Zadie Smith


The shortlist for the £30, 000 Orange fiction prize – the biggest of its kind in Britain – is announced tomorrow but 24 year-old Zadie Smith, whose debut novel, White Teeth, is a red-hot favourite for the award, is not exactly on tenterhooks.

“It’s just another prize,” she says as demurely as she can. “I’m not ungrateful, and I’m sure that if someone sat me down they could convince me the prize has a point…But I’m not going, so I doubt if I’m going to win anyway.”

When I point out that the consensus amongst the press seems to be that she IS going to win though, she snaps into the sing-song sarcasm of a teenager building herself into an increasingly surly sulk. “Well then they’ll have to give it to someone else. That’s fine with me. It’s very high profile, so I’d just rather not. I’d rather win something smaller and more relevant.”

In fact, Smith seems disinclined to talk about almost anything to do with White Teeth – greeting even any mention of the acclaim it has had with a series of responses ranging from quiet embarrassment to terse exasperation.

“Yeah, the book’s OK. It’ll do”, she will mutter with a beguiling mix of diplomatic calm and brazenly provocative attitude. “I just want to get on with my life, basically.”

Smith’s sleepy-eyed demeanour seems easy-going to the point of disinterest, as if she’s resolved to stay relaxed about the more contentious issues surrounding her book – from what it says about race in modern Britain to the dreaded Orange prize, whose panel of judges includes the wife of the leader of the Tory Party, Ffion Hague.

“I hate having to talk about it,” she says simply. “It’s nothing to do with me. I’m not going to do their publicity for them. That’s not my job.”

But you sense it doesn’t take much to turn Zadie’s pleasantly placid personality pricklier. Eventually, her determination to keep her counsel breaks out into open irritation when the subject of Mr Hague’s recent speech about detention camps for asylum seekers comes up in the conversation. It turns out she knows exactly what she’s going to do if White Teeth wins the award after all.

“I’m not going to be at the Orange prize but if I do win, I intend to give my mother (a London social worker/psycho-analyst originally from Jamaica) something worth reading,” she asserts with enough force to leave you in doubt that she is not joking. “Not as a ‘novelist’ but as a citizen. This country that he pretends to be so proud of was built on refugee work ! That speech he gave (about the idea of detention camps for asylum seekers), I was just so…outraged, and… so offended and I’m never offended by anything ! That party are scum as far as I’m concerned and Ffion Hague on the Orange Committee can kiss my arse.”

And so, whether she gets her nomination tomorrow or not, almost despite herself, the buzz about Zadie Smith and her book just keeps going.

The hype around her ‘rags-to-riches’ rise has been so heavily marketed, the short-hand version of it is the stuff of publishing legend: how at the age of 21, mid-way through her Finals at Cambridge, she submitted an 80-page draft to a London publishers, even allegedly offering it one publishers for £2000 and ended up with representation at the legendary Andrew Wylie agency, and a two-book contract with Hamish Hamilton worth £250, 000.

“It happens once a year,” she shrugs. “The year before, Richard Mason got paid a million pounds for a terrible, terrible book. I was just very lucky, and yes, I was 21. I know, it’s sickening. I think it’s my job to sicken everybody at the moment. I’m a professional sickener !”

The scrutiny her work has received as a result of all the publicity about the book deal, and the pressure of expectation has, she says, al ready made trying to write the second book of her contract, The Autograph Man, much more difficult than the first.

“All the press about the money was excruciating. I lost a relationship over it,” she says casually. “It just makes you an arse, if you’ve never had money before. You and everyone involved. Everyone near it. My mum will go to the pub with friends and everyone will expect her to buy them a drink, like she’s hugely rich. The taxman is like my best friend.”

Her disbelieving laughter suggests that, even now, three years after she signed the deal, she views it all with something approaching amazement herself.

Striding into a restaurant in Soho, in a trim leather jacket, denim skirt and high snakeskin boots (“Top Shop – I have this incredible knack of making cheap clothes look expensive”), Smith certainly lives up to the hype, cutting a suitably street-wise kind of cool for an ex-Cambridge literary-prize-winner. Descriptions in the press as “the Lauryn Hill o f London literature” and “the George Eliot of multi-culturalism” have just her agog with disbelief.

Zadie is, as her publicity has emphasised, strikingly good-looking, with a humour as sharp as a razor, and seriously bright into the bargain. She will switch from talking about reading several translations of the Koran for her research for the book raving about Spike Lee or Ali G without pausing for breath.

Nonetheless the idea, as author Alain de Boton recently suggested that “Zadie Smith’s got the perfect media image” must sound like a sick joke to any young writers from the same background as hers.

