Zadie Smith was only 25 when her first novel, White Teeth, was published. It seems that this is sort of the Number One Fact about Zadie Smith, as it were, especially for Writing About Zadie Smith. At the New Yorker festival this past fall, Smith was questioned about what it was like to become such a remarkable success at such an incredibly young age. Her response was classically Zadie: It wasn’t that unusual at all, she said, and then she proceeded to list a host of names who had achieved similarly early and lasting success — among them John Updike, Martin Amis, and the rest of the foundation of modern Western literature. And she’s right — for a talent of her caliber, she is just right on track.
While it is has been true for a long time that the idea of a quintessentially English writer has been an older, whiter, maler sort (and, it could be noted, possessing a significantly less stunning countenance), Zadie Smith fits quite perfectly into the canon. She is the new idea of quintessentially English. In her acclaimed debut, White Teeth, she explored the realities of multicultural Britain in a way that was both forward-thinking and sentimental, and unequivocally moving. The Autograph Man took a look at the life of a religiously-conflicted young Brit, with a subtle and clever hand. In On Beauty, she tackled the American experience and results were endlessly compelling and deeply lovely. Her non-fiction, examining everyone from Katherine Hepburn to E.M. Forester to her own father, is as word-perfect as her fiction with the added bonus of being heart-wrenchingly true. At 35, she has three novels under her belt, degrees from Harvard and Oxford, a cool writer-husband, and full tenure at NYU. You know, normal stuff that everyone has, no problem. She’s a force and she knows it, and we know it too.
A Sample of Notable Badges Earned: We would like to humbly submit The White Ink Badge for writing to Zadie, even though her writing is seemingly genderless — her voice explores the perspective of a young half-Jewish, half-Chinese man or a an older Islamic WWII vet as beautifully as it does from any of the powerfully-wrought female characters she takes on. Still, we can’t have this badge for very great writing lying around without awarding it to this very great writer. We would also like to present Ms. Smith with The IRNT Badge, aka The I’d Rather Not, Thanks Badge, because we feel certain that she has no issue politely declining or generally asserting herself (plus the “rather” sounds a little British, no? Just us? Fine.) Finally, we would like to retroactively give Smith The I Am An Adult, Thanks Badge for the years and years she endured of people marveling at her youth. At least she will have the rest of her life to keep showing us exactly how much she can do.
Head Ladyscout Meredith Haggerty is also a blogger.