Zadie Smith FRSL (born Sadie; 25 October 1975) is an English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. Her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), immediately became a best-seller and won a number of awards. She has been a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University since September 2010.
|Born||25 October 1975|
Willesden, London, England
|Alma mater||King's College, Cambridge|
|Relatives||Doc Brown (brother)|
Sadie Smith was born on 25 October 1975 in Willesden to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and an English father, Harvey Smith, who was 30 years his wife's senior. At the age of 14, she changed her name from Sadie to Zadie.
Smith's mother grew up in Jamaica and emigrated to England in 1969. Smith's parents divorced when she was a teenager. She has a half-sister, a half-brother, and two younger brothers (one is the rapper and stand-up comedian Doc Brown, and the other is the rapper Luc Skyz). As a child, Smith was fond of tap dancing, and in her teenage years, she considered a career in musical theatre. While at university, Smith earned money as a jazz singer, and wanted to become a journalist. Despite earlier ambitions, literature emerged as her principal interest.
Smith attended the local state schools, Malorees Junior School and Hampstead Comprehensive School, then King's College, Cambridge, where she studied English literature. In an interview with The Guardian in 2000, Smith corrected a newspaper assertion that she left Cambridge with a double First. "Actually, I got a Third in my Part Ones", she said. She graduated with upper second-class honours. While at university Smith auditioned unsuccessfully for the Cambridge Footlights.
At Cambridge, Smith published a number of short stories in a collection of new student writing called The Mays Anthology. They attracted the attention of a publisher, who offered her a contract for her first novel. Smith decided to contact a literary agent and was taken on by A. P. Watt. Smith returned to guest-edit the anthology in 2001.
Smith's début novel White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997 before it was completed. On the basis of a partial manuscript, an auction for the rights was begun, which was won by Hamish Hamilton. Smith completed White Teeth during her final year at the University of Cambridge. Published in 2000, the novel immediately became a best-seller and received much acclaim. It was praised internationally and won a number of awards, among them the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. The novel was adapted for television in 2002. In July 2000, Smith's debut was also the subject for discussion in a controversial essay of literary criticism by James Wood entitled "Human, All Too Inhuman", where Wood critiques the novel as part of a contemporary genre of hysterical realism where "‘[i]nformation has become the new character" and human feeling is absent from contemporary fiction. In an article for The Guardian in October 2001, Smith responded to the criticism by agreeing with the accuracy of the term and that she agreed with Wood's underlying argument that "any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped". However, she rejected her debut being categorised alongside major authors such as David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo and the dismissal of their own innovations on the basis of being hysterical realism. Responding earnestly to Wood's concerns about contemporary literature and culture, Smith describes her own anxieties as a writer and argued that fiction should be "not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both".
Smith served as writer-in-residence at the ICA in London and subsequently published, as editor, an anthology of sex writing, Piece of Flesh, as the culmination of this role.
Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man, was published in 2002 and was a commercial success, although it was not as well received by critics as White Teeth.
After the publication of The Autograph Man, Smith visited the United States as a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She started work on a still-unreleased book of essays, The Morality of the Novel (a.k.a. Fail Better), in which she considers a selection of 20th-century writers through the lens of moral philosophy. Some portions of this book presumably appear in the essay collection Changing My Mind, published in November 2009.
Smith's third novel, On Beauty, was published in September 2005. It is set largely in and around Greater Boston. It attracted more acclaim than The Autograph Man: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Later in the same year, Smith published Martha and Hanwell, a book that pairs two short stories about two troubled characters, originally published in Granta and The New Yorker respectively. Penguin published Martha and Hanwell with a new introduction by the author as part of their pocket series to celebrate their 70th birthday. The first story, "Martha, Martha", deals with Smith's familiar themes of race and postcolonial identity, while "Hanwell in Hell" is about a man struggling to cope with the death of his wife. In December 2008 she guest-edited the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Between March and October 2011, Smith was the monthly New Books reviewer for Harper's Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. In 2010, The Guardian newspaper asked Smith for her "10 rules for writing fiction". Among them she declared: "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied."
