From The New York Times’ “Other Voices, Other Selves” published January 14, 2010, Pankaj Mishra explores important points regarding Zadie Smith’s collection of essays in the collection, Changing My Mind, which, according to Mishra, Smith only edges around post-colonial politics, and skirts past mixed-race themes when she should be tackling these issues head on:
The essays that follow discuss some prominent dead white writers (George Eliot, Kafka, E. M. Forster, Nabokov, Barthes, David Foster Wallace), but they display no Edward Said-style counterreading of canonical texts. Their quirky pleasures derive from Smith’s own critical persona — always bold, jauntily self-reflexive and amusing — and her inspired cultural references, which include both Simone Weil and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
There is little hint of Smith’s culturally diverse background in her essays on (mostly Hollywood) movies and stars; they belong recognizably to an Anglo-American tradition of writing about cinema that alternates between masochistic reverence and slash-and-burn japery.
As a mixed writer, am of two minds about this. Wondering why we are expected to declare our ethnicity time and time again, as if our skin color, our names, our history, our family, and every living pore of us doesn’t announce it everyday of our lives. Sometimes we’d just rather talk about something other than our otherness. There’s more to that, as well, why be the first one to call ourselves out. If we announce our ethnicity, we are immediately placing ourself in the ethnic corner, which the critics will do whether we like it or now. Why can’t we just be “writer” or “president” without the qualifiying
In this essay (which compares Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” with Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder”), Smith passes over the many novels from outside the West that have helped expand traditional bourgeois notions of self and identity. Yet her essay on Barack Obama is replete with the postcolonial-cum-postmodernist themes — hybridity, mimicry and ambivalence — that professors of literature and cultural studies commonly employ in American and British universities. Smith’s hope that Obama’s “flexibility of voice” may lead to “flexibility in all things” derives not so much from hardheaded political analysis as from academic high theory, which assumes that those who live between cultures best represent and articulate the human condition today. According to Smith, the moral of Obama’s story is that “each man must be true to his selves, plural.”
On this point, at least, Smith is ideologically consistent. In fact, the idea that “the unified singular self is an illusion” could be the leitmotif of this collection. It allows Smith to revisit her own early assumptions and to question such essentialist notions as “black woman-ness.” Reflecting on Kafka’s ambivalence about his ethnic background, she writes: “There is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (‘What have I in common with Jews?’) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.”
This may sound a bit melodramatic. But then — as Salman Rushdie and other practitioners of postcolonial postmodernism have stressed — ambivalence, doubt and confusion are essential to forming dynamic new hybrid selves. Smith seems to bring to this now entrenched critical orthodoxy the particular weltschmerz of today’s bright, successful but sad young writers. This is most evident in the collection’s final essay, a long and passionately argued panegyric to David Foster Wallace in which Smith diagnoses the central dilemmas of her own increasingly lost generation. These are dilemmas, she argues, that Henry James, who assumed awareness leads to responsibility, never encountered: “the ubiquity of television, the voraciousness of late capitalism, the triumph of therapeutic discourse and philosophy’s demotion into a branch of linguistics.”
Having hybrid identities, not belonging anywhere or indeed belonging everywhere, may have its advantages, but these attributes must still contend with pressing circumstances like the voraciousness of 21st-century capitalism. Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them. The possession of multiple selves and voices doesn’t seem to be helping — and may even be inhibiting — Barack Obama. The victims of the seemingly endless violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan would draw scant comfort from the knowledge that the present occupant of the White House has an ear for different accents and can mimic everyone from a white Harvard nerd to a Kenyan elder.