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'Reading, Being, Seeing'

Anuradha Kumar

By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 308, Rs. 350.00


In her essay on 'The Crafty Feeling', Zadie Smith describes the craft of writing. It is a love-hate relationship that an author has with her work. A work desultorily begun can become something altogether different once the ‘middle’ stage is reached. The middle stage is when the author can no longer turn away from her own work; she has to keep at it until it is complete. Whatever the compulsions that drive a writer, Smith insists there are mainly two kinds of them: the macro managers who have an overview of things and then work towards the centre, and the micro planners who are more obsessed with getting the nitty-gritty right. But the process of writing can also be an educational effort; a writer can see herself change in the process. And then because one has been with the novel for so long, it also engenders a feeling of nausea during the routine and cumbersome process of proofing. Even a complete novel immediately or years after can make the author disgusted with her own work. For the person who wrote it will seem an altogether different person. Changing my mind is a delightfully contradictory collection of essays, marked by, as Zadie Smith herself points out in her foreword, an ideological inconsistency that is for her an article of faith. Most essays also appear deliberately to take their dictum from a film that starred Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story, where in the role of Tracy Lord, she mouths the oft-quoted line, ‘The best time to make your mind up about people is never.’ Smith finds herself unable to decide or make up her mind about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She is at first confused and even irritated by her mother’s insistence that she read it because she would like it. ‘Why, because she’s black?’ (asks Zadie). ‘No, because it’s really good writing’ (her mother had replied). After much hesitation, she began reading it and then was unable to let go, even having it on the dinner table by her. Reading through the writing of a black female author at the turn of the last century, Smith realizes that reading cannot really be a colour-blind exercise. Smith had always believed she was a colour-blind reader until she began reading this novel and that cliche of ‘black life’ so evocatively inscribed in the word ‘soulful’ ...

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