Zadie Smith is living the fairy-tale story dreamed of by young (and old) writers everywhere. Her first novel, White Teeth,received a rumoured £250,000 (more than $550,000 Canadian) advance based on only two chapters and a plot synopsis; the completed novel (of epic proportions) was written while completing a BA at Cambridge University; her literary debut has been hailed as a formidable achievement by none other than Salman Rushdie, with whom she recently completed a New York book tour; rave reviews have appeared in the British and the North American press alike; and all of this has been achieved by the ripe old age of 24.
The circumstances of Smith's sudden rise to literary darling seem as unlikely as the comic hyperbole that fills the pages of White Teeth. As an undergraduate student at Cambridge, Smith penned regular short stories for the university's May Anthologies, an annual two-volume compilation of prose and poetry on which I was a regular board member during my own doctoral studies at the university.
I remember well my first year on the board,rushing home with a carrier bag bulging with hundreds of stories and poems that I thought would offer nothing less than a literary feast from the most promising writers of my generation. Instead it was an endurance test, with submissions that turned out to be rather typical student stories of failed romance, existential angst and literary pastiche.
Except for Zadie Smith. At 20, Smith was already writing opening paragraphs that give readers that goose pimply sensation that starts somewhere at the base of the spine and spreads rapidly to alight the entire body. It was from one of Smith's annual contributions to the May Anthologies that a literary agent became interested in her work, and the distinguished Andrew Wiley Agency took her on board.
I asked Smith how she is handling the transformation from ordinary student with average grades to media wunderkind. One might expect pretension, but Smith seems more surprised than anything: "The book to me is not a dead thing, but it doesn't feel like mine. When people ask me about it, I feel like, 'Oooh, What should I say?' I can't think what to say about it. It feels like somebody else wrote it. And that's the honest-to-God truth, it's not a kind of pose. When I'm reading it out loud sometimes, I'm kind of impressed -- this is good stuff -- but I can't remember much about the writing of it or how it came about. Or how to duplicate it, which I would do immediately if I could."
Smith is equally modest about her reviews thus far. A number of critics have taken the opportunity to herald the coming of a new age of British novelists -- the sophisticated, urban polyglot and polyphonic progeny of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie et al. -- with Smith as the prototype.
Between cigarettes on her (mildly insecure) London balcony, she laughs: "Writers love to hear all of that shit. The biggest thrill you get in your life is being grouped together with other writers in some kind of imaginary gang. So I love all of that. I read an article in The New York Times which put my name with Foster Wallace and some other people and I just danced around my flat for about three days. I have no complaints. But I think it has all been kind of hastily drawn up. I think the Americans are way ahead of us at almost every level."
Smith is as witty and unprepossessing in speech as in her writing. But while White Teeth can be classed a "comic" novel, it has a deadly serious underside, like Smith herself. I wondered at the elaborate genealogies that she established for each of her characters -- personal, familial, cultural -- that seem to both enable and disable them when they are transplanted from their originary homelands to urban London. There is an "unrootedness" at the heart of every character in White Teeth that seems not to dissipate with the second generation (first-generation Londoners), but becomes more complex and even repetitious, as if the lessons of the parents have to be learned again and again.
Smith, the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white English father, knows this terrain first-hand: "If you take the whole of human history as a body or as a person, then there are events within that which are like trauma, like childhood traumas. The Second World War is a trauma like being abused as a child, and its something that takes generations to get over. Likewise the characters in the book are [traumatized] That whole kind of sixties, seventies, liberation ethic, that you will be released by knowing your roots, that you will discover yourself, I just always thought was a crock, basically, and it's partly true, but your roots come with baggage. And the baggage isn't always fun."
White Teeth strikes an overwhelmingly optimistic tone, however, on the state of multi- and polyracial London, and Smith is unhesitatingly celebratory of her homeland: "I did want to try and say that there is a lot to celebrate. I find a lot to celebrate in the community I live in and the people I see around me -- I taught in my old school yesterday -- and like any school [it is]a kind of microcosm of the larger community and you see how well it works. You see the children walking toward the gate and there's a redhead and a Chinese kid, a black kid, an Asian kid, and it doesn't seem to concern them. It really lifts your spirits."
Indefatigable, Smith is well on her way writing a second novel. This one, she claims, is for herself: "I like it much better [than my last book] Sometimes I'm at readings and I see little old ladies looking at me with big smiles and I'm thinking, 'Jesus, you are going to hate this book -- I'm so sorry.' But you can't take all the people with you all the time, can you? And sometimes you just have to go your own way. I've enjoyed writing a book that lots of people seem to like. But I'm still young enough and perverse enough to want to write a book which not that many people will like."
Smith admits to having loved her moment in the spotlight but she is cautious about its longevity. She feels she is just beginning, and while everyone else on the planet is lauding White Teeth, she is bursting with untold stories and simply wants to get on with writing them. Kathleen O'Grady is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Women's Studies and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. Her publications include several works of non-fiction on gender and religion; her first work of fiction, First Words , a children's story, is to be published soon.