Swing Time

Courtesy of Penguin Press

February 25, 2017

Shall We Dance? Yes, but not Around Colonialism

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As a longtime Zadie Smith fan, I began my journey into Swing Time, her latest novel, with a certain degree of expectation. I anticipated to be entertained, that there would be points where I laughed and, as a testament to the complexity of her writing, for there also to be moments in the book when I cried. I did not however, expect to feel intense irritation, almost to the point of hatred.

The plot of Swing Time is effectively split into two. The first revolves around the childhood friendship of two girls tied together by their similar skin tones and mutual love of dance. The book is written from the perspective of one of the girls, who remains unnamed throughout the novel and for whom the term ‘unlikable’ is a substantial understatement. The narrator is insecure, constantly doubting her own (terrible) decisions, while continuously maintaining harshly critical opinions of others. In short, Swing Time is a story about friendship that begs the question: why would anyone want to be friends with this person?

Zadie Smith is no novice at creating contentious characters that elicit a diversity of reactions from readers. In White Teeth, the bad-boy character of Millat infuriated me with his womanizing persona, but I secretly wondered whether I had a bit of a crush on him. Similarly, while reading On Beauty, the seditious Professor Claire Malcolm frustrated me with her inability to recognize the good in her life (she was tenured, for god’s sake!), but I reserved warm feelings for her, particularly as she advocated for the inclusion of disadvantaged students in her classroom.

Yet in Swing Time, I was unable to muster up such compassionate thoughts for the narrator. The screen through which she viewed the world was so negative and judgmental that gaining insight into her mind was unpleasant. However, this too raised a question for me: why did Smith construct this character to be so thoroughly unredeeming?

The second half of the plot centers around the adult experiences of the narrator, who has grown distant from her childhood friend Tracey and is now working for Aimee, a celebrity of the hybrid pop star/do-gooder variety that has become fairly ubiquitous in contemporary media. As a grown woman, the narrator continues to be her pessimistic, uber-critical self, though her callous thoughts are now directed toward Aimee, rather than Tracey. As Aimee’s personal assistant, the narrator is involved in all aspects of Aimee’s life and aids her in a plan to build a school for underprivileged children in a (again unnamed) country in Africa.

Through the lens of a less judgmental character, Aimee might be heralded as generous, even commendable in her efforts to improve the world, motivated by mostly positive intentions. With such a critical voice narrating the novel however, Aimee’s approach is all wrong.

Rather than turning her into a virtuous savior, Aimee’s actions are represented as a brand of ignorant colonialism. Aimee is portrayed as vapant and naive, more concerned with her own humanitarian image than the success of the school. This comes to head when (seemingly on a whim) Aimee “acquires” an African baby, in the eyes of the narrator, as quickly and easily as she would a new designer handbag.

I began to share the tone of judgment inherent throughout the novel as the narrator described Aimee’s misguided attempt at improving the lives of African people, and considered the motives behind the trips students of my generation take to less-developed countries abroad with the goal to “help”. Doubtlessly, such trips are well-intended; we come as members of Global Health brigades, charity missions and teaching teams. Yet how often do we question whether the countries we enter either want or need our help? Such countries have their own histories, and their own distinct traditions of healing, learning and teaching. On our end, it is a bit presumptuous to assume that we are even able to help and that our form of knowledge should supplant that of the locals, many of whom are far older and wiser than us.

Half of my mind wonders what the narrator would think of such trips and whether she would equate them with Aimee’s ill-founded efforts. The other part of my mind, which truly does not like her, tells me to ignore her judgmental quips and remember that most people who embark on such trips do so with the best intentions– that’s what counts, right?

Unfortunately, similar mindsets have been used to justify horrific events for hundreds of years, not least of all colonialism. Volunteer trips abroad are well-intended and not inherently evil, but it is necessary to continuously reflect on the motives behind such ventures and to question the extent of the good that is actually being done.

In employing such a judgmental narrator, Smith is promoting the idea that sometimes, it helps to view the world through the eyes of the ultra-cynical to take a step back and reconsider actions perceived as objectively ethical. Yet in a sense, she is also cautioning against inhabiting the narrator’s mindset too often; after all, there’s a reason she’s so unlikeable.

Zoe Lindenfeld is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at zll3@cornell.edu.