Zadie Smith's Most Creative Fiction Is the Story of Her Own Deprived Childhood
Pryer, Nick, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)
Byline: NICK PRYER
ACCLAIMED novelist Zadie Smith is gearing up for a hectic autumn. The long-awaited TV dramatisation of her best-selling debut novel, White Teeth, is about to be screened on Channel 4.
And soon she begins the interviews, readingsand book-signings before next month's publication of her second novel, The Autograph Man, dubbed the literary event of 2002.
Zadie, of course, is the marketing man's dream.
At just 26, she is the self-proclaimed workingclass black girl who has been presented as the new darling of North London's fashionable, Leftish intellectual set.
Zadie is portrayed as the brilliant, beautiful child of the streets who somehow managed to write the book that captured the confused, ebullient spirit of London's multiracial melting pot in all its tragicomic glory. She is, they say, the 'George Eliot of multiculturalism'.
But throughout Literary London, you can hear the knives being sharpened.
There are whispered stories of Zadie's haughty arrogance, her wilfully scornful and unpleasant behaviour . . . and that the instant mythology built up around her of a preternaturally gifted street-tough urchin is as much an imaginative work of fiction as her undeniably impressive first novel.
Much of the criticism can be dismissed as petty jealousy or the 'tall poppy syndrome', the British tendency to build people up only to glory in the satisfaction of knocking them abruptly back down to earth again.
But like those other tempestuous black British icons, Naomi Campbell and Linford Christie, Ms Smith seems to have adopted boorishness, tantrums and withering disdain for others as a lifestyle and uses the perception that her life has been an endless struggle to overcome prejudice to justify her abrasive attitude.
So what if she is prickly and generally difficult say the Blairite Islington intellectuals. She's had a difficult upbringing. Life is hard for a mixed-race child from a broken home who has fought her way up from the gritty London suburb of Willesden. Try to be more understanding.
WHAT her supporters conveniently forget is that, Zadie - who changed her name from Sadie as a teenager 'because it sounded more exotic' - comes from a solidly middleclass home.
She is the indulged daughter of a commercial photographer and a child psychotherapist. She was a bookish, bluestocking high-flyer at Hampstead School, one of London's most respected comprehensives,andwasmarkedoutfor success at an early age. Indeed, she has an upper second degree in English from King's College, Cambridge, probably the most privileged and supercilious educational establishment in Britain.
But despite her many advantages in life, Zadie herself is not afraid of playing the 'I-had-it-tough' card. When the famously iconoclastic newspaper columnist, Julie Burchill, accused her of being an 'overeducated novelist' she snarled back: 'Did you mean overeducated for a working-class black girl?'
She played the card again when White Teeth was shortlisted two years ago for the [pound]30,000 women-only Orange Prize.
'It's disgusting,' she said when it emerged that Ffion Hague, wife of the former Tory leader William Hague - then embroiled in a row about asylumseekers - was on the judging panel. 'I'm not going to be at the Orange Prize. I'm sure Ffion loves the book and can wear a baseball cap backwards and it's the whole Notting Hill Carnival multicultural thing. Ffion Hague can kiss my behind - and you can print that.' Zadie, of course, did turn up at the award ceremony but managed to offend nearly everyone there. 'This was a glittering, no expense-spared party as close to the Oscars as you'll get in the British publishing world,' remembers a fellow writer. 'Zadie had been pretty rude about the prize in the weeks before, saying she didn't even want to win it but wanted to win something "smaller and more relevant".
'Her table near mine was empty for almost the whole evening. Everybody assumed she was going to be awarded the prize and send someone along from her publisher to collect it.
'Then, just as the winner was going to be announced, she swanned in like the Queen of Sheba in this voluminous black dress with an entourage of flunkies in a ridiculous V formation like migrating geese behind her. It seemed that she sat at the table for a few minutes, exuding contempt for all around her.
I remember she had a collosal garland of white orchids in her hair - it must have been 2ft 6in high - and just as dramatically she flounced out when she didn't win the prize after all.
'She appeared to be so arrogant and obnoxious that I can't bring myself to read White Teeth. I'm sure it's a good book but I wouldn't be able to give it a fair reading because of the impression she made.' Perhaps the tension of the ceremony itself contributed to the unfavourable impression, but Zadie's behaviour was nothing new. Contemporaries at King's College, Cambridge, remember her as glacially cool and witheringly dismissive of her peers.
