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Saturday, 6 January, 2001, 08:26 GMT
Zadie Smith: Willesden to Whitbread
Literary wunderkind Zadie Smith
Twenty-five years old and the literary world is at her feet. Now, novelist Zadie Smith is in line for one of the year's top book awards. By Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit.

Young, gifted and black is the kind of hackneyed label one would think could be safely attached to Zadie Smith, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.

Young, undeniably. Now 25, she was only 21 when she wrote White Teeth, which now becomes a contender for the Whitbread Book of the Year, to be announced later this month.


Black, well more accurately mixed-race, since her mother is Jamaican and her father English.

I thought it was stupendous

Literary agent Georgia Garrett

Gifted certainly, in the eyes of the Whitbread judges, who said White Teeth was "perhaps the best novel... we have ever read... about contemporary London".

But Smith is not as willing to believe the hype. "The book I wrote is OK, but sometimes I think it's quite excruciating. It's the product of my adolescence," she has said.

And she does not share some of the assumptions about the novel, which is set in Willesden, in north-west London, and explores the fortunes of two families, one from Bangladesh and the other Anglo-Jamaican.

The front cover of White Teeth
Her remarkable début novel
Zadie Smith says the book was never intended as a multicultural milestone: "I wasn't trying to write about race. I was trying to write about the country I live in."

She started working on White Teeth at Cambridge, where she earned a first in English, but the novel started life as a short story. It eventually ran to 462 pages, but a mere 80 hand-written pages were enough to convince a leading literary agent, Georgia Garrett, of her talent.


"I was very excited. I thought it was stupendous," she says.

Zadie Smith secured the services of an agent, the 80 pages were auctioned at the Frankfurt Book Fair and she became an overnight celebrity, striking a £250,000 two-book deal with publishers Hamish Hamilton.

Zadie Smith
Something to smile about: 80 pages and a six-figure sum
Until she was 15, Zadie, or Sadie, as she was before she made the minor adjustment to her name while at her local comprehensive school, had nurtured another dream, to be a singing, dancing star of MGM musicals.

"I tap danced for 10 years before I began to understand people don't make musicals any more."

She has not forsaken music; she sings jazz, loves Madonna and, like her two younger brothers, is a fan of hip-hop.

Her new status has brought some changes in her lifestyle. For much of the past year she has been fêted while travelling the globe. She is also preparing to begin a stint as a writer-in-residence at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.

Parents divorce

She has bought a flat in Kilburn, next to Willesden and eats out a lot. Yet her mother cannot quite accept that Zadie's efforts have earned six-figure sums.

Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith: "The book I wrote is OK"
Although her parents were divorced when she was 15, Zadie Smith's story is not the one about the disadvantaged child from a broken home who went off the rails but saw the light just in time.

She has mixed memories of her childhood, choosing to concentrate on happier times and to play down the rows between her parents. At school she was "a model pupil" who loved being taught by "remarkable" people.

If she has had problems, she says, they have arisen from sex and class, rather than race, and some issues do provoke her anger.

I wasn't trying to write about race

Zadie Smith

She was hot favourite to win the women-only Orange Prize for fiction, and its accompanying £30,000, but missed out. Smith said she would rather win something more relevant.

And she was outraged by the presence of Ffion Hague, wife of the Conservative Party leader, on the judging panel, after his plans to set up detention centres for asylum seekers.

"I'm sure Ffion loves the book, and can wear a baseball cap backwards and it's the whole Notting Hill Carnival, multicultural thing", she said. "Ffion Hague can kiss my behind."

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie called White Teeth "astonishingly assured"
But she does not regard herself as a spokesperson for ethnic minorities: "I think black people should celebrate a lack of icons and strive to do their own thing... Will Smith is a role model, yes, if you want to rap or make action movies, otherwise he's a bit of a waste of space".

Zadie Smith has refused to be seduced by celebrity. Some of Hollywood's biggest film-makers were willing to pay for the rights to White Teeth, but instead she sold them to the BBC and the independent Company Television.

They will adapt the book for a £5m television series which Smith believes is more likely to retain the integrity of her work.


There have even been comparisons with Salman Rushdie, who described her début as "astonishingly assured". Smith though, poured cold water on the match, calling it "nonsense".

She says she is worried there is so much enthusiasm for White Teeth, because "writers need to write out of some kind of grudge".

But as Zadie Smith works on her second novel, The Autograph Man, it is clear she would cherish the approval of one critic - her mum.

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