Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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★★★★1/2 (4.5/5)

I loved the pacing and structure of this narrative. Smith writes similarly to how memory functions– tangential, non-linear, laced with the unreliable narration of childhood impressions of history and present that inevitably shape characters’ futures. The varying expressions (and documentations) of dance in the novel– from the narrator’s memories of Fred Astaire films, to a fictional white pop star dancing in a West African village, or her childhood friend’s failed dance career– are used as vehicles to examine complex issues of cultural appropriation, skewed histories, and craft as identity. Generally, you could say this is a book about identity–specifically female identity–, and how the myriad influences of life (family, racial constructs, gender, education, colonialism, trauma, wealth, religion, fame, and craft) nudge one’s own and other’s perceptions of self. Smith takes on many many complex themes, all the while maintaining lovely prose, an excellent ear for dialogue & individual speech patterns, a compassionately critical eye, and disarming wit.

I was also obsessed with Fred Astaire films as a child, though not quiiiite to the extent of the characters in Smith’s novel, but I never took a dance class (due largely to crippling childhood shyness) and know little about dance technique. To read Smith’s careful, and often biting, technical and historical analysis of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was highly enjoyable and, at times, eye-opening for me. I found myself, again slightly like the narrator (though, importantly, from a white perspective), looking back and re-examining my childhood impressions of those old Hollywood films. For some reason, my elementary school library’s movie collection consisted largely of Shirley Temple classics on VHS, so she and her strange Hollywood realm became coveted by my film-starved self (TV was strictly rationed in our house). There is one scene in The Littlest Rebel which has clung like a burr for man years: Temple, playing the daughter of a southern plantation owner in during the Civil War, puts on blackface and hides in the closet with her slave (and a cash of food) in an attempt to hide from pillaging Union soldiers. She gets discovered due to her dress catching in the door. The soldiers break down the door, then one “smashes his bottle on her table,” and demands that she “pull off his boots” threatening to “tan her hide” if she doesn’t. This ends abruptly when he discovers that she’s actually white. Temple’s kerchief is tugged off to reveal her gold ringlets and her tears wash away the blackface.

At least that’s the summary I read of it recently. How I remember it is much more reflexive of how a child’s limited understanding of context can force them to adapt unfamiliar narratives into new stories, stories which conform to the logic of their own inner and perceived worlds. My memory of this scene is foremost clouded with a heavy feeling of discomfort–not for the clearly racist content, it should be noted, but at my lack of understanding. I don’t think it’s uncommon for children to be confused by displays of clear prejudice, and then frustrated or even frightened by this confusion. My actual memory of this scene is: Shirley Temple has to hide from some perverse bad guys, so she and her friend (? the ambiguity of the relationship, as it was portrayed, is evident in my recollection) hide under the stairs…in a coal cellar…where Temple gets her face/purposefully covers her face with coal dust. Then the dust gets washed off. This memory is vague and somehow forced, especially as I also remember asking my mother, who only let me watch these film begrudgingly to begin with, why Shirley Temple did that to her face, or Why is her face like that? I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the pervading feeling of discomfort. Was the TV turned off after that, or do I only want it to have been? I still am not clear on why it seemed like a good idea to Temple’s character to try to pass herself off as a slave. Was it because she thought she’d be ignored that way? Because Northern soldiers only assaulted white women in this fictional world? Even the racist logic was off. So I made it into some sort of accidental disguise, voided the little white girl of all responsibility.

And this is the kind of morality warp that Smith is getting at, however ploddingly, in Swing Time. How are the first impressions of things equally reflected of ourselves, as much as the thing being observed, and how do our minds choose to retain, and possibly reshape, those memories?The obsession with recrafting the past, of awkwardly attempting to remedy misperceptions and un-deserved hero-worship, is emxemplified in the narrator’s discovery of Jeni Legon, one of the first well-known black, lady tap-dancers.  The use of the first person I is only personal at the surface level for this novel– rather than personal detail, there is reflection, a constant hovering between the past and the present perceptions of broad themes such as motherhood or race taking precedence over any specific trajectory of personal life.

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