Saturday, February 14, 2009

Zadie Smiths 'Speaking in Tongues'

FRANKFURT, GERMANY - OCTOBER 04:  British auth...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Marvelous lecture/essay by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books to which I was pointed by colleague Bernadette Barker-Plummer.

It's all about losing one's accent and just possibly losing one's soul, and it's about how in Smith's opinion Barack Obama has lost neither, how in fact he has in him the ability to hear -- to *hear* -- many voices. So it's not just a matter of speaking, though Smith's believes Obama's own voice is variable, if one listens closely.

As a white Southerner, I take her point in my own way. Here are two sweet excerpts, which don't begin to scratch the essay's elegant surface. The first bit is from a poem.

"I am a Hittite in love with a horse," writes Frank O'Hara.

I don't know what blood's
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child's mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father's underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in
the birches,
and I've just caught sight of the
NiƱa, the Pinta and the Santa
What land is this, so free?

Frank O'Hara's republic is of the imagination, of course. It is the only land of perfect freedom. Presidents, as a breed, tend to dismiss this land, thinking it has nothing to teach them. If this new president turns out to be different, then writers will count their blessings, but with or without a president on board, writers should always count their blessings. A line of O'Hara's reminds us of this. It's carved on his gravestone. It reads: "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible."

- snip -

It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application. I even hope that he will find himself in agreement with George Bernard Shaw when he declared, "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it." But that may be an audacious hope too far. We'll see if Obama's lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice "I love my country" while saying with another voice "It is a country, like other countries." I hope so.
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