is a 2018 collection of essays by Jamaican-English author Zadie Smith. Topically broad, but highly contemporary in voice and social, political, and cultural awareness, the collection transmits the anxieties and desires that characterize the early twenty-first century, some of which are emergent, and others which are legacies of modernity. Among its themes are identity, alienation, existential ambivalence, and the transdisciplinary nature of creativity, Brexit and populism, climate change and destruction, and the pursuit of happiness. Feel Free
borrows its name from a poetry collection published by Nick Laird, Smith’s husband.
The collection consists of five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf,” and “Feel Free.” In “In the World,” Smith considers the decade’s most urgent political issues, connecting them to the level of the self and one’s capacities for both positive and negative change. She laments how human collectivities have allowed for a climate disaster, and normalized xenophobia, racism, economic inequality, and war. Smith draws from her personal experience as an English citizen to comment on the Brexit event, in which the United Kingdom chose to secede from the European Union. She connects this large national trend to smaller, visceral symptoms of rising ignorance; for example, the destruction of libraries in London to make room for commercial property. Some of these developments occur in chain reactions; for example, climate-based migration leads to increased urban multiculturalism, which combined with xenophobic impulses, begets nationalism.
The second section, “In the Audience,” is a survey and critique of some current forms of pop cultural expression, highlighting those of black thinkers. Smith analyzes Jay-Z and his exertion of broad political force through music. She also profiles comedians Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key, the co-creators of the short comedy sketch series Key & Peele
. Smith also analyzes Joni Mitchell, a musical artist from decades ago with precocious insight into our times.
The third section, “In the Gallery,” reflects on the art world through Smith’s experiences of art. She recalls first buying art as a young woman, and learning about camp culture, or as some might say, counterculture, as an art form. Again, she turns to the past to understand the present, analyzing the portrait “Alte Frau” by Balthasar Denner. Every medium belongs in Smith’s definition of art, and every work of art can be meaningfully compared against any other. She spends some time on the problematic painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket,” made by white artist Dana Schutz, and shows how Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out” responds to its insufficiencies and embedded violence.
The fourth section, “On the Bookshelf,” is Smith’s longest, and traverses a wide range of books. These include many that she read while working as an editor for Harper’s Magazine
. Others, like Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia,” she considers formative to her identity as a writer. She also intimates her ambivalence about identifying as a writer, through her reluctance to using “I” in her writing.
The concluding section, “Feel Free,” synthesizes her earlier ideas into more global and universal themes. She meditates on individuality, happiness, and the environment, demonstrating that they are all entangled. She pokes fun at society’s obsession with pop figures like Justin Bieber. Her observations about society lead her to believe that humans do not merely seek out ubiquitous virtuous feelings like happiness, but also more complex and multitudinous ones that are not so easily proven “good.” This complexity, she concludes, is what makes us human.