“The Shadow of Ideas,” the essay I sat down at my desk this late November morning to tell you about, is about Roman piazzas. But before we get there, I feel I have to go back a bit. For starters, my partner is on the couch reading Proust. I think, but do not know for sure, that this is because of Zadie Smith. She loves Zadie Smith, and has cried at least three times in recent memory reading Zadie Smith. I tried to read Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, after it came out in 2009, but felt shut out by it. Her essays were on British novelists or Vladimir Nabokov, the things I, a graduate student in English at the time, had sought to avoid in favor of studying contemporary writers like Smith. My partner, meanwhile, devoured every word. Rather than being put off by the unmistakable display of Smith’s Cambridge degree in English lit, which to me signaled more of the ongoing appreciation of white, dominant culture I was so sick of, she felt inspired by the person who was engaging with it. Like my partner, Smith is biracial, the child of an immigrant. Her education was paid for by the state. She came to these texts not as their intended audience but with a much different perspective—lower class, female, part white and part Jamaican. For my partner, daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant, this offered much-needed permission to engage on her own terms with all sorts of canonical novels: first she read Middlemarch, then Anna Karenina, now Proust. Smith says at the outset of Feel Free that she has “no real qualifications to write as [she does],” no expertise to bring her to her subjects beyond the application of her own experience. For a genre that demands the writer use everything at hand, an erudite literary education can be a heavy burden indeed. Who wants to be the person in the room dragging Milton into everything?
Here’s where I admit, with chagrin, that my own college education was not unlike Smith’s, consisting almost entirely of a list of “great” books for me to read on my own, beginning with the so-called ancients and ending with Joyce. Were there any women? I can’t remember one. Nor any black writers, but plenty of Greeks. Apart from the lack of women, and lack of queer authors, I was made to feel, by virtue of the list, that these works were for me. Which is why, after I graduated and started working in a bookstore, I was hell-bent on jettisoning every last one of them and the reverence that accompanied them. I remain adamant about decolonizing any syllabus I teach. At first glance, Smith’s penchant for referencing great dead white Western poets and novelists and philosophers felt like what I’ve been trying to reject for the last decade by studying and teaching contemporary writing, and by writing my own essays. But when Smith waltzes onto the page, in “The Shadow of Ideas,” with obscure Italian metaphysician Giordano Bruno in tow, it doesn’t feel to me like she’s trying to show off, or trying to hide behind something smarter than she is, or trying to prove that she knows a lot. It seems more like she’s just bringing in what she knows, what happens to pop into her head, or what she’s been reading about, embarrassingly old and dull and Western as that might be.
Some readers and reviewers are really turned off by these references. Such a white, European, elitist trove. And others, the usually white, male ones in mainstream publications like The Guardian and The New York Times, see the recognizable big literary dude name of Phillip Roth or Franz Kafka and start slobbering all over her every word. For my part, I’m less interested in what Smith has to say about these authors and bodies of knowledge, and more interested in how her use of them reveals her mind, her thought process, the confluence of things that she brings with her to any question.
Back to the piazzas. Smith uses them as stepping stones across the waters of her memory. In one of the piazzas, she started a fire, “which fire was at the beginning, though in memory it comes at the end, and this is inconvenient, structurally.” Right away the reader must accept a radical revision of history in order to take part in this essay. “But,” Smith writes, “my memories of our Italian squares are non-sequential, they jump from here to there, ignoring chronology. They are filed according to a variety of intimate systems—one of which involves the different intensities of light—and so there is nothing to be done.” Instead of proceeding chronologically or even logically, we hop with her from stone to stone.
On maybe my third reading of this essay, it occurred to me that the same year Smith languished in piazza after piazza, I was also spending a year abroad in Italy, staring at statues of men who burned at the stake, hovering in piazzas, smoking cigarettes and feeling out of place. At the time I probably didn’t know who Zadie Smith was—for all I knew, literature came to a halt in 1922. But I do think I understood, in my own way, how architecture shapes memory and chronology. My year in Ferrara, a small, crumbling city in northern Italy, was a series of cobblestone alleys and large piazzas filled by day with women taking their mothers for walks and old men teetering on bikes, and by night with Euro teens chain-smoking in a new brand of clothing called H&M, which no one yet knew to call “fast fashion.” It was 2007, and like Smith I was unaware of the impending crash, the financial crises brewing. Unlike Smith I was 17. I had yet to vote, and was fairly unaware of most things besides my longing for home, which I expressed by eating whole sleeves of Ritz crackers, the only familiar snack food I could find, and my longing for my girlfriend, who lived in France that year. Smith talks about the few Italian words she has down—spremuta, integrale—and how speaking English becomes a “terrible secret” she and her husband try to keep from strangers. In Italy, I realized for the first time how arbitrary my own language was, how limited and small my ability to express myself in awkward Italian, and I never felt like I had enough words. Smith connects all of these uncertainties in the introduction to Feel Free: “Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two.”
Malleable and improvised. This is the joy of the essay. It needn’t proceed logically or chronologically, and it will likely drift down alleys you’d rather not revisit—your own past obliviousnesses, say—but it will go wherever it needs to go to say what it is trying to say, something not wholly yours or the reader’s, something partial and constantly revised, recreated. It is the formation ground for a voice, an “I who is not me,” as Smith has it, an evolving consciousness on display, including whatever it happens to contain.
So she must use Bruno, as he is the statue in front of her, and she must use the fire and her embarrassing naming of the fire (“Incendio! I cried. This is something like leaning out of a New York window and screaming Conflagration!), and the spremuta, and her poor treatment of her own dog. As I use the great books list and studying abroad and all my own embarrassing piazzas. Radical acceptance and radical revision. The fire happened at the beginning, but still we’d better end with it. Its meaning comes at the end. When the fire finally occurs in the essay, it is inflected through the incongruence of the 2008 banking collapse with her own newfound financial security. She realizes that “Everything lost can be replaced,” and it’s true for the first time in her life. Smith’s own life and the accumulation of her experiences come into sharp relief as she stares at her smoldering possessions and feels not terror, but the consumerist ease of replicability.
How can a piece of writing that meanders through the piazzas of Rome, bored, thinking about Bruno, visiting the Venice Biennale, ending with the recession—how can this be worth reading? But that is the case with every essay, or at least every essay I like, of Smith’s or of any other writer: they don’t have to have a reason to exist. They exist because they came together, a confluence of setting, memory, what one ate for breakfast and what one has in front of them at any given moment, onto the page, what one was reading and witnessing and talking about or not talking about. And from all of that, not from some kind of plan, or intentional argument, or clearly plotted outline, comes an essay. Essays get away from you, and this is their force. Piazzas are the subject here, but they are not the subject at all. They are the adject, the powerful image that calls everything up.
Jenn Shapland is a nonfiction writer living in New Mexico. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and she is the Managing Editor of The Magazine. Her first book, The Autobiographies of Carson McCullers: A Memoir, will be out in 2020 from Tin House Books.