“Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard” (xii).
These two sentences are the key to Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a collection of six essays about the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial protests of 2020. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’ll cover the essays “Peonies” and “The American Exception” in Intimations by Zadie Smith.
The definition of “intimation” is “an indication or a hint, the act of making something known, especially in an indirect way.”1 That’s what Zadie Smith has done in this short collection of essays. She’s given hints as to what she was feeling. She hasn’t stated exactly how the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests affected her or the country, but she’s indirectly explained the role they’ve played in her life, and she’s speculated on how they’ve affected ours. In July of 2020, when this book was published, that’s all any of us could have ever provided: a hint. None of us really knew how long the pandemic would last or how devastating it would be. We didn’t know what would happen to the white police officer who was filmed murdering an unarmed black man by placing his knee on his neck for nine minutes. The presidential election was looming in front of us, and we didn’t know which way the country would turn. All we had were intimations.
Smith covers several themes in the book, including gender, race, isolation, and privilege. She doesn’t come to any conclusions on them. Instead, she ponders them, as many of us do, thinking about the roles they play in our own lives and how we, too, perpetuate structural injustices. The essay collection is bold in that way, as Smith doesn’t just criticize outwardly, but criticizes herself, too. In turn, we readers must think about how we contribute to inequality or elitism in our own ways.
The quotes at the beginning of the book contain two opposing ideas. The first quote is by Marcus Aurelius, a 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. The Stoics emphasized moral worth, duty, and justice, believing that the world is one great city and that humans “have an obligation and loyalty to all things in that city.”2 Marcus Aurelius is most known for his book Meditations, a book of personal writings about philosophy and the world. The name of Smith’s book is strikingly similar to that of Aurelius, and we might assume this was intentional. The quote reads, “It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” This suggests the idea that, as a writer, Smith is particularly suited for pondering the moment of time in which she finds herself. She is capable of expressing those thoughts in a way that impacts others.
The second quote is by Grace Paley, an American short-story writer and poet known for her political activism in the antinuclear movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, human rights, and feminism. The quote reads, “My vocabulary is adequate for writing notes and keeping journals but absolutely useless for an active moral life.” Here, Smith is contradicting the idea in the previous quote. It suggests that being able to write is just fine, but it does nothing to actually make a change. It’s as if Smith is deliberating over whether what she’s doing is making any real difference. Thinking about the state of the world does nothing to change the state of the world. Yet, that’s precisely what many writers have done, through both fiction and non-fiction. They’ve opened our minds to different ways of life that we would have otherwise never known. While writing in the time of the pandemic and civil unrest may have felt useless, there is value in thinking about the moment we inhabit and offering those thoughts for the world to read.
In the forward to the book, Smith writes that this is not a comprehensive analysis of the year 2020; it can’t be, since the year wasn’t over at the time of her writing. Instead, it’s her attempt to organize her thoughts and feelings about the year’s events. The essays are necessarily personal. She says that during this period, she turned to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for help. She says that she didn’t come out of that experience a Stoic, which can also be defined as “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.”3 However, she did take from it two suggestions, which we heard in the quote at the beginning of the episode: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”
Smith, who had been living in New York, left to return to her native England during the pandemic. The first essay, “Peonies,” starts with her in New York shortly before the start of the pandemic. She’s surprised to find herself looking between bars at the Jefferson Market Garden and admiring the tulips growing there. It is an unusual moment, interrupting her custom of planning out her days in distinct chunks of time. She writes that, in those days, she was averse to baristas who spoke to her, mothers who were too friendly, readers who might want to chat with her, essentially anyone who interrupted her carefully planned schedule. This is a moment of dramatic irony, for we know how everyone’s schedule will be entirely upended in a short time, and many will soon crave the sort of mindless social interactions that Smith, and, frankly, I, loathed getting stuck in.
