Zadie Smith on Obama, Shakespeare, and Speaking Multiracial Identity

Reacting to:Speaking in Tongues

Admittedly biased as a huge fan of Zadie Smith's voice ever since the underrated Autograph Man, I'm continually impressed with her development as a writer and literary critic.  She brings a whimsy and a keenness to the combination of personal and social writing, especially on identity, that I rarely see elsewhere.  To wit:

But I haven't described Dream City. I'll try to. It is a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I. When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin—well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That's how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you're not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It's the kind of town where the wise man says "I" cautiously, because "I" feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun "we."

Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say we. He was noticeably wary of "I." By speaking so, he wasn't simply avoiding a singularity he didn't feel, he was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can't see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.

I don't find myself in agreement with all her points, and I like it that way.  Enjoy.

By: on 23 Feb 2009