A strikingly sensible, serious 24, Zadie Smith has spent virtually all her life living in what many reviewers have liked to call the “multi-cultural melting pot” that is Willesden, North-West London, where White Teeth is set. She staunchly protects her right to resist any kind of pressure to write according to her colour, her class or her gender, asserting inste ad, “I always represent Willesden Green.”

White Teeth, she insists, is “a fantasy book”, “an act of nostalgia” and the London that appears is “a utopia. It’s not my business to ‘take the pulse of multi-cultural London’. I’m not in the business of writing ‘multi-cultural fiction’. I wrote a book with some different characters in, but that’s called life. I find the stories in my life the least interesting things to write about. It’s important that as a black writer, I’m free from what my characters might or might not do in the real world. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes write whatever the hell they want to write. The next book will certainly have nothing to do with that.”

Nonetheless there are elements of her personality in all her characters – from the old-fashioned Englishman, Archie to the one-handed Bangaldeshi waiter, Samad, that befriends him.

Like the heroine of the novel, Irie, Smith comes from mixed race parentage, with the added complicatio n that her mother and father (“a photographer for catalogues and direct mail, that type of thing”) got divorced when she was 11.

“I have total false memory syndrome about my childhood. My parents were at each other’s throats. But I remember it as really lovely… My dad writes me a letter almost everyday now – which is kind of freakish. He makes the effort which is pretty cool, but we don’t get on at all. My mother raised me and my two brothers pretty much on her own.”

Describing herself as “seriously competitive” (“I’ll fight to the death”), the desire to earn her mother’s approval seems to be what drives and inspires her.

“I told her about being nominated for the Orange prize,” she finds herself confiding, laughing at the futility of her frustration, “and she didn’t sound happy at all ! She sounded basically jealous. She works with children, some very dark shit, really hard. I do nothing and get all this money, so of course she’s not impressed.”

She always assumed she’d be an academic, and still harbours dreams of returning to Kings College, Cambridge, where she was, she says blithely, “pretty much the only black girl in college. Not just the only one from London, from anywhere, so I was something of exotic interest, in the same way that i found public schoolboys incredibly exotic because I’d never seen anybody like that. So, you know, you get laid alot. That’s one advantage. I just loved it there. I took out three student loans and lived the life of Riley.”

She concedes there were, inevitably, incidents where she was the victim of prejudice because of her colour or her class, but, rather than rail about the injustice of it, she chooses to regard them mild irritation.

“The bottom line at Cambridge is how clever are you. It’s what every immigrant mother will tell their kids: you have to get twice as good grades, you have to work twice as hard. You do an amazing amount of work. I read a novel a day. The real difficulty at Cambridge is being a woman. Th ey have the worst time. If you want to pass those exams, you have to be a man about it. You have to write like a man, think like a man. It’s a masculine institution.”

She wrote White Teeth at night while preparing for her finals.
“To write books you have to be bored and exams are good for that.”

The most remarkable thing about the book is that, for once, the hype is justified. The book has drawn comparisons with Salman Rushdie – mostly because his endorsement appears on the book jacket (“an astonishingly assured debut”) and “because it’s got some Asian characters,” she grumbles. “Books With Asian Characters – that’s not a genre.”

In fact White Teeth is, thanks to its larger-than-life comic colour and razor-sharp street-slang, closer to something between The Buddha of Suburbia and ‘London Fields’.

As it follows the fortunes of two families of immigrants – from Bangladesh and Jamaica – after they come to Willesden and the dilemmas they and their children face as they try to find faith, identity and some kind of contentment, the race, class, and age of the characters are all mixed with tremendous originality and invention.

As the families of Archibald Jones, Samad Iqbal and Marcus and Joyce Chalfen (a nauseating couple of white middle-class liberals) meet, Smith builds a series of subtle battles to explore her themes of spirituality versus science, local culture versus family roots, individual will versus genes, similarity and difference – hence the admirably ambiguous title.

‘White Teeth’ alludes to wisdom teeth being adults’ teeth that you have to grow into, and the symbolism of the fact that, in the end, we all have white teeth.
“If you’re mixed race, you look at your mother or the parent that’s black, and you don’t quite look like them. You look for what’s inherited, and are very aware of difference. I inherited quite gappy bad teeth from my mum.”

The obsessions with family roots, the importance of national history and comm unity that all her characters have is obviously her own, and makes the values at the heart of the book endearingly gentle and strangely old-fashioned.

