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Zadie Smith

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English Literature

Zadie Smith is a contemporary British writer celebrated for her nuanced and witty explorations of race, cultural identity, and modern society. Smith won numerous accolades for her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), which was released to great critical acclaim and has been hailed as a modern British classic. Since the release of White Teeth, Smith has released four novels, various short stories, and essays. Today, she is one of the most important contemporary writers of the 21st century. So, let's find out more about Zadie Smith!

Zadie Smith: facts

Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith on 25 October 1975. At fourteen years of age, she changed her name to Zadie because she felt it sounded more 'exotic'.1 Smith was born in northwest London to a Jamaican mother and English father who later divorced. In her youth, Smith wrote poems and stories and later attended the University of Cambridge to pursue a bachelor's degree in English Literature.

Zadie Smith: books

During her time at Cambridge, she began drafting White Teeth. The partial manuscript for the novel was the subject of a bidding war, with the rights eventually going to Hamish Hamilton. White Teeth was published in 2000 as Smith's debut novel to critical and commercial success. The novel spans almost 50 years of the lives of two friends, Archie Williams and Samad Iqbal, who live in Willesden, northwest London, and follows their experiences of cultural identities, immigration, and their familial lives. White Teeth has had an impressive legacy. It has won various awards, including the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2000, and it was also adapted for television by Channel 4 in 2002.

Following the success of her first novel, Smith published her second novel, The Autograph Man, in 2002. Although it was received with less critical acclaim than White Teeth, it was still a commercial success. The novel's protagonist is Jewish-Chinese autograph trader Alex-Li Tandem in London. The Autograph Man examines contemporary society's relationship with celebrity and pop culture.

After the novel's publication, Smith became a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she began work on a book of essays that still remains unpublished. The essays consider a variety of twentieth-century writers through the lens of moral philosophy.

Moral philosophy: a branch of philosophy that explores the idea of ethics and examines the nature of morality in human behaviour, contemplating the meaning of what is right and wrong.

There are three branches of moral philosophy, including meta-ethics, which interrogates larger questions of morality, normative ethics, which attempts to provide a kind of moral framework for society, and applied ethics, which tackles more specific moral questions.

In 2005, Smith published her third novel, On Beauty, cementing her place as one of Britain's foremost contemporary novelists. The novel is set in a fictional suburb of Boston and centres on two families and their seemingly different but increasingly intertwined lives. On Beauty is heavily influenced by Howard's End, a 1910 novel by E.M. Forster.

Howard's End (1910) follows the intertwining lives of two families in England at the turn of the century. The novel considers social conventions, relationships, financial struggles, familial relationships, and cultural pursuits.

Smith's On Beauty (2005) was praised for its wit and satire. It explores themes such as racial and cultural identities, typical of Smith's novels. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006.

In 2010, Smith became a tenured professor of fiction at New York University, and it was not until 2012 that her next novel, NW, was released. The novel takes its name from the NW postcode of northwest London, which is where the novel is set and where Smith grew up. It follows the lives and friendships of four Londoners through a distinctly experimental narrative that explores the nature of urban life. Smith's narrative interestingly blends third and first-person and experiments with form, using narrative techniques like stream-of-consciousness and vignettes to explore the mindsets of the different characters throughout their divergent lives.

  • Stream-of-consciousness: a narrative technique that acts as an inner monologue for a character: an author may use this to attempt to depict their thought processes in a less structured way by providing descriptions of the character's feelings.
  • Vignettes: short, evocative scenes in literature in which an author can focus on a specific period of time rather than moving the plot forward. Often, these are vivid descriptions that form part of a larger narrative and provide further information about characters or events.

Swing Time (2016), Zadie Smith's most recent novel, follows two girls and their love of tap-dancing: a childhood hobby and love of Smith's. As in many of her novels, Swing Time interrogates themes of race and class as they are chronicled through relationships. The novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

In 2019, Smith authored her first collection of short stories. Grand Union contains nineteen short stories, eight of which were published in various magazines, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Throughout her career, Smith has published an array of essay collections, including Changing My Mind (2009), Feel Free (2018), and most recently Intimations (2020), all to great critical and commercial success.

