6 minute read

Zadie Smith Biography

Selected writings



Smith, Zadie, photograph. David Levenson/Getty Images.

One of the most exciting and successful British writers of the twenty-first century, Zadie Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, in the year 2000, at age 25. An immediate success, her debut novel garnered acclaim from critics around the world. The book went on to win the prestigious Whitbread Award for a first novel and the Guardian first book award; Smith herself became a well-known literary celebrity in Britain. She followed up her success when her second novel, The Autograph Man, was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Jewish Quarterly's Wingate Prize in 2003. That same year she was named one of Granta magazine's "Best of Young British Novelists." Smith has cemented her place among the most talented writers of her generation with many articles and short stories published in magazines and journals in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere.

Born Sadie Smith in Willesden area of North London on October 27, 1975, to a British father and a Jamaican mother, Smith changed her name to "Zadie" when she was a child, because it seemed more exotic. Her parents, a photographer and a child psychologist, divorced when she was 15 years old, and she has two younger brothers as well as an older half brother and sister. Smith began writing stories at the age of six, but it was dance, not literature, that inspired her as a child. In an interview posted on the Random House (Smith's publisher) Web site, she remarked that it took some time for her to realize that the old-fashioned MGM musicals were not being made any more and from that point onwards, "Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with shuffle." She attended Hampstead Comprehensive School until the age of 18, then King's College, Cambridge, where she studied English literature and harbored ambitions of becoming an academic.

She began making serious attempts to write fiction for publication while at Cambridge, where she published the short story "The Newspaper Man" in the 1997 May Anthologies, an annual collection of work by students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which attracted the publisher HarperCollins. On the advice of a friend Smith, who was still a college student at the time, signed with the Andrew Wylie Literary Agency, who negotiated her a reported advance of £250,000 for her first two books. An extract of her first novel, entitled "The Waiter's Wife" appeared in Granta 67 in 1999 and was followed by the novel itself, White Teeth, in January 2000.

White Teeth was an impressive debut for a 25-year-old writer. Set in Willesden and centering on the lives of two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, White Teeth has been read as a portrait of multicultural Britain, but Smith has denied that it is "about" race as such. She told the Los Angeles Times: "Race is obviously a part of the book, but I didn't sit down to write a book about race.... So is [it that] a book that doesn't have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don't understand that."

The novel was generally well received, though even favorable reviews, such as Daniel Soar's hint at a lack of realism behind the coziness of her multiracial communities, and point out a lack of sophistication in the plotting; Smith herself has since agreed that the novel needs redrafting. After publication Smith became an instant celebrity, appearing on television and radio, and criss-crossing the Atlantic on book tours and media junkets. Her high visibility in the media was undoubtedly attributable at least as much to her youthfulness, and her appearance, as her talent as a writer. But she also came to embody a particular, but important strand of British culture that is polyethnic, forward-looking, and alienated from the idea of "heritage" for which the country has become known elsewhere. Smith's confident, humorous, and inventive style also makes the novel an engaging read and perhaps for these reasons White Teeth became a defining literary focal point at the beginning of a new century.

Soon after White Teeth appeared Smith became writer in residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and by 2001 she was working on her second novel, having withdrawn from the media gaze. The BBC commissioned a £5 million TV adaptation of White Teeth which aired in 2002. After the success of White Teeth, which was showered with awards, Smith was under pressure to follow it up with a second novel of similar weight. The Autograph Man was less well received than White Teeth, but is in many ways an answer to the media pressure Smith had suffered. It tells the story of a Chinese-Jewish autograph hunter and is set in London and New York; the widening of its geographical scope is matched by Smith's willingness to engage with issues in a more serious way than before. The Autograph Man also won several awards, including the Jewish Quarterly's Wingate Prize in 2003.

In what many in the British media saw as a further attempt to escape press attention, Smith accepted a position at Harvard in 2002, becoming a fellow in creative arts at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. There she began working on a book of essays about the morality of the novel and the way novelists engage with the ideas of moral philosophy; a book that is a marked change of direction from the novels that made her a celebrity in the popular, as well as the literary press. In 2003 Smith was named one of Granta magazine's best British novelists under 40. Since her dramatic debut Smith has been compared with Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis, as one of her generation's major literary talents. Few young writers live up to that kind of hype, but in her refusal to surrender herself to fame at the expense of her writing, Smith seems well equipped to do so.

At a Glance...

Born Sadie Smith on October 27, 1975, in London, England, changed name to Zadie as a child. Education: University of Cambridge, England, BA, English, 1998; University of Harvard, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 2002-03.

Career: Author, 2000–.

Awards: British Book Awards, Newcomer of the Year, for White Teeth, 2000; Frankfurt eBooks Award, Best Fiction Work, 2000; Guardian First Book Award, for White Teeth, 2000; James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 2000; Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, 2000; Whitbread Book of the Year Award, for White Teeth, 2000; Betty Trask Award, Debut Novel, Author Under Age 35, 2001; Jewish Quarterly, Wingate Prize, for The Autograph Man, 2003.

Addresses: Publisher—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 299 Park Ave., New York, NY 10171-0002.


White Teeth, Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

The Autograph Man, Hamish Hamilton, 2002.



Black Issues Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 5, September-October 2000, p. 26-27.

Daily Telegraph, February 19, 2000.

Guardian (London and Manchester), December 11, 2000; September 8, 2002.

London Review of Books, September 21, 2000.

Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2000, p. 1.

New Statesman (London), January 29, 2001.

New York Times Book Review, April 30, 2000, pp. 7-8; October 6, 2002, p. 13.

New Yorker, Vol. 75, No. 31, October 18-25, 1999 p. 182.

Time, September 30, 2002, p. 92.

Women's Review of Books, 18, No. 1, October 2000, p. 19.


"Bold Type: A Conversation with Zadie Smith," Random House, www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0700/smith/interview.html (February 25, 2005).

"A Writer's Truth," Boston Phoenix, www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/qa/documents/03028816.asp (February 25, 2005).

"Zadie Smith," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 24, 2005).

"Zadie Smith," 100 Great Black Britons, www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/zadie_smith.html (February 25, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Paul Anthony Samuelson (1915– ) Biography to Bessie Smith (1895–1937) Biography