Zadie Smith 1976-
British novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Smith's career through 2001.
Widely touted as a new voice in English literature, Smith burst onto the scene in 2000 with the publication of her first novel, White Teeth. Her debut effort centers on multigenerational relationships between two contemporary London families with disparate racial, economic, and religious origins. Suffused with humor and irony, the novel also illuminates the inherent difficulties of preserving ethnic identities and cultural heritages in an increasingly multicultural society. Astonished by the wisdom beyond the author's young age found in the book, most critics have generally acclaimed White Teeth with enthusiasm, drawing comparisons to a range of writers from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie.
The daughter of an English father and a much younger Jamaican mother, Smith was born in 1976 at Hampstead, England, and grew up in Willesden Green, a multiethnic neighborhood northwest of London. Her parents divorced when Smith was fourteen-years-old. She studied English literature at King's College, Cambridge, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1998. While there, Smith regularly contributed short stories to the May Anthologies, an annual compilation of prose and poetry written by Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates, including one that later became the basis for White Teeth. That story caught the eye of a literary agent, who wanted to discuss with its author the possibility of expanding the story into a full-length novel. Consequently, the agent secured for Smith a rumored £250,000 (approximately $400,000) advance—an extraordinary sum for a first-time author and an incomplete manuscript that contained only a plot synopsis and two chapters. White Teeth subsequently won numerous prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, and the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award. After an international publicity tour, Smith returned to her mother's home at Willesden and began writing a second novel about autographs and mystical religions. The Autograph Man is slated for publication in 2002.
Addressing racial, cultural, and generational issues with wit and irony, White Teeth revolves around the relationship between the families of two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who bonded during the closing days of World War II as the only survivors of a tank mishap in Bulgaria. In an extended flashback, readers learn that immediately after the war ended, Archie took a job at a print shop and married Ophelia, an Italian woman whom he met during the war. Samad returned to his native Bengal (the Indian province later known as East Pakistan and today as Bangladesh) and went to college. Nearly thirty years have passed before the friendship between the blue-collar Briton and the educated Muslim resumes, and the narrative begins. When Samad immigrates to England with his new domineering wife, Alsana Begum, he settles in Willesden where he successfully locates his old war buddy, who has recently divorced Ophelia and married nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Within a year of the reunion, the two couples and their children—Archie's daughter Irie and Samad's twin sons Magid and Millat—become friendly. The children's relationships and stories comprise the latter part of White Teeth, which principally focuses on varying degrees of displacement experienced by the multicultural characters populating the racially and ethnically diverse post-imperial London neighborhood. For instance, Samad strives to retain his self-identity as a Muslim Bengali in a culture vastly different from his homeland. Forced to earn a living as a waiter at a curry restaurant, Samad decides to send his sons to Bangladesh for a proper Muslim education, but since he can only afford the expenses for one, he sends Magid. Meanwhile, the biracial Irie matures into a full-figured, curly-haired adolescent, who nurtures a crush on Millat and struggles for acceptance in a culture that privileges thin, Caucasian blondes. The confused Millat, in turn, cultivates a fascination with Islamic fundamentalism that propels him toward terrorist activities. Further complicating matters, Magid returns to England thoroughly Anglicized, which greatly distresses his father. Magid eventually takes a position at a genetic engineering firm that is designing a creature called FutureMouse, which is scheduled to debut on New Year's Eve 1992, when the novel's climactic event occurs. By its end, White Teeth exposes the dangers of labeling others and illustrates the universal striving to maintain self-identity in pluralistic contemporary society, despite cultural heritage or ethnic origin.
Critics have lauded White Teeth for its astute take on social cooperation between various races, classes, and religions, with most critics deeming its insights beyond the age of its author. Smith's novel has not only been stylistically and thematically compared to Rushdie's narratives, but Rushdie himself has also recommended the novel in a quote on the back cover of its first edition, claiming that the comedy “fizzes up” through its characters. Many reviewers have also expressed surprise at the novel's self-assured tone and the depth of characterizations—traits contrary to expectations for a first-time novelist. Similarly, most commentators have applauded Smith's ear for dialogue, her darkly ironic wit, and her unusually mature understanding of social interactions. The majority of critics also have enjoyed the diversity of characters and their various ethnicities and well-developed perspectives. Although some have likened the turns and coincidental occurrences of the plot to Dickensian narratives, other reviewers have asserted that there are too many characters, and that their behavior and the coincidental nature of their experiences test the limits of fictional realism, engaging the conventions of magic realism. However, critics have generally been impressed by the size and scope of White Teeth and eagerly anticipate Smith's future literary efforts.