Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
Many readers know literary wunderkind Zadie Smith for her raging success propelled by novels such as White Teeth and The Autograph Man. In Changing My Mind, her first collection of non-fiction, Smith alternates between roles as a cub reporter, movie reviewer, and homage-paying biographer to the stars of the silver screen.
The strength of Smith’s writing is perhaps best evidenced in the difficulty I have selecting only a few of the dazzling essays to highlight. Witty but also incredibly useful for writer types is Smith’s explanation of her own writing process in “That Crafty Feeling,” in which she differentiates between micro-manager and macro-planner novelists. “One Week in Liberia” is the kind of essay that stays stuck in your mind more than one week and forces you to consider how the global economic crisis—let alone everyday poverty—might be affecting people less fortunate than yourself.
Smith’s movie reviews are interesting even if you’ve never seen (or heard of) the films in question. Her ability to tease out the plot's nuances in geopolitical hypertext thrillers like Syriana speaks to her understanding of the world as well as her talent for relaying complex ideas into simple, readable prose. Less interesting—at least to me personally—were her long-winded accolades for film stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo and writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka.
Perhaps most relevant for a life like my own is “Speaking in Tongues,” a lecture-turned-essay about the necessity of shifting between dialects and class identity as you move between numerous worlds. In what Smith dubs “Dream World,” candidates like Barack Obama suddenly make sense to so many of us, those of us who also shape-shift and might be called inauthentic for our cultural or linguistic inconsistencies. Smith explains that these multiple sensibilities have always been cherished in artists, and as the world becomes continually globalized, this is our varied yet collective future.
Changing My Mind is the type of collection that might languish under your pillow or on the bedside table for several weeks—not because it isn’t a page-turner, but because it is so tempting to savor every last sentence.