Sunday Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
an essay collection from Zadie Smith
[ Penguin Books / 2009 / 307 pp ]
So when I like something, I like it on repeat. I mean this in the broadest sense possible: with books, yes, but also movies, foods, music—which is how I once ended up in the library with a Lana Del Rey song playing on a loop over my headphones. It took about twenty minutes for someone to come over and tell me that my audio jack hadn’t been plugged in proper—and could I please turn off the sound, thank you.
Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is one of my trustiest regular rereads. Most times I revisit different essays for different days, different moods; other times, if I really need comfort, it’s one of two: ‘E. M. Forster, Middle Manager’, and ‘That Crafty Feeling’. It’s this pair of essays in particular that do what the entire collection does—speak with you, the reader, argue with you and drunkenly babble with you—only at double the wattage, double the power.
There is something about the way Smith writes about other writers—whether she’s a fan or not—that I can only call wry yet fond. Reflecting on Forster’s anxieties, she talks of how he surrounded himself with characters who themselves were the “[kind of] people who would think twice before borrowing a Forster novel from the library.” When writing about Forster’s radio stints , Smith describes him as something of a “nervous party host” who fears that “people won’t speak to each other unless he’s there to facilitate introduction.” The exasperated affection in her tone is infectious, peaking when she pokes fun at his radio habit of “diligently reading out the title of the books” after each episode, “along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.” Reading Smith reading Forster is like witnessing two people at a party—obviously dear friends—refer to one another as, ‘oh yeah, that idiot,’ then go teary-eyed into their glass of wine.
That potent mix of kindness and deprecation is just as liberally applied when Smith reflects on her own work. In ‘That Crafty Feeling’, an essay describing ten stages of writing a novel, Smith talks about recognising “fellow” micromanaging writers: that opening pile-up of “too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences,” a “block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark.” And yet, a few sentences following this side-eyed self-criticism, she’s defiantly kind to herself (and all writers, really) in describing the process of finishing a novel—producing this darling and relatable gem of an image: Smith, having just penned the last words, drinking wine from a bottle while standing in her back yard—then lying down on “the paving stones and [staying] there for a long time, crying.” It was “sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.”
Some might see Changing My Mind come by and dismiss it for falling too much in the writer-writing-for-writers camp. This, I would say, fully biased as I am, would be a mistake. Each essay in this collection is a seat at Smith’s dinner table; its musings, ingenious nuggets, awful jokes and truly brilliant pieces of advice that will stay with you for days, weeks. From questioning the power of the author (‘Rereading Barthes and Nabakov’), to what knowledge means when it comes solely from experience (‘Middlemarch and Everybody’), to the implied whiteness of the ‘neutral’ writer (‘Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?’)—Smith introduces topics with the same hand as she delves deep into their history, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re keeping up. And to your surprise—you always do.
Visit Penguin Books to purchase the book.
1. From 1929 to 1960, Forster held the occasional talk on the BBC where he would recommend books to his audience—a practice which he never considered “literary criticism, or even reviewing.” [↥]
Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden
Five Things with merritt k
1. The last thing that made you smile.
A photo of a frequently self-deprecating but lovely acquaintance having a wonderful time on a date.
2. A secret.
I care deeply about what other people think of me.
3. The last thing you wrote.
An essay on queer history & literature for Ignota Magazine.
4. Favourite city.
Edinburgh. Castles, clouds, and gorgeous landscapes—perfect for contemplating tragic decisions.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
My zine collection.
merritt k is a writer and podcaster. Her first collection of poetry, Total Mood Killer, was published in 2017 by TigerBee Press. She is a cofounder and editor of Ignota Magazine, hosts the podcasts Woodland Secrets and dadfeelings, and can be found on Twitter at @merrittk.
Exercises on Dealing with News of a Child Marriage Somewhere
a poem from Precious Arinze
“Inhale: the girl wants to be nothing but wind,
nothing but the thing trees bow to”
In a world of words such as post-facts, post-truth, post-whatever, poetry serves as our view and looking glass in a tumultuous future. When I want to learn something new, I turn to those who are writing the pains I’m unable to articulate, which is what draws me to this powerful poem.
Divided into six sections, words like identify, define, imagine, answer strike against the pain and horror of the poem’s subject. There’s some detachment found in the speaker’s voice but also proximity—you too see the “crime scenes that aren’t yet”, know “the hard softness” that this sort of loss brings. Indeed, this poem is an exercise in processing the unforgivable acts of violence and manipulation, one that turns those dark moments into mirrors to reflect our own selves and struggles.