'King's has a reputation for being very right-on, political and cliquey,' says one. 'It was a particularly unfortunate combination for her.
'When she came up to Cambridge she seemed insecure and hid behind a streetwise veneer. But she graduated towards a set of well-connected, arrogant London undergrads with an ethos of sneering cruelty and exclusivity.
'One friend of hers was Josh Appignanesi, whose mother Lisa is a writer and is on the council of the Institute of Contemporary Art. No one was really surprised when Zadie was subsequently made the ICA's first Writer In Residence or when Salman Rushdie enthusiastically endorsed her talents.
She is a very good networker.
'This idea that she's some little tough girl from the streets makes me laugh.
She has had the endorsement of the Establishment from the start. Josh's mother lent her a room to finish writing
White Teeth and put her in touch with the Wylie Agency in New York. It led to the bidding war for the book that produced the headlines about her [pound]250,000 advance. Zadie knew what to do to succeed.
'She was also known for having a number of sexual adventures and singing jazz in the college bar. She had a beautiful voice but her accent slowly seemed to change to a fashionable mix of estuary English and Cambridge posh.
'She fell out with another undergrad, Joel Chalfen, and got her revenge by using his surname for the ridiculed, trendy-liberal middleclass family in White Teeth.' YET Chalfen says: 'There's been a lot of speculation about why she used certain names in the book but I'm not interested.The family are based on a different family. She never met my parents.' Zadie remembers Cambridge rather differently. 'I was pretty much the only black girl,' she says.
'But the real difficulty was being a woman. 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 may have moaned occasionally about being typecast as a young black writer from humble roots but she's done little to correct the misapprehension. Ah, but that would be bad marketing.
Her early interviews were conducted over steaming mugs of tea and rolled-up cigarettes in a Willesden working men's cafe. And when she won The Guardian First Book Award 18 months ago she borrowed the street argot so pointedly satirised by Ali G to thank the 'Willesden Massive', much to the smug satisfaction of the newspaper's editorial nomenklatura.
In fact, her family home is in a sought-after, tree-lined enclave of elegant Edwardian homes, which estate agents decribe as Brondesbury Park, rather than the more humble Willesden. Some mansions there can cost up to [pound]2 million.
Distinguished arts critic Richard Cork has known Zadie since she was a child. 'She went to school with my daughter and was very bright, charming, individual and funny. I liked her a lot. I'd say she came from a middleclass family.
She used to sing with my daughter in classical concerts and performed in a production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera that my son helped to stage at Cambridge.' Her neighbours also describe her as a cheerful, bookish child who won a national writing competition when she was eight and had a short story published in a magazine at 12. But those who had known her before White Teeth became a hit were stunned by her transformation once the royalties started rolling in.
'I hardly recognised her at all the award cermonies,' says one acquaintance from university. 'She'd acquired these divine cheekbones, thrownawayheruglysquare glassesandstraightenedher hair. She seemed to have had a different image every week and must have spent a fortune. She was like a supermodel.' However, Zadie insists she was a supercool child of the Willesden council estates. 'Top Shop,' she says.
'I've an incredible knack of making cheap clothes look expensive.' SHE also accused her mother of resenting her success. 'I told her I'd been nominated for the Orange Prize and she sounded jealous,' she says. 'She works with children and I do nothing and get all this money.
She's not impressed.' Zadie's new novel, The Autograph Man, deals among other things with the fickle nature of fame, which may reflect her own distinctly ambivalent feelings about her celebrity.
Associates say she is already tired of the publicity merry-goround and wants to do an MA course at Harvard, perhaps with a view to returning to the relative anonymity of academia.
'I find it impossible to ignore what people think of me,' she once said. 'I hate not to be liked.' Her critics may say she has a peculiarly self-destructive way of going about it.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Zadie Smith's Most Creative Fiction Is the Story of Her Own Deprived Childhood. Contributors: Pryer, Nick - Author. Newspaper title: The Mail on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: September 8, 2002. Page number: 38. © 2009 Solo Syndication Limited. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.