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About this book

An introduction to the work of Zadie Smith, placing her fiction in a clear historical and theoretical context, and exploring her work in relation to contemporaneity and postcolonialism. Including a timeline of key dates, this guide offers an accessible reading of Smith's work and an overview of its critical reception.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Timeline

Abstract
Harold Macmillan ‘Winds of Change’ speech, Cape Town, South Africa
Philip Tew

1. Introduction: Smith as Cultural Icon or Production?

Abstract
This study introduces and analyses Zadie Smith’s literary oeuvre, considering an author who despite her fame has published only three novels, supplemented by a modest output of shorter fiction (considered in Chapter 8). Although there is far more to Smith, she remains largely recognized for her first book, White Teeth (2000), initially reviewed and read as a positive, almost rapturous evocation of multicultural Britain. Dominic Head comments in ‘Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: Multiculturalism for the Millennium’ that her ‘evocations of post-colonial migrant experience in post-war Britain have been haunted by a sense of social failure’ (107), and in its response sees in the novel an ‘exemplary instance of this new phase’ (109) reflecting multicultural hybridity. The novel features three often very troubled families; initially the racially mixed Joneses (of English stock, but also incorporating through the medium of Archie Jones’ marriage the Jamaican Bowdens) and the Bengali Iqbals, and later the Anglo-Jewish Chalfens. As Hadley Freeman records in ‘Words Smith,’ conflicted families inspire Smith, regarding them as among ‘ “the oldest structures in the world. How can all that stuff not be utterly compelling?”’ (356) Smith details their interlocking narratives and ketches various characters they encounter, largely in Willesden, north-west London, reflecting on contemporary multi-racial mores often satirically, exhibiting a knowing, generally interrogative quality.
Philip Tew

2. A Biographical Reading

Abstract
Despite Smith’s literary success, not only is she still young, but since publishing her first novel she has become both rich and extremely famous. White Teeth not only attracted great critical attention, but was nominated for and won a number of awards and prizes: the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book), the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and additionally two EMMAs (or BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards) for Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer. It was also short-listed for the Author’s Club First Novel Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. The very breadth of Smith’s novels and stories, particularly their intellectual and aesthetic points of reference (however one judges the success of such engagements) suggest that any autobiographical account of Smith must involve certain complexities, one being the relationship of her upbringing to her writing and identity, another being her own view of both her fiction and the fame it has attracted. She seems not to have anticipated such celebrity, and certainly its surprising and often perverse qualities are very much a central subject of her second novel which is set against a backdrop of north London suburban normality (albeit with the usual oddities and quiddities of urban life).
Philip Tew

Major Works

3. White Teeth

Abstract
In White Teeth the first wartime meeting of Archie and Samad testifies to the power of trauma in forgingmutual loyalty and friendship. Both are palpably incomplete individuals. Archie is a callow, inexperienced virgin. The pompous Samad waits for a daughter to be born to the influential Begum family with whom an arrangement has been reached by his own. Subsequently, he marries his younger and far from docile wife, Alsana. Migrating to Britain, the unlikely couple produce twin boys, Magid and Millat, facing racism in the East End of London stirred by Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. This causality stresses that the private and public are intimately interrelated, and operates in the immediacy of such lives. Archie and Samad meet again in the mid-1970s, forging an unlikely friendship. The Iqbals have escaped Powellism, settling in Willesden, becoming neighbours of the Jones family consisting of Archie, his younger Jamaican wife, Clara, and their mixed race daughter, Irie. The three children share childhood experiences, and during adolescence do so within three highly self-conscious families, exploring both the relations of the past and present. This combination of a familial perspective and retrospection allows various multi-chronic and shifting viewpoints to become centripetal.
Philip Tew

4. The Autograph Man

Abstract
Great attention was required to produce the British first edition of The Autograph Man both in terms of its overall layout as an artefact and also as a narrative. Its design consists of several layered elements, suggesting superimpositions, offering almost a quality of the palimpsest. One has to physically engage with the book beyond normal parameters. First if the book is removed from the dust jacket, one finds printed on the inside of the latter three very short stories described as ‘Being No. 1 in an occasional series of Practical and Moral Lifestyle Pamphlets written by the author of the accompanying novel,’ entitled ‘When You Turn Everything into Symbol, Bad Things Happen or The Same Instinct Runs Through It All’ (n.p.). This indicates obliquely one of the ongoing themes of the book, the contemporary preference for the symbolic over the real, image over substance. Opened out further the dust-jacket reveals on the reverse of both these stories and the book’s front cover, a whimsically illustrated ‘Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem’ (n.p.), the chart for Smith’s protagonist (referred to after the first few pages simply as Alex) who represents ‘Presence.’ The intricate literal opening required might be taken to indicate symbolically an elaborate opening out, a revelation of sorts.
Philip Tew

