In an essay in her new collection, Feel Free, Zadie Smith writes, “When I find myself sitting at dinner next to someone who knows just as much about novels as I do but has somehow also found the mental space to adore and be knowledgeable about opera, have strong opinions about the relative rankings of Renaissance painters, an encyclopedic knowledge of the English Civil War, of French wines–I feel an anxiety that nudges beyond the envious into the existential. How did she find the time?”
Smith is being modest. As anyone who picks up Feel Free will learn, the award-winning writer is not only well informed but also refreshingly insightful on any number of topics, from Martin Buber to Justin Bieber. Most essays in this collection have already appeared in publications like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s, and include reviews, profiles and autobiographical essays. Smith, 42, famously completed her first novel White Teeth while she was still in college, and often writes about her upbringing by a white British father and a black Jamaican mother in northwest London. (Her fourth novel was titled NW.) In Feel Free, Smith reflects on the financial differences between her childhood and her adult life. Sitting in an Italian piazza, watching an African street vendor flee from cops past a Renaissance statue of a Moor, she writes, “I saw myself as some kind of a decorative Moor … a Moor of leisure, a Moor who lunches, a Moor who needn’t run for her livelihood through public squares. A historically unprecedented kind of Moor. A late-capitalism Moor.”
Reviewing a book by her countryman Geoff Dyer, she writes that she is most struck by “his tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition–the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Without question, Smith is one of them.
This appears in the February 12, 2018 issue of TIME.