Zadie Smith's Most Creative Fiction Is the Story of Her Own Deprived Childhood

By Pryer, Nick | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

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". …

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