Zadie Smith is one of the most important British novelists of the last 20 years. Her novels and short stories are memorable presentations of modern urban life, seamlessly mixing high and low culture. A Londoner born and bred, her first novel, White Teeth, was revealed to the world when she was just 21 — before it had even been published. In a 2004 BBC poll, Smith was named among the top 20 most influential people in British culture. Asked by the Guardian for her rules for writing fiction, she declared: "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied."
The British capital takes on the role of a character in Smith’s works, which frequently depict parts of London too often ignored in favour of glamorous Soho or affluent Kensington. Smith has described London as “a state of mind” as much as a city, and her books provide a backdrop that is thrilling, wild and stuffed with possibilities – but that also simmers with fear and friction.
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Smith’s novels are never explicitly about race and ethnicity, but as the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, the theme runs through all her books. White Teeth explores the interaction between the members of three London-based central families (the Joneses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens). Her 2005 novel On Beauty is set on a university campus and goes deeper into the politics of race.
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Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time presents two mixed-race girls in London who encounter Aimee, a 22-year-old Australian pop star. Aimee becomes a worldwide sensation. But adjusting to life as a celebrity proves incredibly difficult for her. The novel explores the morality of celebrity volunteerism, and reveals the conflict in the mind of many celebrities: embrace it, or remain normal?
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On Beauty is a partial testament to Smith’s own education, in particular her time spent at Cambridge and Harvard universities, and her interest in the implications of not belonging. In it we meet a white liberal who demands censorship, and a conservative English Afro-Caribbean man who questions the effectiveness of positive discrimination. The rivalry between the two shapes the plot.
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Smith’s characters grapple with multiple identities: English, Jamaican, Bengali, Jehovah’s Witness, Londoner, Muslim. She has said: “Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by.” But how easy - or indeed advisable - is it to detach yourself from what you are?
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