‘Writing means being overheard’: Zadie Smith’s ‘Intimations’

Camille Gontarek 23 November 2020
Image Credit: Dominique Nabokov

It’s raining again. I watch the raindrops make their way down my windowpane, slowly carving their way along the glass and converging into the most miniscule of rivers. It’s also a Monday, and I should be planning an essay or maybe starting on the pile of books sitting on my desk patiently waiting to be read. But my hand capriciously bypasses each of these responsibilities and reaches instead for the smallest book, tucked away behind some sheets of paper. Maybe I am drawn to it because of its mere seventy pages; maybe it is the incessant appeal of reading a book about our current times whilst still being in our current times. Regardless, Zadie Smith’s Intimations presents a series of six short essays that float seamlessly out of one another like beautifully formed contemplations, and I am immediately drawn in.

‘Essays’, perhaps, is not the best word to characterise Zadie Smith’s writing. Sketches, maybe, or vignettes. Short, personal accounts of life in a world characterised by distance, isolation, and sickness.

The first essay of the collection, ‘Peonies’, returns to the beginning of lockdown in New York. The uncertainty and the emptiness. Reading it, I am reminded of Phil Penman’s photography, ‘Portrait of New York City on Lockdown’ and his opening message:

An eerie silence has descended New York City. Taxis drive by one after the other, lights on, searching for a rare customer. It’s so foreign to walk out onto the street and see no people. The masses of people trying to get to work, heads buried in their cellphones, are gone. Grand Central Station is a ghost town. It’s like being in a movie that’s not entertaining. We are fueled by human interaction. In a city filled with unpredictability, we rely on daily routines to ground us. These certainties have been up-ended. I think of the man I would get my morning coffee from. I wonder if he and his cart will ever return.

In such a world, home is a kind of refuge. A safe haven away from the turmoil and disorder of the outside world. Yet it is also a place of isolation. ‘Peonies’ opens with the image of Zadie “clinging to the bars of the Jefferson Market Garden, looking in” and I am struck by the unexpected balancing act at play here; the focus is on the garden, on blooming flowers and spring yet the view is obstructed by these bars that morph dangerously into the confining structures of a prison and suddenly the image that seemed so joyful, so hopeful, is strangely claustrophobic. Home is a kind of refuge, but it can be a place of confinement too. It is this dissociation that Zadie captures so well: inside versus outside, safety versus danger, imprisonment versus freedom.

“This strange and overwhelming season of death that collides, outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions”, Zadie writes. It’s a season of death that has been sensationalised and broadcasted in every direction to the point that it seems to saturate all interactions in some way or other; if the coronavirus is an airborne virus then certainly, it has infiltrated and infected every conversation.

Perhaps, however, this virus is not as unprecedented as one might think. Zadie Smith sets up a strikingly powerful metaphor that aligns the coronavirus pandemic with contempt of a very particular kind:

You’d have to hate a man a lot to kneel on his neck till he dies in plain view of a crowd and a camera, knowing the consequences this would likely have upon your life. (Or you’d have to be pretty certain of immunity from the herd – not an unsafe bet for a white police officer, historically, in America.) But this was something darker – deadlier. It was the virus, in its most lethal manifestation.

The “season of death” is not merely the season of Covid-19. It is the season of violence: in homes, on the streets, by police guns and police hands. Zadie Smith unflinchingly confronts this virus head on. Sharp, empowering, poignant, and honest, Intimations makes its way through fragments of thoughts as though it is merely the vehicle that allows Zadie to hesitantly, but nonetheless precisely, process these past few months.

Zadie’s writing is captivating, and before I even have time to realise it, I have reached the final page. It is still pouring down, but the words have risen above the chatter of rain outside and it seems to me that Zadie’s opening statement could not be more exact: writing means being overheard.