How to find words in unprecedented times: Reviewing IMItations by Zadie Smith

Photo by Chris Boland

With the recent easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK, I have been itching to venture into a bookshop for a browse, and Zadie Smith’s Imitations was one of the first books I picked up.

It is no secret that the concept of selfhood, and the way in which we connect with others, has been radically undermined and thrown into question by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent periods of lockdown we have all endured. In six short essays, Smith articulates what many of us are still feeling a year on since the pandemic first hit: that our relationships and communities have been fractured, and that the road to fostering connections post-lockdown seems long and winding. 

In her Foreword, Smith sets out her intention to voice and organise the feelings provoked by the outbreak of Covid-19. Smith emphasises that her work is motivated by intricately individual thoughts, and that the essays are, above all, personal: “small by definition, short by necessity”. Through these essays, Smith conveys the true sense of power that can be found in writing. As an aspiring writer who really mobilised their love for writing during lockdown, her sentiments about the power of words resonate deeply with me.

In The American Exception, the second essay in the collection, Smith discusses the concept of Death in American society. She looks in retrospect at the period that followed the end of the Second World War, relaying the idea that in 1945, when the war ended, nobody wished to return to what life was like before the outbreak of the conflict in 1939. Though the periods of post-war and post-pandemic are incredibly different, and any attempts to link them are complex, they both exhibit a kind of turning point in the daily lives of a society’s population, and it seems the question of how to rebuild sat at the forefront of one’s consciousness then, as it does now.

Smith draws particular attention to the brutality of the pandemic and the way in which it has claimed so many lives, which in turn made her think twice about the problems of the healthcare systems in the U.S. The American Exception draws to the surface the sense of crisis applicable to many aspects of life, all altered by the pandemic. With the inevitable strain on personal relationships and emotional connections, many pressing contemporary social issues have been intensified and exacerbated by the 2020 lockdown. Smith perfectly captures this sense of crisis in her collection. 

Perhaps the essay that had the most profound impact on me was Screengrabs, a collection of fragments detailing Smith’s various encounters with people on the cusp of the first international lockdown. All of these portraits have in common the sense of life on the edge: the feeling that things are about to change, perhaps never going back to the way they were before.

In one of the episodes, A Woman with a Little Dog, Smith recalls the poignant words of another resident in her apartment building, just as she was preparing to leave the city with her family: “thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of – we’ll get through this, all of us, together”.

My guess is that there will be a multitude of books published that all seek to explore the emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but Smith’s collection of essays is a powerful articulation of these feelings, and one which I hope remains a symbol of optimism in a dark time, once the age of this pandemic hits the history books in years to come. Smith probes her reader to consider what really matters to them: the relationships they value most, the people they hold dearest, and what truly motivates and inspires them in life.
A survey undertaken in March 2021 by the charity Anxiety UK revealed that around 36% of people are anxious about the prospect of returning to ‘normal’ life, with most people concerned about the pressures of socialising and social contact. As we emerge from a third national lockdown, with many of us still feeling uncertain that this will be the last one we experience, Smith’s work prompts me to ask an important question: how do we attempt to rebuild our most valuable connections, when we have been kept apart for so long?

Article by Evie Robinson