‘What I did in life, I did with books’


Woman Reading in an Interior, Maurice Louis Tete, c.1948

From The New York Review of Books:

I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality. Of having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head. As a kid, I was ashamed of it. Other people seemed to feel strongly about themselves, to know exactly who they were. I was never like that. I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God. My mind wandered.

To give a concrete example: if the Pakistani girl next door happened to be painting mehndi on my hands—she liked to use me for practice—it was the work of a moment to imagine I was her sister. I’d envision living with Asma, and knowing and feeling the things she knew and felt. To tell the truth, I rarely entered a friend’s home without wondering what it might be like to never leave. That is, what it would be like to be Polish or Ghanaian or Irish or Bengali, to be richer or poorer, to say these prayers or hold those politics. I was an equal-opportunity voyeur. I wanted to know what it was like to be everybody. Above all, I wondered what it would be like to believe the sorts of things I didn’t believe. Whenever I spent time with my pious Uncle Ricky, and the moment came for everyone around the table to bow their heads, close their eyes, and thank God for a plate of escovitch fish, I could all too easily convince myself that I, too, was a witness of Jehovah. I’d see myself leaving the island, arriving in freezing England, shivering and gripping my own mother’s hand, who was—in this peculiar fictional version—now my older sister.

I don’t claim I imagined any of this correctly—only compulsively. And what I did in life, I did with books. I lived in them and felt them live in me. I felt I was Jane Eyre and Celie and Mr. Biswas and David Copperfield. Our autobiographical coordinates rarely matched. I’d never had a friend die of consumption or been raped by my father or lived in Trinidad or the Deep South or the nineteenth century. But I’d been sad and lost, sometimes desperate, often confused. It was on the basis of such flimsy emotional clues that I found myself feeling with these imaginary strangers: feeling with them, for them, alongside them and through them, extrapolating from my own emotions, which, though strikingly minor when compared to the high dramas of fiction, still bore some relation to them, as all human feelings do. The voices of characters joined the ranks of all the other voices inside me, serving to make the idea of my “own voice” indistinct. Or maybe it’s better to say: I’ve never believed myself to have a voice entirely separate from the many voices I hear, read, and internalize every day.

“Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction”, Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books