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book review

After reading Feel Free, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays on culture and politics penned during the Barack Obama presidency, it’s clear the British author would have a lot to say about the current climate.Fred Lum

I'd like to invite Zadie Smith to dinner. We would have a lot to talk about.

What does she think about the #MeToo and Time's Up movements? Or about the reaction of some residents of London's Kensington district to victims of the Grenfell Tower fire relocating to their wealthy neighourhood? Does she think Jay-Z actually cheated on Beyoncé or was it part of a greater business strategy for the couple to sell more of their music and further perpetuate their public personas? What would she say about America's 45th president?

After reading Feel Free, Smith's new collection of essays on culture and politics, it's clear the British author would have a lot to say about the current climate. She doesn't exactly get to comment on the present in these essays, which were written during the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency – when geopolitics were in a very different state.

Divided into five parts, Feel Free shows Smith deftly raising questions about such topics as Brexit, Facebook, smartphones, millennials, race, class, ambition, music, writing, film, art and celebrity culture. The essays show how prescient her words still read in the Trump era and post-Brexit, but perhaps too much so – the time-capsule quality of the collection leaves you wishing that she would share her real-time thoughts on the now.

As a twentysomething digital editor at The Globe and Mail, I spend most of my time managing the homepage and posting stories to The Globe's social-media accounts. Like many jobs in the digital economy, it can sometimes feel as though I'm continually playing catch-up with the endless stream of content available online – reading and publishing that story, posting this photo, liking that post and scrolling through several feeds. On my own time, it's no different – I'm reading this alert, saving that article and favouriting this photo.

Smith's essays provided a rare opportunity to break from the endless digital scroll by offering a beginning, middle and end. The initial feeling I had after finishing the first essays was like no other, as I let her words sink in and basked in the sense of accomplishment. Except the feeling couldn't last: I soon wanted an endless scroll of her words. As I read more, I kept hoping that future-present-Smith would magically offer new context and share what it all means in the current landscape.

Fences: A Brexit Diary was first published in August, 2016, in The New York Review of Books, and although it focuses on Britain's decision to leave the European Union, the notion of racism and symbolism is pertinent to how some Britons responded after the Grenfell Tower fire in June, 2017. "One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been 30 years in the making," Smith writes.

Smith uses the construction of a fence around a local primary school in northwestern London as an example of how deep-seated the problem of racism is in the city, and the issue certainly did not cease after the Brexit vote and at the end of her essay. When it was announced that survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster would be relocated to affordable apartments in the upscale Kensington neighbourhood, some of the current residents did not shy away from voicing their displeasure at lower-income survivors moving in. What would Smith say? I can make some educated guesses based on Fences: A Brexit Diary, but I can still only imagine.

In The House That Hova Built, Smith interviews Jay-Z and tells us right away that it is challenging to talk to a rapper, especially when it's Shawn Carter. "It's not unlike the difficulty (I imagine) of being a rapper. Whatever you say must be considered from at least three angles, and it's an awkward triangulation," she writes. Despite her early warning, Smith ably addresses it all: from how Jay-Z and rap have changed over the years to the way rappers use language "as a form of asymmetrical warfare," from the impact of Trayvon Martin's death and Obama's presidency for black Americans to finally wondering how Jay-Z's (then-only) daughter Blue Ivy will have a very different childhood than his own.

But since the essay was first published in the September, 2012, issue of T Magazine, a lot has happened to Jay-Z. Since Smith spoke with him, he has released two other albums, Magna Carta … Holy Grail and 4:44, relinquished ownership of the Brooklyn Nets, launched his subscription-based music-streaming service, Tidal, had Donald Trump lash out at him on Twitter about black unemployment and expanded his family with Beyoncé from three to five after the arrival of twins in 2017. Smith's essay is relatable for readers in 2012, but in 2018 there are many questions left unanswered when looking at the musician's accomplishments, his influence as a black man in Trump's America and his personal life.

Smith's essay Generation Why? was particularly intriguing given how the role of social media in our daily lives continuously evolves.

Originally published in November, 2010, in The New York Review of Books, it focuses on the influence of Facebook and the film The Social Network. Eight years is an eternity in the tech world, but the points Smith raises – about the relationships people make, the details we share, the reasons to stay connected and the changes Mark Zuckerberg is making to his creation – have even greater relevance to the way we use Facebook and other social platforms today.

Smith argues that Zuckerberg started Facebook not for the money or the exclusivity, but because "he wants to be like everybody else. He wants to be liked." Do we all just want to be liked? According to Smith, yes. "For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the eighties and nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought badly for a minute, even for a moment."

But as I finished the essay, my mind again raced ahead: When Smith was writing, Instagram – one could argue an even more self-obsessed platform – was barely two months old and Snapchat wouldn't be released for another year. And then there is Facebook's own continual evolution, not to mention its entanglement in modern-day politics as it becomes clearer that Russians exploited the site to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

What's most painful about the hard stop on the march of time in these essays is that, unlike many opinion writers in 2018, Smith doesn't use Instagram or Twitter – the author has said she stays away from social media because it gives her "the right to be wrong" without fearing public scrutiny. In proving prescient in what she has written in Generation Why?, she has, of her own volition, deprived us of her exceptional observations on a frequent basis.

Smith writes in her foreword – dated Jan. 18, 2017, two days before Trump's inauguration and three days before the Women's March – that these essays are "the product of a bygone world." She acknowledges that it's difficult for anybody to be ambivalent on either side of the Atlantic now and offers her essays to the millions of people who find themselves "solidifying into protestors, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics" as a reminder of a time when there was more freedom.

But in the ensuing year and the unprecedented chaos of the global political stage, the world could really use more Zadie Smith in the here and now.

Kristene Quan is a digital editor at The Globe and Mail.

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