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Ali Smith’s Winter: her wise and joyful voice is the perfect antidote to troubled times

While this novel is firmly rooted in reality, it glories in false identities, untrue facts and surreal contradictions.

Ali Smith’s latest novel debunks our expectations of fiction early on: this book announces itself to be “about real things really happening in the real world involving real people in real time on the real earth”. Turning to fiction for our truth doesn’t seem so incongruous in an era of fake news – yet while this novel is firmly rooted in present reality, it glories in false identities, untrue facts and surreal contradictions.

Following her Man Booker shortlisted Autumn, Winter is the second in a projected four-book cycle of novels loosely structured around the seasons and responding to current events. (Smith packs in references to the new £10 note, Grenfell Tower, Donald Trump’s travel ban, and Theresa May’s statement that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.) While Winter features an entirely new cast of characters (though one works as a “copyright consolidator” for a shadowy security company mentioned in Autumn), it shares a setting – Brexit Britain – and various perennial themes: borders, family, empathy, and the deep-seated connections between politics and art.

Like Autumn, Winter is composed of a linear narrative (beginning on “a bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas Eve morning”), which Smith cheerfully disrupts and interrupts, delving into characters’ pasts and occasionally their futures, bringing up memories they’ve forgotten and aspects of themselves they’ve tried to suppress, as well as riffing on their hallucinations, visions and fantasies.

Autumn invoked a divided country, full of “people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually becoming dialogue”. Here, we have a divided and dysfunctional family. Sophia, a “once-stellar international businesswoman”, lives alone in a 15-bedroom house in Cornwall, where she awaits her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte, who are due to visit for Christmas. Art, meanwhile, is in a quandary: Charlotte has dumped him, fed up with the insincerity of his nature-writing blog (he pontificates, in an excruciatingly earnest tone, about places he’s only seen on Google Maps).

Desperate, Art spots a young woman reading a Chicken Cottage menu at a bus stop, and they strike a deal: in exchange for £1,000 cash, Lux will come home with him for the weekend and pretend to be Charlotte, to help him save face with his mother. When they find Sophia shivering, silent and refusing to eat, it’s Lux – the stranger and foreigner – who manages to get Sophia talking about her past, and who reconciles the fractured family by inviting over Sophia’s estranged sister Iris, a squat-dwelling CND campaigner who decades ago was thrown out of the family home.

The novel is lucid and tightly constructed. From meditations on the art of Barbara Hepworth (herself an anti-nuclear campaigner) to the existential meaning of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages”), its disparate strands converge tautly to convey and deepen Smith’s powerful political message. We see Greenham Common activists chaining themselves to fences in protest at political leaders squandering money on destruction “while we can hear in our hearts the millions of human beings throughout the world whose needs cry out to be met”, and hear about the visa laws that have denied the bright, kind and curious Lux a job.

Sitting in a traffic jam, musing on the unfailing ability of Christmas music to move her, Sophia reflects on “this special point in the year when regardless of the dark and the cold we shore up and offer hospitality and goodwill”. This wintry spirit of benevolence animates Smith’s vision of a world where empathy overrides divisions and where animosity can melt like snow. Towards the end of the book, a coach full of people parks at the house.

Charlotte – who haunts the novel like a determined, mischievous sprite – has tweeted from Art’s account, claiming that a bird usually resident only in Canada has been sighted in Cornwall. As falsehood blurs into reality, strangers from all over the country have mobilised online and gathered together in common appreciation of this refugee bird and its welcome transgression of borders.

Smith’s voice, so wise and joyful, is the perfect antidote to troubled times: raw and bitter in the face of injustice, yet always alive to hope, however slight – like the buddleia that blossomed in the wreckage of cities after the Second World War, calmly continuing its own natural cycle oblivious to human destruction.

Francesca Wade is co-editor of “The White Review”

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 322pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia