‘Intimations’ by Zadie Smith

Georgia Bisbas | Student Writer

Smith’s latest collection of essays, Intimations is exactly what it says on the tin. Simultaneously prophetic and immediate, each essay hints towards the unified dilemmas and aversions of lockdown, all while interrogating cultural issues in the wider world through her signature intelligent tone. I read these essays on a grey afternoon, much like the grey afternoons of lockdown, but I read easy knowing there was once again flour and toilet paper in ample supply. 

Smith famously does not have a smart phone and is not on social media and so being shown glimpses of her life, as she navigated the past few months, accompanied by her perennial wisdom, is fascinating. Like a character from Mrs Dalloway, Smithgazes at flowers in Greenwich Village, she walks her dog, she bumps into an Auntie in Willesden. I felt oddly satiated to know her life could be as normal as the rest of ours. With reassuring candour too, she also manages to disseminate any virtuous belief that lockdown should have been a time of great personal literary endeavour: ‘There is no great difference between novels and banana bread, they are both just something to do.’ 

Smith refrains from spelling out the tones of the essays, they are observational but not obvious. She refers to Trump as simply ‘He’ in The American Exception and omits any use of the word Coronavirus, she instead refers to it as the ‘global humbling.’ In the essay Postscript: Contempt as a Virus, Smith uses the metaphor of the virus to discuss white fragility and systemic racism. She ‘truly believes many people are unaware they carry the virus at all until the moment you find yourself phoning the cops to explain the race of the man who spoke back to you in Central Park.’ 

She writes that the ‘disaster demanded a new dawn’- the disaster she alludes to is twofold, encompassing both the recent spike in the public and senseless killing of Black people, and the global pandemic through which it has been demonstrated that death rates ‘were higher for Black and Asian ethnic groups when compared to White ethnic groups’, as data from the PHE outlines. ‘Some old American distinctions’ as Smith describes them, persist. They appear glaringly obvious when written about in short form. 

The demand is now to amplify Black voices and stories and encourage those of us with white privilege to do the work: to learn why and unpick it from our thoughts and actions to protect those we may be harming. If current disasters bring a new dawn for Smith’s writing we should wake up in time for the sunrise, blinding as it might be, without doubt it will be brilliant.  

The royalties from Intimations are split between The Equal Justice Initiative which ‘works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality and provide legal representation to those who may have been denied a fair trial’ and The Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York. 

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