Most recently, Zadie Smith made her playwriting debut with The Wife of Willesden in 2021, which reimagines Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' from The Canterbury Tales. The pilgrimage of The Canterbury Tales is transformed into a modern-day pub crawl in London but still retains the key themes of Chaucer's original tale.

Zadie Smith: quotes

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

In an article for The Guardian in 2010, Smith reveals the last of her ten rules for writing fiction.

If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.

Smith considers the difference between 'tradition' and 'religion' in White Teeth (2000). In an interesting observation, Smith notes that the perceived comforts of tradition and culture can become as harmful and restrictive as many institutions of religion.

I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.

In her 2018 collection of essays, Feel Free, Smith openly talks about the grim state of 'the world' and what it means to be happy despite the shortcomings of modern society.

Zadie Smith: writing style

Zadie Smith has become one of the most important contemporary British writers. Her writing style remains unique in its playful wittiness, and her narratives intertwine in vibrant and interesting ways, all the while considering complex themes like race, class, and culture.

Smith's writing often feels honest and refreshing. Her careful and reflective treatment of issues of identity has become crucial to conversations about contemporary society, and her contributions to modern literature cannot be understated. As both a woman and writer of colour, Smith is an important figure for young writers who seek to explore their cultures in literary spheres that often seem exclusive and restrictive.

Zadie Smith - Key takeaways

  • Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith in northwest London in 1975.
  • At the age of fourteen, Smith changed her first name to Zadie.
  • Smith's first novel, White Teeth, was released in 2000 to great critical acclaim and commercial success.
  • Throughout her career, Smith has published five novels, two short story collections, various essays, and a play.
  • Her most recent novel, Swing Time, was released in 2016.
  • Smith's writing focuses on themes of race, culture, and family in contemporary society, and her narratives often follow characters through their lives and relationships.
  • In 2021, Smith made her playwriting debut.

1 Sebastian Shakespeare, 'The secret life of Zadie Smith.' The Evening Standard. 4 September 2002.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith, but changed her name at fourteen because she felt it was more 'exotic'.

Zadie Smith is married to Northern Irish writer Nick Laird.

Zadie Smith is mixed-race, of both Jamaican and English heritage. Her novels often explore ideas of race, including the black British experience.

Zadie Smith has proven herself to be one of the most important contemporary British writers. Her novels consider modern, urban issues, including culture, race, and class, that raise important questions about society. Smith's writing style is witty and humorous but still retains a profundity that addresses important concerns.

Zadie Smith has published five novels, two short story collections, various essays, and a play. Her writing maintains a witty and playful style, whilst still considering important contemporary themes. Smith's identity and cultural background make her an important figure for young writers.

Final Zadie Smith Quiz

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When was Zadie Smith born?

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October 25 1975

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How old was Zadie Smith when she changed her name?

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14

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What was Zadie Smith's first novel, released in 2000?

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White Teeth

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Where did Zadie Smith attend university?

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Zadie Smith attended the University of Cambridge.

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When was Zadie Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man, published?

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2002

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Which 1910 novel was an inspiration for Zadie Smith's third novel, On Beauty?

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Howard's End by E.M. Forster

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When did Zadie Smith become a tenured professor at New York University?

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2010

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What is Zadie Smith's most recent novel?

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Swing Time, published in 2016

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How many novels has Zadie Smith published?

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5

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When did Zadie Smith make her playwriting debut?

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2021

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When was NW by Zadie Smith published?

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2012

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Where does the title NW get its name?

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The title is a reference to the London postcode NW, where the novel is set

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How many sections is NW split into?

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Five

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What is the title of the first and last sections of NW?

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visitation

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What is the name of the council estate that the main characters of NW grew up on?

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Caldwell

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Where is NW set?

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The northwest area of London, particularly the areas of Kilburn and Willesden.

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What are the key themes presented in NW?

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Class, a search for identity and the impacts of urban living

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What kind of narration does Zadie Smith use in NW?

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Smith switches between first and third-person narration throughout the novel

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Who are the main characters in NW?

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Leah Hanwell, Keisha (Natalie) Blake, and Felix Cooper

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What are some of the narrative devices that Smith uses in NW?

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Stream-of-consciousness narration, flashbacks, text message conversations and map directions

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