23 April 2007

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin, 2005.

A reread. I’ve spent all my Finished! energies on the Cornwell coming up. If I write my final paper on this novel and not on elements of the pastoral in American Pastoral (could anyone possibly have any interest in that topic? could I, even?), I’ll write it on constructions of identity in the novel, perhaps blending that idea with technical constructions of character (like in terms of the words used to construct them on the page, how they’re revealed or unveiled to the reader) and maybe even constructions of Smith’s narrative identity itself.

Yawn. Writing academic papers has become this close the end of my coursework a silly exercise for feckless people unable to connect with others off the page. Here’s, though, where I’m beginning from, this quote here from Smith’s Bookworm review I linked to in the Brief Interviews post:
It’s not that [my characters] can’t express themselves well, but it’s that the thing they’ve been told is self-expression is a mistake. So to me someone like Levi ... feels himself to be some way inauthentic or not as black as he should be. Those kind of arguments, sometimes, you know, they’re serious to the black community ... and when I was a child I was constantly being told that various habits of mine—I suppose including reading—made me less black than I should be. The idea that you can be less authentic than you are is nonsense. There’s no such thing. And to struggle under that idea to concern yourself constantly about your identity seems to be a kind of prison, and it’s one what white people don’t have to anything like the same degree. They have a kind of existential freedom that they don’t even notice because of course it’s what every human being should have and deserves to have and is natural.

But if you don’t have it, if you’re constantly wondering instead not what it is to be but what it is to be black then you’re completely cornered. So I suppose all my characters to some extent are looking for identities, and constantly in interviews I’m being told, “Your books are all about the search for identity,” and I always think my books are about that search being entirely pointless.
It’s this last sentence I want to argue with, or “interrogate” as this novel’s Howard Belsey would say. There’s of course the self-contradiction—”all my characters to some extent are looking for identities” vs. “that search [for identity] being entirely pointless.” Is Smith deliberately putting her characters into pointless quests for identities, or are people misreading her novels? In other words, are her characters pawns for some point about identity she’s trying to make? Or is she making points about identity that people are missing?


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