Smith's novel NW was published in 2012. It is set in the Kilburn area of north-west London, the title being a reference to the local postcode, NW6. NW was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction. NW was made into a BBC television film directed by Saul Dibb and adapted by Rachel Bennette. Starring Nikki Amuka-Bird and Phoebe Fox, it was broadcast on BBC Two on 14 November 2016.
In 2015 it was announced that Smith, along with her husband Nick Laird, was writing the screenplay for a science fiction movie to be directed by French filmmaker Claire Denis. Smith later said that her involvement had been overstated and that she had simply helped to polish the English dialogue for the film.
Smith's first collection of short stories, Grand Union, was published on 8 October 2019. In 2020 she published six essays in a collection entitled Intimations, the royalties from which she said she would be donating to the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund.
In 2021, Smith debuted her first play, The Wife of Willesden, which she wrote after learning that her borough in London, Brent, had been selected in 2018 as the 2020 London's Borough of Culture. As the most famous current writer from Brent, Zadie was the natural choice to author the piece. She chose to adapt the Wife of Bath's Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, recalling how she had translated Chaucer into contemporary English at Oxford. The retelling replaces the pilgrimage with a pub crawl set in contemporary London, with the Wife of Bath becoming Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50's who challenges her Auntie P's traditional Christian views on sex and marriage. Like the original tale, Alvita is a woman who has had five husbands, with her experiences with them ranging from pleasant to traumatic. The majority of the piece is spent on her talking to the people in the pub, much like how the Wife of Bath's prologue is longer than the tale itself. To her, Alvita's voice is a common one she heard growing up in Brent, and thus writing this play was a natural choice for the festival. The tale itself is set in 17th century Jamaica, where a man guilty of rape is brought before the Queen, who decrees that his punishment is to go and find what women truly desire.
Smith met Nick Laird at Cambridge University. They married in 2004 in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. Smith dedicated On Beauty to "my dear Laird". She also uses his name in passing in White Teeth: "An' all the good-lookin' men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they're all dead."
The couple lived in Rome, Italy, from November 2006 to 2007, and lived in New York City and Queen's Park, London for about 10 years before relocating to Kilburn, London in 2020. They have two children.
Smith describes herself as "unreligious", and was not raised in a religion, although retains a "curiosity" about the role religion plays in others' lives. In an essay exploring humanist and existentialist views of death and dying, Smith characterises her worldview as that of a "sentimental humanist".
This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (July 2015)
|"The Waiter's Wife"||1999||"The Waiter's Wife". Granta. Vol. 67. 1 December 1999.|
|"The Girl with Bangs"||2001|
|"Martha, Martha"||2003||Martha and Hanwell|
|"Hanwell in Hell"||2004||Martha and Hanwell|
|"Hanwell Senior"||2007||The New Yorker, 14 May 2007|
|"Permission to Enter"||2012||The New Yorker, 23 July 2012|
|"The Embassy of Cambodia"||2013||"The Embassy of Cambodia". The New Yorker. Vol. 89, no. 1. 11–18 February 2013. pp. 88–98.|
|"Meet the President!"||2013||The New Yorker, 5 August 2013||Grand Union: Stories|
|"Moonlit Landscape with Bridge"||2014||"Moonlit Landscape with Bridge". The New Yorker. Vol. 89, no. 48. 10 February 2014. pp. 64–71.|
|"Big Week"||2014||"Big Week". The Paris Review. Vol. Summer 2014, no. 209. 2014.|
|"Escape from New York"||2015||The New Yorker, 1 June 2015||Grand Union: Stories|
|"Two Men Arrive in a Village"||2016||"Two Men Arrive in a Village". The New Yorker. 6–13 June 2016.||Grand Union: Stories|
|"The Lazy River"||2017||The New Yorker, 11 December 2017||Grand Union: Stories|
|"Now More Than Ever"||2018||"Now More Than Ever". The New Yorker. 23 July 2018.||Grand Union: Stories|
|"Weirdo"||2021||Written with Nick Laird, illustrated by Magenta Fox|
She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. In a 2004 BBC poll of cultural researchers, Smith was named among the top twenty most influential people in British culture.
In 2003, she was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University's Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on 1 September 2010. Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 and her novel White Teeth was included in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
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