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Zadie Smith

Biography | Interview

The Difference Between S and Z
Looking at the two letters side by side, the contrast is apparent immediately. The "z" is altogether sharper and more to the point than its more slippery lookalike. Perhaps that's why at age 14, Sadie Smith changed her name to Zadie, the name that would catch the attention of the literary world in 2000, when the 21-year-old Cambridge University graduate published her first novel, White Teeth. A fan of movie musicals who tap-danced for 10 years before abandoning her dreams of Ginger Rogers stardom, Smith retained an understanding of timing and showmanship that would lend her broad comic novel the snazzy rhythm of a tap routine. Just as those classic films knew when to stop the action and start the music, so Smith pauses in her energetic tale of the Iqbal and Jones families to shoot off rambunctious riffs on everything from animal rights to religion. White Teeth weighed in at a no-nonsense 462 pages, drawing comparisons to the work of Salman Rushdie and garnering prize after prize, including the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Award, while running a close race for the Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Like many young novelists, Smith hewed to the axiom "write what you know," setting the action of White Teeth in the northwest London suburb Willesden, where she grew up with her two brothers, a Jamaican mother, and an English father. But unlike many young writers, Smith uses what she knows as the jumping-off point for her story, which reaches back into the wartime past and glimpses the genetic future, all the while astutely capturing the multicultural present. Smith's world is rich and believable because she shows us the stupid and fabulous side by side. Mrs. Iqbal makes ladies' underwear while her neighbor Mr. Malfen engineers transgenic mice. Irie gets her hair straightened for Millat, who is discovering radical Islam, while his brother Magid embraces the mores of colonial Britain -- in modern Bangladesh. These tragicomic incongruities don't have to be explained because they make sense in the way that families make sense -- both because of and in spite of their unlikelihood. Be they Joneses or Iqbals, Smith's characters defy easy categorization.

In her second novel, The Autograph Man, Smith dissects both celebrity culture and mystic Judaism, focusing on the wavering Chinese Jew Alex-Li Tandem. Alex-Li's troubles are manifold: He is an autograph dealer who may have forged the rare autograph of his idol, the 1950s movie star Kitty Alexander; he has most definitely alienated his girlfriend, Esther; and he cannot seem to pull himself together adequately to recite Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, on the 15th anniversary of his father's death. Smith's clever observations and comic reveries landed the book on the long list for the 2002 Booker Prize. Observers who were waiting for Smith to stumble in her sophomore effort were disappointed; she's got the knack of novel writing as surely as she once knew her dance moves.

These days Smith has turned to nonfiction, spending a few years stateside as a fellow at Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute. She is at work on a book of essays, The Morality of the Novel, in which she considers a selection of 20th-century writers through the lens of moral philosophy.

Biography | Interview

Essays + Interviews:
Smashing Slang! | Timeline/1970-92 | The Soundtrack | Zadie Smith

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