millennium. This is nothing short of a shame for Smith has an undeniable gift when it comes to linguistic expression — she writes readably and emotively. Her metaphors are apt, and her ability to depict convoluted family dynamics is remarkably sound. Had she adhered to the terrain with which she seems most comfortable — the story of the narrator and Tracey — she might have created a work that would have come across as cohesive, poignant, and memorable. In venturing to write about a foreign region that is complex and at times virtually unfathomable, she invariably demonstrates a painful ignorance that may offend some uptight readers and perturb a number of the more generous ones.

This is not to say that Smith’s entire African panorama makes for tedious reading. Some of the characters, such as the lively and irrepressible Hawa, a teacher in Aimee’s school, are so vividly sketched that one relishes the portions where they make an appearance. It could also be argued that the narrator’s inability to do justice to The Gambia reflects more on her own shortcomings as opposed to those of the culture in which she finds herself immersed. The problem then becomes one of plot-related authenticity since one finds it hard to believe that a filthy-rich megastar like Aimee would entrust both her public image as well as her overseas project to someone as culturally inept and unskilled as the narrator. When the narrator ultimately ends up betraying Aimee and gets fired one is hardly surprised; however, one might be forgiven for wondering why Aimee herself didn’t see it coming.

“I remember that Rakim had a refrain, always proudly declaimed, with his overbite pulled back over his teeth: ‘We have our own kings! We have our own queens!’ I would nod along for the sake of peace but in truth some part of me always rebelled. [...] I did not want to rely on each European fact having its African shadow, as if without the scarf-folding of the European fact everything African might turn to dust in my hands.”— Excerpt from the book

Sadly, middle-class white characters also get short shrift. Tracey’s mother and the narrator’s father (a postal service worker) are both deeply fond of their respective children, but unable to handle their spouses who — aside from being coloured — are capable, but eminently selfish individuals. Perhaps Smith is sounding a note of caution about interracial relationships in general — this is supported by the point that the narrator’s separate associations with an American Jew, a black Gambian, a coloured college student named Rakim, and a white Portuguese are all far from romantically satisfactory. Tracey has three children from three different men. Referring to their skin colour as well as general competence she drily notes: “I tried vanilla, café au lait, and chocolate, and you know what I figured out? On the inside, they’re all the [...] same: men.” There is a dearth of successful parenting in Swing Time: the UK characters (including Tracey) are generally too busy or socially oppressed to be successful parents, and the African characters are invariably portrayed as being too poor to achieve the best for their children.

Since Swing Time is a novel and not a sociological treatise, one can assume that personal creative licence underlies many of Smith’s political motivations. But when it comes to novels that attempt to bridge the chasm between cultures one finds that creativity can be too easily compromised by lack of planning. Smith’s book suffers from a distinct lack of organisation — the intriguing chapters on the narrator’s childhood are distractingly interspersed with those that dwell on Aimee’s project. So jarring is the effect that at times it appears as if one is reading two different books entirely. Moreover, while there is no denying that oppression and lack of opportunity plague much of the developing world, the book’s race-oriented depictions tread a beaten path and will leave most readers wondering why Smith should have taken it upon herself to promote awareness when others have been far more successful at diplomatically doing so.

It would be fair to assume that Smith’s agendum was too ambitious, and for all her considerable talent the author is not ready to write an epic yet. At heart the novel’s problem is a fundamentally basic one: race, gender, and class are distinctly separate issues and one can rarely do adequate justice to all three within the precincts of one single work. That these concerns overlap on a number of occasions is not a matter of dispute; however, even a layperson realises that endeavours consisting primarily of a regurgitation of stereotypes and polemics can only achieve a limited measure of respect from a discerning audience. Two hundred years before Smith’s mind gave birth to Swing Time, the English female novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote far more adeptly about interracial relationships in her now rarely perused novel Belinda. Acquisition editors would be well served were they to take a step back in time and revisit Edgeworth’s work. So may many others who seek reading experiences that are both unique and nuanced, as well as socially responsible.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

Swing Time
By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, UK
ISBN: 978-1594203985

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017