The debut wunderkind of the new millennium was Zadie Smith, who finished her manuscript for White Teeth as a college student in Cambridge, England, only to find herself sitting on a six-figure advance, an international bestseller, and an onslaught of literary praise comparing her to the likes of Charles Dickens and Salman Rushdie.
Born in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Smith grew up in London's poly-ethnic Willesden Green neighborhood, a backdrop she has mined with great success in stories that parse the immigrant experience and investigate overarching themes of race, class, and intergenerational ties. She attended King's College in Cambridge, submitted stories to a college anthology, and got noticed by a literary agent who wangled the deal that led to her first novel. Spanning 150 years, mixing Jamaican, English, and Bangladeshi into its characters' family trees, and focused on three clans in London, White Teeth garnered lavish praise on its publication in 2000. Notoriously critical New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani called it "...a big, splashy, populous production ... that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer." The San Francisco Chronicle pronounced it the first great novel of the new century, and Time likened Smith to Margaret Atwood and Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon.
In the midst of all the hosannas, though, one negative review stands out. A notice in the literary magazine Butterfly proclaimed: "White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old." The author of this snipe? Zadie Smith, of course! "I was very worried that if this book did well or was forced to do well by a lot of hype behind it, that I wouldn't write anything again," she explained to London's Independent in 2000
Apparently Smith seriously underestimated her accomplishment. White Teeth scooped the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and was shortlisted for a several other prestigious literary awards. Moreover, she stared down the dreaded specter of sophomore slump with her second novel, 2002's The Autograph Man, a meditation on her own celebrity that zoomed up the bestseller list, won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction, and positioned Smith for inclusion in Granta magazine's 2003 list of the 20 best young British writers -- a roster compiled once every 10 years.
Smith continues to forge fiction that gets noticed. In addition, she has edited and written introductions to anthologies that showcase the preeminent writers of her generation.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Smith changed her name from "Sadie" to "Zadie," "because it seemed right, exotic, different," she told the Guardian.
Smith's third novel, On Beauty takes its title from Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Just."
Back to Top