Visit The Rising Phoenix Review to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
We Thought About It
a poem from Sarah Cooper
There is no heartache in the world like family. Sarah Cooper’s ‘We Thought About It’ is a poem about the whirlpool-sibling: the broken, electric person pulling everyone else in a twisting downward vortex that may drown them all. The sibling who’s fucked up too many times, burned through too much forgiveness, but can’t be cast out, not yet. Cooper manages to hold two threads in the poem, the story of the addicted-sibling embedded within the narrative of the wounded-sibling. She is as forthright with the addicted-sibling’s transgressions as she is tender with the addicted-sibling’s humanness and vulnerability, so that the reader can understand the conflicted anguish of a sibling who must make a choice, to cut free from the whirlpool or drown.
Visit The Drowning Gull to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
sage (witch two)
music from Be Steadwell
During my ten-day residency in Santiago de Cuba, I found myself largely relieved that I didn’t have to consider the 4th of July in any real way. Premade holidays, especially nationalist ones, leave me with the feeling that I’m not present enough. How do you protect your energy when someone’s seemingly asking for an allegiance you can’t give?
I woke up early that morning, watching fog roll across the mountainscape, and hearing Be Steadwell’s ‘sage (witch two)’ flare at the back of my head. It’s easily one of the catchiest pop songs I’ve heard this year, yet the chorus is pretty somber in its declaration of how the speaker shields themself: “I lit a sage when you walked in / ‘cause I have no idea where you’ve been, what kind of energy you conjurin’, what kind of spells you be castin’.” The power of the you is dangerous simply because it’s not fully brought to light. In these moments that lack clarity, Be asks us to evaluate who’s bringing bad energy into our spaces, how we plan to ward them off, and what we can arm ourselves with. What’s your hypothetic sage?
I’ll admit that sometimes I feel mad guilt for defending myself, but Be reminds me that protection doesn’t always mean laying blame. Sometimes it’s just a balm, holding yourself close and grounding in the present. A “let me exist in this space alone for a minute because I know how easy it is to be pulled out of my orbit.” This song feels like the deep breath before the plunge. You have to widen the lungs so you can take in new sweet air and settle back into yourself again. Here, we’re definitely worth cleansing.
Visit YouTube to watch the video.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse
Who Cares What Straight People Think?
an essay from Brandon Taylor
As a writer, and a queer one at that, Brandon Taylor’s essay on queer narratives in fiction rang all the bells in my head. It asks that queer fiction be more than stories of struggle and violence—or, rather, that queer fiction include those stories as well as ones of “bucolic malaise.” It’s a simple but unfortunately difficult paradigm to work toward. The themes of dominant culture (heterosexual, patriarchal, able-bodied) all but demand that anything that cuts against this grain explain and justify itself.
It’s exhausting. I’ve burned through a fair amount of therapy copays talking about what queer struggle means and doesn’t mean to me, and how I position myself in the everyday that surrounds me. The evolution of my queerness doesn’t immediately involve trauma or darkness or struggle, and that in turn has caused partial identity paralysis. When so much of queer fiction/nonfiction/poetry is often defined by trauma, darkness, and struggle, a difficult backwater flows in. It has taken work to free myself from it.
None of this is supposed to take anything away from the vital and incredible queer writing that’s out there, but for me, the essay elucidated my relationship to queer writing as: “I see you; I don’t see me; I want to see us both at the same time.” What Taylor writes about here is a banishing of the sort of binary that exists for queer writing. He writes, “Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience.” That resonates, as does his call to “stop waiting for permission.”
Visit Literary Hub to read the essay.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
Dogs are Born Hungry
a short story from Julia Dixon Evans
“I can’t remember the first time I noticed Jesse come over, and I don’t think my mother ever knew I had noticed. Seems they’d make a point to only meet up after I’d left the house. But they weren’t ever new, in that awkward sort of way.”
This week we have a short story by Julia Dixon Evans containing more moments and conflicts than you might expect in the given word count. Although adolescence and shifting family dynamics are not unheard of plot points in fiction, Evans creates a story that is both parts mundane and real, with a vague tinge of horror set in. Watching the main character navigate her own feeling of isolation against the world and home dynamic that is shifting before her, we find there is still time to stop and fear the unknown.
“And I think of my dad, and I think of how he knew to end his marriage, how he knew when a line was worth waiting in and when to get away from maybe-bombs. A dog and a girl learn where the dangers are, somehow, eventually. I only run from one danger into the flameburst of another.”
There are multiple threads throughout this story, none that are overtly linear or clear cut. Life is imperfect and unideal, and this is mirrored throughout the story. A new litter of puppies, a slowly dissolving marriage, the persistent oncoming wave of something new, or rather familiar, starting between Caroline’s mother and another man that is not her father. The harshness of being young and friendless and alienated is echoed by her mother’s seeming betrayal of their nuclear family. Growing up can be cruel and unforgiving, but it can also be gradual and mundane in its own way. This story never strays along the lines of melodrama, and Caroline manages to keep clear eyes on the world, even as it sways and shifts before her.
Visit Storychord to read the short story.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong