Contributor: Jorge Berástegui Wood
It is difficult to speak about a very young author, especially when so much has been said about him or her, as is the case of Zadie Smith. The only possibility is to try to remain faithful to her works, to the contrasted biographical details about her and to the opinions she has provided either in her articles and essays or in some interviews which, during some time, she did not seem to be very comfortable with. Zadie Smith was born in 1975 in north-west London. Her original name was Sadie, but changed it when she was 14. It may be considered a minor detail, but somehow reflects her constant concern with her own identity and a certain struggle to find her own self both as a writer and person, which are probably two sides of the same coin. Zadie’s father, Harvey Smith, was a working-class white man who married for a second time with Yvonne Bailey a Jamaican girl much younger than him –who later on became a psychologist-. They had Zadie and two sons, but they divorced when the writer was still a teenager.
Zadie worked hard to enter the University of Cambridge, for she always considered this as the way to fulfil part of her intelectual and artistic expectations. Up to that moment she had read and become fond of the classics and of authors like E.M Forster or Zora Neale Hurston, but in Cambridge she could approach the work of philosophers like Derrida, Foucault or Barthes, some theoretical reading and reflection that is not explicit but still remains present in her fiction. In Cambridge she published a short story in The Mays Anthology, which was a student’s publication, and called on the attention of a literary editor who offered her a generous amount of money for her first novel, when she was only in her early twenties. That was the beginning of White Teeth, the big literary success of the year 2000 and one of the most acclaimed novels in the last decade.
White Teeth tells the story of two families, the Jones and the Iqbals and covers a long period that goes from the trenches of the II World War to the end of the XX century. The English Archibald Jones and the Bengali Samad Iqbal meet in a British tank during the last days of the war and become life friends. But their relationship serves in the novel as the framework to reflect on the historical evolution of Great Britain throughout the century, with the emergence on an increasing multicultural society that has challenged colonial discourses and contemporary neocolonial racism. The novel tells how these two families adapt to this changing country, especially their children, Millat and Magid (the sons of Samad and his wife Alsana, also bengali) and Irie (the daughter of Archie and Clara, who is Jamaican). Most reviews of the novel were very positive. Zadie Smith’s ascendance into the literary panorama could be summarised by journalist Stephanie Merrit’s title of her interview with Smith in The Observer: “She is black, British and the first sensation of the Millenium”. Being partly from Jamaican origin, Zadie was immediately turned into the icon of a new generation of racially mixed young authors (Monica Ali, Meera Syal, Hari Kunzru, etc) and was considered as the privileged succesor to writers like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. However, others criticized what they considered an excess of multicultural optimism in the novel, much within the official political agenda of the smiley and pinky Tony Blair’s New Labour. Moreover, there were also some critics, like James Wood, who questioned Zadie Smith’s first work in purely literary terms. He called her style “hysterical realism”. For Wood, Smith’s tendency to fuse incredible stories, characters, complex reflections and very much sense of humour resulted into an style where “conventions of realism are not being abolished, but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked” (168).
In 2002 Zadie Smith published her second novel, The Autograph Man. It tells the story of Alex-Li Tandem, an autograph man in his late twenties who struggles to find some sense in his life, much affected by the early death of his father, when Alex was just a kid. Alex’s proffesion becomes the main motif to reflect about celebrity culture and the fragmentation of postmodern culture, in contrast with the ever present existential questions about love, life, death and ultimate religious or metaphysical truths. Though the book is able to represent a reality which has a baudrillardesque-simulacrum flavour, many critics considered this second novel a failed attempt and especially criticized her the lack of credibility of her characters. Ruth Franklin, for example, said in The New Republic that “gone almost completely are the imagination and the humanity of White Teeth: they have been replaced by gimmickry”; whereas Michiko Katutani said in the New York Times that the plot was “simultaneously schematic and messy, propelling its protagonist on willfully whimsical adventures”.
Zadie Smith did not like very much the critics to her second novel, but mostly, she got fed up with the mediatic attention she had been receiving for such a long time. Besides, she felt at odds with terms such as “multicultural” or “postcolonial” writer, for she thought they prevented precisely what she wanted most: to be considered simply as an English writer. There were rumours that she was suffering an artistic blockage and some newspapers even said she had decided to quit her literary career. Instead, what she finally did was to retreat and take some distance in the United States, where she went to Harvard to teach about the morality in the novel. Since that experience she started a regular presence in the USA, where she spends part of the year teaching at universities. But that contact with Harvard also served her to write her third novel, On Beauty, which was published in 2005 and gave her back most of the critical acclaim she had lost with The Autograph Man. On Beauty is three things at the same time. On the one hand, it is a homage to E.M Forster’s Howard’s End, with which it shares some similarities in plot and characters. On the other hand, it is a campus novel that reflects the internal politics in American universities. But finally, it is also a reflection about beauty, the enlargement of its canon and the defence of its sacred and truthful value against typical postmodern deconstructive suspicion. These three aspects are fundamental in the novel, that tells the story of two families, the Kipps and the Belseys, and the ideological and academic disputes between their masculine progenitors, Howard and Monty. This rivalry contrasts with the strange but still intense friendship that emerges between their wives, Kiki and Carlene.
Apart from her novels, Zadie Smith has done other things. She has written several short stories, such as Martha, Martha (2003), published in Granta or “The Trials of Finch” (2002) and “Hanwell in Hell (2004)”, both published in New Yorker. She has edited some collections of short fiction, such as Piece of Flesh (2001) or The Book of Other People (2007) and she also has a considerable amount of essays and articles, most of them published in newspapers and magazines. In 2008 she published Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, which puts together some of this scattered work and also includes some inedit material. There we can read many of her opinions about art, films, literature and life. And we can also discover the long reflection and vital experience that lies behind much of her fictional work. In “Their eyes were watching God: What does Soulful Mean?”, Smith explains how connected she felt with Zora Neale Hurston when she first read her at 14, identifying with her characters “who had my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech” (12). In “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”, Smith speaks about how her fascination at university with Barthes and many revolutionary poststructuralist thinkers has vanished to give more attention to a traditional way of approaching the act of reading, more in connection with the need of discovering the meaning that lies behind an author’s work than with the trend of questioning concepts such as author or reader. In “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”, she explores and sides with the idea of literature as a way of searching truth and overcoming “the postmodern trap”, as Foster Wallace called it. However, one of the most moving texts in this book is Dead Man Laughing. There Zadie Smith pays a deeply felt homage to her father and to her working-class roots. As her character in White Teeth, Archibald Jones, Harvey Smith was one of those men who fought during the II World War for a country that later on did not give him the possibilities to reach his dreams, being so much conditioned by economic circumstances and rigid class divisions.
In an interview she gave in 2010 to Gemma Sieff in New Harper Magazine -where she reviewed some books during that year and part of 2011- Zadie Smith speculated about the possibility that she was a better critic than writer: “I think that the biggest change in me and my writing is the realization that in the end my best work might be non-fiction. I’m writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other people’s fiction” (“New Books: A conversation with Zadie Smith”). Whether she is a better critic than writer is something difficult to measure, but what is sure is that the six years that have passed since the publication of On Beauty have given her more maturity, being less conditioned by public judgements. She has also had time to have a daughter, Katherine, who was born in 2009. And also, to write a new novel that will be published in september, NW. Smith herself has said that this novel marks a new point in her career: more freedom to focus on what interests her, more literature than ideas, no homages to the writers that influenced her as a young girl and less concern with proving herself and others that a black working-class girl can also be a fully English writer. And, above all, the feeling that she is just 36 and is still in the path of finding her true literary voice. Because “learning to write is a task that takes up your whole life”, as ahe said to Louis Leslie in an interview she gave in 2011.
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