Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith on October 27, 1975 in the Willesden area of north London, the daughter of a British father and a Jamaican mother. Willesden would become the setting of her first novel, White Teeth (2000), and the novel’s main character, Irie, would also be the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father. Smith changed her name to the more exotic Zadie as a child. Smith’s early interests were in the performing arts; she was a tap dancer until the age of fifteen. She was also an ardent fan of old Hollywood musical films and actress Katharine Hepburn, knowledge she would draw on in writing her second novel, The Autograph Man (2002). For a time she earned money as a jazz singer; both of her younger brothers are rap singers in Great Britain. Smith attended Hampstead Comprehensive School until the age of eighteen and King’s College, Cambridge University, from 1994 to 1997, graduating with a degree in English literature.

While at Cambridge, Smith published short stories in the May Anthologies, the annual collection of work by students at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Her work attracted the attention of the publishing world, and while still a university student she was offered an advance of £250,000, or approximately $400,000, for her first two books. The size of the advance for such a young, unknown writer put her name in the news even before her first book was published.

White Teeth, Smith’s first novel, was published in January, 2000, when the writer was only twenty-four years old. The book, a saga of three families in multicultural north London, was an immediate best seller, and Smith became a literary celebrity. As a clever and inventive writer and a young and attractive woman of mixed race at the turn of a new century, Smith became a symbol of a new multiethnic strain of British writing. White Teeth won a host of awards, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, all in 2000. White Teeth was adapted for British Broadcasting Corporation television, broadcast in 2002, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Smith was writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London from 2000 to 2001 while writing her second novel, The Autograph Man, which appeared in 2002. This novel, which was narrower in scope but deeper in character development than White Teeth, was not as well received, more than likely because it was impossible to live up to the media attention that had attended the first novel. Set in London and New York, the novel’s main character is a Chinese-Jewish autograph collector. One of the themes of the novel is an exploration of the nature of fame and celebrity, possibly in reaction to Smith’s experience after the publication of White Teeth. The Autograph Man won the Jewish Quarterly Review’s Wingate Literary Prize in 2003. Also in 2003, Smith was included in Granta magazine’s list of Twenty Best Young British Novelists.

In 2002 and 2003, Smith lived in the United States, teaching, studying, and writing as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. While there, she began work on a collection of literary essays.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty , was published in 2005. Set in London and on the campus of a fictional American university, the novel depicts the disintegration of the marriage of Howard Belsey, a liberal white art history professor married to a vibrant African American woman, and his collision with his...

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ultraconservative Anglo-Caribbean archrival, Monty Kipps.On Beauty was short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006.

In addition to writing novels, Smith has edited and contributed and written introductions to several anthologies of fiction, and she has been a contributor of short stories to The New Yorker and Granta magazines. Smith married the poet and novelist Nicholas Laird, whom she had met while a student at Cambridge, in 2004. They settled in Kilburn, north London, not far from where she grew up, and in 2007 were collaborating on a musical based on the life of writer Franz Kafka.


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English author Zadie Smith (b. 1975) has made quite a splash in the literary world. Her first novel, White Teeth (2000), caused a lot of media controversy when Smith was given an unusually large advance (rumored to be over $400,000) and was still in college. Smith was only twenty-one at the time.

White Teeth did not disappoint, becoming an almost overnight critical success. It went on to win the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. White Teeth was a popular success as well.

Smith's fascination for mixed cultures and races is evident in her books and reflects her own life experiences. She is the daughter of a working-class white father and Jamaican mother. Smith graduated from Cambridge University in 1997. Later she worked as a writer-in-residence at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. In 2002, she taught writing at Harvard University in the United States. Harvard provided her with information about college faculty members and politics for her novel On Beauty.

In 2002, Smith published her second novel, The Autograph Man. This story also focuses on mixed cultures, with its protagonist, Alex-Li Tandem, of Jewish and Chinese heritage. On Beauty is Smith's third novel. On Beauty was short-listed for the prestigious British award, the Man Booker Prize, in 2005. Smith has also written two collections of short stories, Piece of Flesh (2001) and The Book of Other People (2007). The author dedicates her novel On Beauty, to her poet husband, Nick Laird.


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