Despite not having much of an interest in flowers, Smith finds herself wishing the tulips were peonies. She doesn’t really explain the reason for this wish, and perhaps she didn’t fully understand it either, but she’s struck by the flowers, as are two other women who are staring through the same bars. She quotes writer Vladimir Nabokov explaining the first inspiration for his most well-known novel Lolita. The quote includes a story about an ape who, when given art supplies, drew the bars of his own cage. In some way, the bars that Smith is clinging to are symbolic, as is the tight schedule she created for herself, as is the quarantine that the entire world will soon endure. We are all behind bars in a cage, whether created by us or created for us.
Smith goes on to say that she didn’t need a psychological analysis to explain to her the significance of three middle-aged women nearing menopause staring in awe at a symbol of fertility in the middle of what she calls “a barren concrete metropolis.” She recalls first reading Lolita, saying that the cage at that time of her life was her gender. She says that she didn’t dislike her body, but what she thought being female meant, that she was tied to the nature of her body, to “cycles” and to “clocks” that marked the stages of her existence. While her identity could change from spinster to crone to babe or to MILF (a term popularized by the movie American Pie…Google the letters if you’re unsure what it means), her male counterparts would always be just men.
She then thinks about the song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin and what the male equivalent would be. She says that it’s possible to make someone feel like a “real man,” which is another sort of cage, but not a natural one, for the essence of a man involves not submitting to nature except in death. Submission is a woman’s role; a man’s role is to dominate. However, Smith was unwilling to take part in this submission, refusing to track her menstrual periods, insisting that she would have children according to her own timeline and not according to that of a supposed biological clock, and denying all suggestions that the furnishings in her apartment indicated a subconscious desire for a baby. Now, in her forties, she realizes that what she was experiencing could be called “internalized misogyny,” a form of sexism so inherent in the social structure that even women play into it. The phrase “I’m not like other girls,” is a form of this type of sexism.
Smith then explains that while writing is usually thought of as creative, it’s also a way of maintaining control and shaping the world around you. “Writing is all resistance,” she says. However, submission isn’t always wrong, and resistance isn’t always right: “Sometimes it is wrong to resist diseases and right to submit to the inevitable.” She quotes a parable by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that compares thinking and existing, in which he argues that a thinker creates a system that includes the entirety of existence, but that doesn’t actually include themselves. The system is a delusion. For Smith, this includes attempting to live outside the idea of “womanhood,” whether as a biological fact or as a cultural cage. We also might think of it as the belief that we are in control of our own existences, a belief that was shattered like glass when COVID-19 spread throughout the world.
This is what she feels in the tulips, the call for submission that would soon inhabit every moment of every day. She wanted peonies, but they were tulips.
THE AMERICAN EXCEPTION
Smith starts this powerful essay, which was first published in the New Yorker, by quoting President Trump. On March 29, 2020, he said, “I wish we could have our old life back. We had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” It was like a wish during a war to return to a time when things were simpler, but the question is, simpler for who? Smith exposes this as a falsehood that contains some truth. The truth in the statement is that we didn’t have death like this. The falsehood is that we didn’t have death.
Smith goes on to explain what death in America looked like prior to March of 2020. There were victims, innocent bystanders who were killed by stray bullets. There were healthcare inequalities that meant that people of a certain race or income level were more likely to die of preventable diseases. There were contradictions in the way the police treated some people during a routine traffic stop. The difference between this kind of death and the death that came to us last year was that we could previously blame the reason for death on the individual themselves. She says, “Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insurance—or none. Wrong attitude to the police officer.”
America’s attempts to delay death have largely been linked to money. Being a developed country and an economic superpower sets the US apart from other less-developed countries. The US believed itself to be immune to the sort of death that comes for all, regardless of race, gender, income, or location. That changed with the pandemic, but, in some ways, it stayed the same. As Smith points out, these established hierarchies of social order have not been erased, and they greatly determined who would be most impacted by the virus. Black and Latino people, those living in poverty, and those in urban areas were dying at higher rates than others. Even when death seemed to strike randomly, there was still a distinct pattern to its reach.
Smith criticizes both Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for taking on the false role of a wartime leader. What they failed to see was what people want after a war is not a return to old times but a transformation into a new one. People are never the same after a devastating event, and, already, change could be seen in the way we realized what and who is essential—those who some might have considered beneath them became heroes for stocking shelves or ringing up groceries. (I hope this gratitude will continue once we’re past this point in our history, but I have my doubts, as time tends to blur our memories.)