“Nobody in the book watches TV, they don’t go to the movies, they don’t read the papers, they’ve no interest in celebrity… The only thing that matters to them is the people in their lives, within their own community. The people that they look up to, or want to be, are other people that they know.”

The characters’ sweet nature partly explains why some reviewers have labelled the book as ‘a feel-good novel’ – “which is strange,” she points out, “because nobody feels very good in it.”

The subtle struggles the immigrants and their children face in the book are mostly to do with spiritual, philosophical or romantic dilemmas. There are hardly any incidents of the type of prejudice or racial violence many critics were assuming were de rigeur.
“I am aware of the omission,” Zadie shrugs mildly, “and certainly the black press is aware of the omission and doesn’t like it, but the black press ain’t my problem. There’s no violence, no actual sex at all, not any drugs except weed, which doesn’t count. But, you know, when I was writing the book, I was in a good relationship.
I was living in Cambridge. I felt cheery about things.”

Besides, contrary to the more patronising assumptions many liberal reviewers have made about her background, she says, “I’ve never had any experience of any physical violence in my life, ever. My brothers get a huge amount of hassle. I’ve had hassle, but my problems in this country are much more to do with my sex to be honest.”

She seems ambivalent about the state of race relations in Britain and above all, she refuses to be turned into some sort of spokesperson.

Only the day before the interview, she was in Sotherbys doing some research for her next book, and the staff treated her like some sort of potential criminal.

“You feel like you’re gonna cry sometimes,” she complains, “but I don’t want to write about it. It’s not my problem. It’s their problem. My brother’ll write that.”

She is determined that her next book, The Autograph Man, will be pretty much the polar opposite of what both her admiring critics or her family might expect her to write.

She describes it as “hopefully a short book this time. The main character is a half-Chinese/half-Jewish porn-freak autograph collector… My family liked White Teeth. My dad read it. I try to imagine my mum reading the next book… she’s not gonna be that impressed basically.”

Her widespread acclaim amongst well-to-do literary circles and the media has only made Zadie Smith uncomfortable. Like both the young second generation immigrant teenagers in White Teeth, or like New York painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, she is increasingly finding that her race, class and gender is only offering admirers with a motive to promote her a variety of ways in which to patronise her.

“They seem to have found it miraculous that someone could be like me and not be completely thick. I think it’s slightly depressing that there’s so much enthusiasm for it. It worries me that my book is so indefinitely likable that so many people could like it. Writers need to write out of some kind of grudge. I need to keep my grudges going.”

She laughs at one label given to her by one magazine – “the hot talent that everyone wants to know”, scoffing, “So how come I can’t get a date then ?! I’m terminally single. The young guys I meet are just aggressive, too competitive. There’s a whole generation of 35 year-old men talking like teenagers, completely refusing to grow up. The last one I went out with even had his own Arsenal toothbrush. Pathetic !”

Success then has in no way helped her love life (“zero, zip, zilch”) and – she would have you believe – has offered only the peripheral benefit of giving her “lots of free time to watch daytime TV.”

“I hate travel. I hate shopping. I hate clothes. The best bit is buying books. I eat out all the time. I get cabs everywhere and drink fresh orange juice all the time, with everything. Travel’s wasted on me. I just can’t deal with the thought of Chinese people in China doing Chinese things. I want to be like Woody Allen. If you love a place, it can be infinitely creative to you.”

Her success has allowed her to get her own flat in Kilburn – next to her beloved Willesden, but she misses living with her mum.

“The best thing about the money from the book deal,” she announces, suddenly looking on the bright side, “is: the Orange prize doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t have to win to be able to writ e. I don’t have to sell any more books. I don’t really give a damn. I just want to write a book that I think is worth reading, and one day write a genuinely great book.”

She is perfectly aware that all the hype about her – young, gifted, and black, a working-class woman educated in the state schools of Willesden – and the size of the success her debut novel has had is being used to try and make her an inspiration to aspiring writers everywhere.

In fact, the truth is, she laughs, she is probably only going to ruin alot of aspiring writers’ lives.
“Everyone I know is writing a novel now ! All my friends. My brother’s writing. They think they’re going to be given huge amounts of money and become famous when the fact is they probably face years and years of rejection and poverty. What happened to me was just a total fluke.”

Somehow, I doubt it.


addendum: White Teeth did not win the Orange Prize the next day but Zadie Smith won it in 2006 for On Beauty. She called me early in the morning on the Sunday this interview appeared calling about the use of the family photos used to illustrate it. Even pointing out that she had provided the paper with these photos would not pacify her, hopefully fulfilling her view that “Writers need to write out of some kind of grudge.”