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Changing My Mind

by Zadie Smith

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Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
© Penguin Press
The Penguin Press, November 2009

The essays in novelist Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind come together like a patchwork quilt: a pattern of beauty runs throughout this collection, but the individual pieces are cut in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Smith is known for her standout debut novel White Teeth (2000) and her more recent bestseller On Beauty (2005). She began publishing at an early age, and her writing in a Cambridge student writing collection attracted the attention of publisher and literary agent, who contracted her well in advance of her first novel's completion. In Changing My Mind, Smith presents a first work of nonfiction and addresses the topic of how her writing and attitudes have changed over time.

The essays in Changing My Mind are divided into five sections-"Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering," with headings that give readers some sense of the substance to follow. All of the essays in the "Reading" section, for example, contain Smith's ideas on literary subjects ranging from the meaning of the word "soulful" in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to a discussion of two possible directions for the novel.
Smith says in the collection's foreword that these essays were written "for particular occasions, particular editors." They are, then, occasional essays in that sense, as the subtitle tells us. And it appears that nearly all of the essays have been previously published in The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the like. Smith admits: "This book was written without my knowledge." She never intended for this material for to turn into a book, but by simply meeting her deadlines for articles, the "words piled up" and grew into what is collected here.

These essays reveal the mind of a curious and intelligent writer. And because a variety of subjects and styles are collected here, each reader is sure to find a gem. For the action-adventurer, there's "One Week in Liberia," an essay that came out of Smith's weeklong Oxfam-funded trip to explore education and politics in place riddled with "postapocalyptic" scenes. For the film buff, there's "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend," a witty insider's look at what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world's most hyped-up events. And for the aspiring writer, there's "That Crafty Feeling," an essay that contains some of Smith's advice based on her experiences as a writer.
Lumped into the "Reading" category are several works of literary criticism in which Smith engages with the writing of E.M. Forster, Kafka, Barthes, Nabokov, and others. While these are interesting and thought-provoking pieces positioned in the collection's first section, they have more of a distant feel than some of the other engaging essays that surface later in the book.

The "Feeling" section is perhaps the collection's strongest, and it also gives the greatest insight into this author's family life and upbringing. "Smith Family Christmas" is a short and funny look at how one family struggles to make the dream of Christmas a reality. "Accidental Hero" and "Dead Man Laughing" both focus on the author's father, to whom this collection is dedicated. Both of these essays are heartfelt portraits of a man and his power to shape the lives of his children.

Smith says that she chose Changing My Mind as an "apt, confessional title" for this collection to reflect how being published as a young writer has made her aware of how her writing grows with her-and in public. She grants that she recognizes her own "ideological inconsistency" in these pieces, and she addresses this topic more directly in "That Crafty Feeling." Smith says she admits to feeling nauseous after reading some of her earlier work, but now she can look on some of her more recent writing and feel "okay about it…good, even."
If a theme emerges in this collection, it is that of change. From one section to the next, shifts in content and tone leave the reader in a state of constant flux and give the collection a fits-and-starts kind of feel. Undoubtedly, this patchiness will be to the delight of some, and perhaps to the annoyance of others.
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