By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #29 – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Life is like a dance; it's fun, it's exhausting, it swings, but most of all it keeps moving. Zadie Smith's Swing Time is about how dancing and finding yourself.

Who are we? Is our identity determined by our upbringing, our heritage, our race, our profession, our interests, our education? Are we always the same person, or can we change our identity depending on whom we surround ourself with? Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time is about a young woman who doesn’t quite know who she is – apart from when she’s dancing. Want to know what it is about? Read on!

Swing Time is about two friends, the narrator and Tracey, growing up in a bad part of London. They’re both mixed race, and they have a shared passion for dancing. Tracey is the more talented and the more confident one, and the narrator always looks up to her. While Tracey seems to make it in the dance world, the main character lands a job as a pop star’s assistant, which allows her to see the world. But who of these two girls is the successful one?

The main theme of Swing Time is identity. The narrator is continuously trying to find out who she is and where she belongs, and eventually she realises that her identity changes over time and across different continents. The novel is not told chronologically but instead switches between different events of her life (such as the time she first went to tap dance class, and how she first saw superstar Aimee dance on tv and later met her in real life), which mirrors how identity is fluid, rather than fixed. 

It’s interesting that those close to the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the novel, do seem to believe that their identity is fixed. For instance, her mother, who is from Jamaican descent and is determined to be a strong, independent, feminist, politically influential woman, wishes her daughter will live a similarly activist life. Aimee, the Australian popstar, is so used to being famous that she no longer has to worry about who she is, as long as she’s popular. Hawa, her West African friend is someone else entirely; she is from a little village, and is happy to be there – and through her the narrator realises that leaving one’s birthplace is not necessarily a sign of being successful.

The woman with the strongest sense of self, however, is Tracey. From the moment the narrator met her, Tracey overwhelmed her with her confidence and talent. They became friends because of their shared love for dancing, but Tracey was always the more gifted as well as the more beautiful one. Even though the two eventually drift apart, somehow this childhood friendship becomes the core of the narrator’s being, and her level of success is determined by how she is doing compared to Tracey. So when she finds out that Tracey ends up as a woman who believes in conspiracy theories, sends harassing letters to her mother, and has children she cannot take care of, the narrator decides to visit her former best friend one more time. She finds her former best friend having the time of her life with her children. They’re out on the balcony, dancing, and only then does she realise that neither woman is superior to the other.

Everything returns to dance in Swing Time, the title of which refers to the 1936 film with Fred Astaire, the narrator’s hero. His movies are old, and apparently he was quite racist, but she doesn’t care; whenever he is dancing, it’s like he somehow escapes time. The same goes for the narrator: it is in dance she truly finds herself, and whenever she’s dancing, she doesn’t feel the need to defend herself. There is one scene in the novel when the narrator is in West Africa, attending a party. She copies the dance moves of the local women there, and feels happy during those five minutes. Afterwards, she is completely exhausted, but the women tell her she doesn’t dance like a white woman anymore, and that she belongs there.

Swing Time is about identity, about power, about race, about upbringing, and about acceptance. The narrator is never sure who she is, and seeks validation from those close to her, but she always holds something of herself back. By continuously looking over her shoulder in order to find out what is expected of her, she never truly lives her own life – nor does she know what life she is supposed to lead. Until she dances, that is. Because dance is both universal and personal, and through it she can both be herself and shed her identity. Just like Fred Astaire escaped time, dance makes her escape her life for a while.

While doing my research, I read that some reviewers criticised the narrator because she was too detached and uninteresting. I, on the other hand, really sympathised with her. I think that she represents the struggles everyone has to face while finding out who they are, and these struggles aren’t always pretty, and often unteresting – I bet these reviewers just didn’t like to be reminded of their own imperfections. The more I think about this novel, the more I realise how similar the narrator and I are, despite the differences in heritage and upbringing. Swing Time shows that sometimes you should just listen to the music that’s playing, and decide for yourself how you are going to move to the rhythm, regardless of whether you can actually dance.

What did you think of Swing Time? Do you think your identity can change, or is it fixed? Which music do you like dancing to? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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