Zadie Smith (Kings ’98)

Zadie Smith is a novelist and essayist renowned for her depiction of race, religion, and cultural identity. She became a literary phenomenon after publishing her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000. 

Smith was born on October 27, 1975, to a mixed-race family in North London and spent her early childhood with her parents and two younger brothers on a housing estate. Her Jamaican mother, Yvonne, worked as a child therapist, while her English father, Harvey, was a salesperson significantly older than Yvonne. Smith’s parents had a tense relationship and separated when she was young. Nevertheless, Smith grew up in a happy and calm environment and shared a strong bond with her family, which lasts till today, particularly with her two younger brothers. Moreover, Smith enjoyed a carefree childhood and was allowed to figure things out on her own, which developed an independence of mind and adaptability in her that she now strives to cultivate in her children. At the age of 14, Smith changed the spelling of her name from “Sadie” to “Zadie” to make herself sound more exotic.

Smith began writing poems and stories when she was six, though she was more inspired by dancing. She practiced tap dancing for ten years, hoping to become a musical movie actress one day. The balance tipped in favor of writing only after Smith realized that old-fashioned MGM-style musicals were no longer widely produced. She attended Hampstead Comprehensive School and matriculated to King’s College, Cambridge University, in 1995 to study for a BA in English literature, graduating in 1998. “To me, a university is one of the most precious of human institutions,” remarked Smith in an interview, and she even aspired to become an academic. However, she found the excessive seriousness and regimented approach to reading common in most English departments unappealing. Still, Smith read voraciously while at university and began writing White Teeth as a Cambridge student. Smith also occasionally worked as a jazz singer to earn money alongside her studies. 

Set in a working-class suburb in northwest London, White Teeth explores three ethnically diverse families and the lives of two best friends, Archie Jones, a suicidal Englishman, and Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim struggling to adjust to British society. Smith submitted an 80-page manuscript of White Teeth to an agent when she was 21. The book was eventually sold to Hamish Hamilton, a boutique publishing list operating under Penguin Random House, after many publishing companies fiercely competed for publishing rights. Simon Prosser, her editor at Hamish Hamilton, recognized the novel’s genius as soon as the manuscript was laid on his table, recounting, “I’ll never forget [it]. The exuberance and energy of the writing were extraordinary – the words jumping off the page, the characters leaping into life. My immediate sense was: here is someone with so many things to say, about ordinary and extraordinary lives, about the ways we live now.” The book was awarded the prestigious Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). White Teeth was translated to over twenty languages, and the BBC commissioned a £5 million TV adaptation of the novel, which aired in 2002. 

The Autograph Man, Smith’s second novel, is a story about grief, obsession, and the nature of stardom and received the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction in 2003. The same year, Granta magazine named her one of the 20 “Best of Young British Novelists.” On Beauty, her third novel, was published in 2005 and received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006. She’s also the author of Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009) and Feel Free (2018), as well as Grand Union (2019).

As a writer, Smith’s novels are distinguished by a humorous and inventive style featuring eccentric characters. Yet, popular media has often reduced the complexity of her novels and the emotional worlds of her characters as a mere commentary on race, a claim she boldly rejects. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times about White Teeth, Smith lamented, “So is [it that] a book that doesn’t have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don’t understand that.” Additionally, Smith appreciates writing the dialogue of her characters, who often come from different racial and cultural backgrounds than hers. Although she makes mistakes, as she did when writing Bengali in White Teeth, Smith prefers making her characters’ dialogue work in the world of the novel and is resistant “to the very idea of absolute “correctness” when it comes to human behavior.

Despite her international acclaim, Smith has expressed dissatisfaction with how the British press depicts her as an ambassador for diversity and multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. In reality, publishing in the UK is still heavily restricted. While the representation of LGBTQ+ authors and authors with disabilities has improved, the most recent industry survey conducted by the Publishers Association has found that only 3% of the workforce identify as Black/Black British in 2021, a figure which has remained unchanged since 2019. Smith has previously stated that when she visits her publisher, “I’m still the only black person.” 

Smith became a tenured professor of fiction at New York University in 2010 and lives between New York City and London. Smith is fond of the United States, particularly the experience of being Black in the country. Being surrounded by Black intellectuals, artists, and other professionals gives her a sense of freedom, which contrasts with the England of her childhood, where her racial identity felt somewhat invisible and suppressed. 

Smith is married to Nick Laird, a Northern Irish author and poet whom she met while studying at Cambridge. They married in the King’s College Chapel in 2004. Smith and Laird have two children.