What is Reality and What is Illusion? The Depiction of Africa in Zadie Smith’s "Swing Time"

Essay, 2019

5 Pages, Grade: 1.0


What is Reality and What is Illusion?

The Depiction of Africa in Zadie Smith's Swing Time

Foucault's concept of heterotopia has almost become ‘trendy' in recent years and has influenced architects, artists and literary critics alike (Knight 7). Defined as “mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live” (Foucault 4), heterotopias can exist “outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality” (4). Yet what is reality and what is the ‘heterotopia', the illusion? In Zadie Smith's most recent novel Swing Time, an unnamed, female, first-person narrator from London explores this question during her visits to an African village (presumably Gambian) to co-manage the set-up of an all-girls school initiated by her employer Aimee. For the narrator, the village is a counter-site to her own Western world and thus a heterotopia. This heterotopia, however, is perceived differently depending on the perspective of the characters as individuals. This essay will thus argue that by juxtaposing the different characters' experiences and perceptions, the heterotopia of the Gambian village is successfully communicated as ambiguous. The Gambian village including the all-girls school will thus be analyzed as a heterotopia according to Foucault's six principles, critically bearing in mind the different experiences through which it is described.

Foucault's first principle states that heterotopias are found in every culture and are either heterotopias of crisis and/or of deviance (4). Heterotopias of crisis offer spaces for individuals who are in a state of impasse like the all-girls school set up by Aimee, as she believes that the Gambian girls need to be rescued from horrid African rural life without prospects. Heterotopias of deviance are spaces meant for people who do not follow the norm of society (4). For both the narrator and Aimee, rural Gambia does not follow the norms of the life they know, however both react upon it differently. The narrator, for example, is well aware of the fact that she is being shielded from the ‘real' Africa: “Great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They'd met people like me before. They know how little reality we can take” (Smith 178). Aimee, however, seems to be completely unaware of the ‘fake Africa', with which she is being presented. For her, all unpleasantries associated with African rural life are eliminated: “No checkpoints [...], and no pot-holed roads bringing us to a standstill, and instead of the enervating, stifling heat, a perfectly-air-conditioned twenty-one-degree environment” (193). This “twenty- one-degree environment” (193) is Aimee's illusion of the African heterotopia she considers to be reality: “she leant so far out of the window I thought she might fall right through her beloved matrix and into it” (197).

Foucault's second principle claims that every heterotopia has a function within the society it exists in (Foucault 5). However, depending on the different characters' perspectives, the African heterotopia in the form of a Gambian village with “The Illuminated Academy” (Smith 384) serves different purposes. For Aimee it is self­representation. Her first visit to the village, for example, is accompanied by a Rolling Stone photographer taking pictures of Aimee “eating from communal bowls, crouching down with ease alongside the women - using muscles she had developed indoor-cycling” (204). For the narrator, the purpose of the heterotopia is experiencing the ‘true' Africa as, for example, being without phone signal does not upset her but gives her “an unexpected but not unpleasant sense of stillness” (170) instead. For the project-manager Fernando, however, the heterotopia is a professional project he was appointed to by Aimee supported by “his superior education, his PhD [and] his professional experience” (248). Consequently, one heterotopia seems to be able to serve several different functions depending on individual perspectives.

This also applies to the third principle which states that heterotopias are capable of “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Foucault 6). The one heterotopia of the Gambian village consists of several other, smaller sites, which seem incompatible yet make up the whole of the heterotopia. Hawa's compound, for example, personifies an Africa influenced by the West and is thus not entirely compatible with the ‘pure' Africa Aimee and the narrator seek in the Gambian village: Hawa listens to Chris Brown and knows “everything there is to know about the man, including all his moves” (223), yet plaits the narrator's hair (223) and dresses her traditionally for the opening celebrations of the school (268). Interestingly, the narrator prefers staying at Hawa's compound over the pink house as she is “welcomed like family” (218). Secondly, there is Sankofa's parents' hut on the outskirts of the village, “on the border of where it stopped being the village and became the bush once more” (409). This is almost incompatible in a geographical sense but also in a moral sense: It is the place where a child is simply given to a ‘stranger' exemplified by the following statement: “The baby was presented to me, to all of us, as a fait accompli, a legal adoption [...] and nobody questioned this, or not out loud” (421).

Foucault's fourth principle claims that heterotopias are linked to specific slices in time. These slices can either be accumulate, for example as libraries or museums, or transitory, for example as fairgrounds (Foucault 7). For the narrator, the heterotopia of the village can be read as a gate to her past, to her roots as it represents an accumulation of ‘African history' as she experiences a feeling of belonging in the village: “I thought: here is the joy I've been looking for all my life” (Smith 165). For Aimee, however, the heterotopia of the Gambian village is transitory as she only rarely visits. On the day of the celebratory opening of the school, she “didn't arrive till the morning of the same day” (247).

The fifth principle claims that heterotopias have their own rules and access regulations as they “presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable” (Foucault 7). In the heterotopia of the village, this is even taken to the next level as the narrator is not only denied access to the ‘real' village but also actively excluded from it:

I was not allowed to walk into the bush, pick my own cashews, help cook any meals or wash my own clothes. It dawned on me that he [Lamin] saw me as a sort of child, someone to be treated with kid gloves and presented with reality by degrees. Then I realized everyone in the village thought of me the same way (177).

Further, the repetitive English greeting “Good morning, how is your morning?” (165) as “nod to [the narrator's] foreignness” (165), the “American fries” the narrator is given or the separate waiting room she is banned to as being outside (in the real world) is considered “not the right place for a person like [her]” (171) are all examples of the narrator being denied access to the Gambian village as heterotopia. With Aimee, however, the exclusiveness is taken to yet another level as she is not presented with just small alternatives but instead with an illusion. This reaches its climax in the highly contradictory opening ceremony of the school staged for Aimee where the children are “dressed as leaders of the African nations” with their “own entourage, made up of other children who'd been done up as security guards” (268) - a “show of power” (269) which has nothing to do with reality.


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What is Reality and What is Illusion? The Depiction of Africa in Zadie Smith’s "Swing Time"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
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what, reality, illusion, depiction, africa, zadie, smith’s, swing, time
Quote paper
Marnie Hensler (Author), 2019, What is Reality and What is Illusion? The Depiction of Africa in Zadie Smith’s "Swing Time", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1030972


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