To put it simply, fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought — that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. – Zadie Smith
Coming to prominence in 2000 with the publication of her debut novel White Teeth, Zadie Smith has published four novels (with her fifth to follow this Autumn), various short stories, and has taught creative writing at New York University since 2010. In addition to fiction, Zadie has written a host of think pieces, essays and journalism; one of her most recent being Fences, a discussion of Brexit which was published in The New York Review of Books. In both fiction and non-fiction, her writing is observant and funny, with a foundation of fierce intellectual curiosity.
Zadie was born Sadie Smith in North London in 1975, and was brought up in Willesden. She was the eldest of three children born to Yvonne Bailey, who had moved from Jamaica to London as a teenager, and white Englishman Harvey Smith.
After changing her name to Zadie at age 14, she went on to be the first person in her family to go University, studying English Literature at King’s College, Cambridge. At the time of writing, Zadie splits her time between New York and London. Zadie is married to fellow writer Nick Laird, who she met at Cambridge, and the couple have two children Katherine and Harvey.
Her debut novel White Teeth was published in 2000 when she was 24. It was completed while she was studying at Cambridge, after being picked up by publishers Hamish Hamilton. The novel debuted to substantial critical praise, a host of awards including the Whitbread First Novel Award, and was also nominated for the Man Booker Prize. In 2002, it was adapted into a mini-series by Channel 4 which starred James McAvoy and Naomie Harris.
White Teeth tracks the relationship of two wartime friends, Samad Iqbal and Archibald Jones, and follows their lives in Willesden through to the millennium. The novel explores the complexities of the second-generation immigrant experience and the difficulties of adjusting to new cultures. It’s both a staggeringly beautiful and brilliantly funny epic, creating intricate idiosyncratic worlds inside each character while also commenting on the racial, social and economic change which the UK experienced in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Following White Teeth, Zadie published The Autograph Man in 2002 and On Beauty in 2005. Described as an homage to Forster and partly inspired by her time at Harvard in 2002/3, On Beauty again focuses on the intertwining lives of two families with two different backgrounds. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006. During this time, Zadie was also named one of Granta’s 20 best young authors in 2003 (and was also included 10 years later on the same list). She was inducted into the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. Zadie’s next novel NW was to follow in 2012. NW is set in North West London. It follows the trajectory of Natalie, Felix, Leah and Blake who grow up together on a council estate in Kilburn and their subsequent divergent lives as they enter adulthood. The novel was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2013.
Between 2002 and 2012, Zadie wrote non-fiction essays and journalistic pieces for a range of high profile outlets. She has interviewed a diverse range of people: Jay Z in the New York Times (where they discuss hip hop), Ian McEwan in Believer Magazine (where they discuss existential questions of writing literary fiction). This finding of inspiration in contemporary culture and enthusiasm for the work of other writers is evident throughout her writings; most notably, such ideas are explored in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, published in 2009. Changing My Mind showcases Zadie’s immense academic and intellectual capabilities through literary examinations of the work of E.M. Forster, George Eliot, Kafka, Barthes and Nabokov, alongside varied reflections of global cultures and a fascinating discussion entitled ‘Speaking in Tongues’ which investigates the notion of being culturally many-voiced. More recently, she has written about the inspiration she gains from the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in Elle, and discussed the practice of writing on Lena Dunham’s Buzzfeed podcast.
Zadie’s up-coming fifth book Swing Time will be published in November 2016. It’s set to be her first novel written in the first person, and will follow the lives of two bi-racial dancers who grow up together in London but take separate paths as they grow into adulthood in the 1990s. Having already established herself as one of the most distinctive, thoughtful voices in fiction and cultural commentary, the novel is much anticipated.