5. On Beauty

Abstract
On Beauty views the comedy inherent in university life, a microcosmic world dominated by domestic and professional conflict, its undercurrents, human irresolution and betrayal. Many of the central characters are active or putative intellectuals, and through their lives Smith catalogues the shibboleths and fractures of a contemporary liberal culture in crisis. Beneath the political infighting and family debates lurks Howard’s earlier affair with colleague, Claire Malcolm, initially secret and later revealed publicly. Smith cartographizes both parenthood and marital love, through the failings of Howard’s marriage investigating concepts of ethics and respect. Howard’s emotional inarticulacy is transcended partially only by his belated inner sense of an aesthetic imperative. The novel’s humour centres on both the narrator’s personal and social observations and the dialogue which is attuned to the misunderstandings of highly intellectualized perspectives and a more common sense view. This animates the various settings intersected by various members of the two central families: the Belsey home, the Kipps homes in both Boston and London, Wellington College’s campus, Boston Centre and Common, and the megastore where the youngest Belsey child, Levi, works.
Philip Tew

Criticism and Contexts

6. Survey of Selected Landmark Interviews

Abstract
This chapter offers an overview of certain landmark interviews undertaken by Smith, considering key points made by the author, and the commentary and perspective of the interviewers where relevant. It offers an intriguing view of the development of the author in the public domain. The first two interviews are very much inflected by aspects of White Teeth’s promotional campaign (and parameters of the myth evoked still persist). Both seem very much of the pre-9/11 period with their optimistic outlook and the underlying postmodern view of scepticism and irony of the interviewers. Stephanie Merritt’s interview appeared in The Observer on 16 January 2000, preceding Smith’s residence at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) by a month. One senses Smith deferring somewhat to the journalist, Merritt mediates Smith’s words and incorporates them into an accountwhich begins ‘The hype began in the autumn of 1997,’ but initially purveys the line of the publisher’s publicity summarizing White Teeth as ‘a broad, teeming, comic novel ofmultiracial Britain’ citing comparisons with Salman Rushdie and the unusual media attention for a new writer. Merritt describes Willesden ‘caff’ where they meet, relating it to Archie and Samad’s haunt, according toMerritt ‘the book’s pivotal relationship.’
Philip Tew

7. Critical Reception

Abstract
This chapter surveys and analyses critical responses to Smith’s work, where a blurring, or failure to distinguish one’s critical-ideological perspective from the object of criticism is not uncommon, as can be seen below in terms of readings of White Teeth. In evaluating her work, Smith’s own iconic status is unavoidable, indelibly influencing not only many interviews and profiles, but also the ideological assumptions and presumptions of many academic critics. The latter very often either adopt or take as a starting point the parameters underpinning the ‘public,’ initially commercially driven discourse which memorialized the meaning of both the first novel and its author in culturally symbolic terms, aspects which were intended by the publicity machine to solicit a feel-good factor among potential readers mostly from the liberal middle classes. Such exaggerated coordinates linger, expressed in a certain critical complicity with a set of apparently progressive neo-liberal signifiers many of which are based on non-textual assumptions or ideological ambitions on the part of the critic.
Philip Tew

8. Other Writings

Abstract
In order to extend comprehension and contextualize certain features of Smith’s aesthetic development, and potentially add to the illumination of aspects of her longer prose works, this chapter examines in detail Smith’s shorter fiction, the majority appearing in the New Yorker. Although Smith’s output of such writing is hardly prolific, their qualities and focus are perhaps unexpectedly diverse, and readers familiar with her novels may find certain of their perspectives surprising. A large proportion of these stories are not readily available. Hence the following close analysis may prove particularly useful in comprehending the full range of Smith’s themes, settings, characterizations and stylistic characteristics.
Philip Tew
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