Since 2009, when Speaking in Tongues was first published, I’ve read it probably about 20 times. Zadie Smith’s essays are what make her, to my mind, more a public intellectual than a writer or novelist. She holds the banner aloft for the wordily clever.
Speaking in Tongues is a brilliant piece. It rambles and flows to unexpected places. She begins with an exploration of how the place you are from shows itself in your mouth, your ways of speaking. And how when your way of speaking changes, you have, in effect, changed where you are from – and this, she argues, is read as a betrayal.
Let it be known: Zadie Smith is not afraid of an exclamation point.
She claims that “voice adaptation” is the “original British sin,” though I think it’s a sin everywhere. That’s why I, a 2nd generation American-born Indian woman living in England, relate to what Zadie Smith is talking about here. For her, it was about leaving behind her Willesden accent for a Cambridge one. For me, it’s about a Southern accent and an American one.
Zadie Smith’s transition from her own experience of having more than one voice, to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, to Barack Obama’s candidacy and election is not seamless. In fact, at times, she purposefully creates seams, by numbering sections of her essay, when leaving it out would have made the turns unnoticeable. Why she did this is for readers to ponder – to me, it is about mood. Tragedy, then hope, then freedom.
It is, necessarily, a dated essay, one that will always speak volumes to people who remember Obama’s first candidacy and election. I wonder how much it will say to people in 60 or 70 years, when Obama is simply another president, toward the end of a fairly long list, whose name must be remembered and recited in school, in a pathetic substitute for “American History Lessons.”
But for us, this essay delves deep into the why of our hope (because we did have so much hope) for Barack Obama. It was to do, you see, with the way he speaks.
Read it. Now.