Smith asserts that death was always here, but America has always been able to hide it and deny it. That’s what made us the exception. That’s no longer the case. Smith brings the essay to a close by quoting Clement Attlee, who followed Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister after World War II. Attlee credited the efforts of the people to put the nation first and themselves second for winning the war, asking why we should ever think that peace can be achieved by prioritizing our individual interests. The War ended in 1945. Universal health coverage was established in England in 1946. Whether or not America decides that the right to live is universal remains to be seen.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
First, a little bit about the author: Zadie Smith was born in London, England, to a Jamaican mother and an English father. Her first novel, White Teeth, was published when she was in her early twenties, and it was nominated for and won several prestigious awards. Her third novel, On Beauty, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006. Her other novels include The Autograph Man, NW, and Swing Time. She has published Grand Union, a collection of short stories, and two other collections of essays—Changing My Mind and Feel Free. The proceeds for Intimations are going to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Relief Fund for New York.
In an interview with the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Smith explains that the inspiration for the essays was the feeling of uselessness that many others were experiencing.4 She says, “I knew people who were doctors, health workers, volunteering, all kinds of things that I don’t have the temperament or the ability to do and the only thing I can do is this. I just do the thing I can do that comes naturally and that’s what I do.” She says that it was beyond her ability to express how to definitively feel about the moment. In Zoom calls with friends in different relationship, social class, or racial situations, she was struck by the fact that there was no one way to talk about the experience, and yet it felt like everyone was experiencing the same thing.
On the subject of Marcus Aurelius as inspiration, Smith says that there’s something about his writing that is unlike what we read now. She says, “he is aware that he is writing for no one and so he’s telling the truth. And I thought, have I ever written in a way that is for no one? That I don’t even have the imagining of a reader or audience? What would it be to write like that? And that’s really what I sat down to do.” She decided to write down the truth, as she saw it, and found “that was very liberating and very cathartic.”
The concept of “American exceptionalism,” to which Smith refers in her second essay, is the idea that, according to Stephen M. Walt, “America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration.”5 They also suggest that the US is destined to play a positive role in the world. Many agree that this is a myth, and it contributes to the belief that the US is simply better than other nations. As Walt says, “The United States may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America’s moral superiority.” In other words, America is not the perfect nation it pretends to be.
Smith’s claims about the inequality of COVID-19 deaths are statistically significant. The COVID-19 Racial Data Tracker followed race and ethnicity data on the virus in the US.6 As of March 2021, when they stopped collecting data, the Black and African American population had a rate of death that was 43% higher than that of White Americans. American Indian or Alaska Native people had a rate of death 38% higher, while the rates of death for Hispanic or Latino people and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander people were 24% higher and 16% higher, respectively. A study from Northwestern University found that those with lower incomes also experienced higher rates of deaths than others.7 The researchers suspect that lower-income individuals entered the pandemic with more pre-existing conditions due to limited access to healthcare. This made them more likely to die from the virus than others with more money and healthcare options.
That’s all for today’s discussion of Intimations. Join me next week when we’ll talk about the essays “Something to Do” and “Suffering Like Mel Gibson.” Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. What are your thoughts on these first two essays? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Intimation,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/intimation.
- Britannica, s.v. “Stoicism,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stoicism.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Stoic,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/stoic.
- Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, “Zadie Smith,” August 7, 2020, in Call Your Girlfriend, podcast, 48:48, https://www.callyourgirlfriend.com/episodes/2020/08/zadie-smith-intimations-interview.
- Stephen M. Walt, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” October 11, 2011, https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/the-myth-of-american-exceptionalism/.
- “The COVID Racial Data Tracker,” The COVID Tracking Project, accessed June 5, 2021, https://covidtracking.com/race.
- “Why Do COVID-19 Death Rates Differ Wildly from Place to Place?” Kellogg Insight, February 1, 2021, https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/covid-19-death-rates-income-inequality.