I got introduced to Zadie Smith’s work during the first year of an English degree at the University of Sydney. Even her name was new to me. In class, we read On Beauty and after a considerable amount of pages, I wasn’t entirely sure if Smith was my sort of writer. On Beauty made me feel dizzy; her writing seemed chaotic, the collection of voices tricky to relate to and the inhabited world alien to life in Sydney. It took a decent chunk for me to steady myself under Smith’s stewardship. As the final page turned, I wasn’t ready to be let go and found myself hastily racing through her available collection: The Autograph Man, White Teeth and then later NW. Now I find myself a few chapters into Swing Time, biting at the bit to be re-invited into her domain.
On the way back from a recent trip I listened to an interview between Smith and Adam Buxton from November 2016, aside from Trump’s recent win that was weighing heavily on them both much of their conversation was taken up with relationships. I found Smith’s take on motherhood particularly resonant. She spoke of the complexities and differences between raising a boy and raising a girl. She professed to happily dressing her son in the first item of clothing that comes to hand and pushing him merrily on his way into the big, bright world, whereas her daughter is more scrupulously prepared. She considers what the item of clothing represents, what message it sends out to the world. She considers her own experiences as a woman and projects them onto her daughter, wanting the best experiences to be accessible for her and wanting to continue on the feminist battle. She also spoke of a rivalry between mothers and daughters and how fraught the relationship often is. With a brave honesty, she spoke about a mother’s fear of being replaced by her daughter, a newer shiny version being preened to take the mothers’ place. She also spoke bluntly of how annoying other people’s children can be and how she felt no shame in reprimanding them. Smith unashamedly embraced the darker aspects of her personality when jovially chatting to Buxton, seemingly unafraid of judgment.
She spoke of being 23 and reading from her debut novel White Teeth at a Barnes and Nobel store in New York. She’s enjoyed the sort of astronomical success that seems to bless only a select few writers per generation. Her situation is enviable: teaching at Columbia University, enjoying huge success in both the UK and the States meanwhile raising a family, yet she doesn’t come across as smug. If anything she’s slightly aloof, cool; she mixes with literary elite and lives in the cultural haven of Greenwich Village, but still her work is rooted in life from her youth in north-west London.
Skipping from that introduction in 2009 to now, eight years later, I certainly feel more at home in Smith’s creations. I’m not sure whether that has to do with growing more familiar with her writing style, or that I’ve moved from Sydney to London and suddenly her accounts about London are more familiar. My feeling is that her books are unapologetic and make no attempt to understand their reader. There are no barriers to Smith’s work in terms of intellectual expectation, nor are they genre pieces that appeal to a certain readership, these are books created for any reader, however the characters are underrepresented by the majourity of literature. The unusualness in Smith’s work comes partly from the identities it puts at the forefront, Swing Time, for example, looks at two ‘brown girls’ who grow up in the same neighbourhood but under the guidance of matriarchs’ whose values greatly differ. Smith’s presentation and understanding of race is one of the deeply fascinating elements of her work and, from her conversation with Adam Buxton, would be equally as riveting as a chat with the author herself. There’s a sharpeness to the vocabularly that the young women use, unaffraid of using terminology that Guardian readers may consider un-PC.
Zadie Smith is one of many authors who have felt underrepresented by the canon and have written characters they know into popular fiction, sadly they are still anomalies but perhaps increasingly less so.