Girl wonder

The life so far of multiracial literary sensation Zadie Smith.

Published April 28, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

She's 24! That's out of the way. Besides her striking author photo, her age is the thing about Zadie Smith people seem most intrigued by -- especially people who write novels, or want to. (The obsession makes you think of that Roz Chast cartoon of a middle-aged man reading an obituary, with each headline replaced by "Younger Than Me," "Older Than Me" or "Exactly the Same Age!!!") Still, anyway you look at it, it's impressive that Smith wrote "White Teeth" during her senior year at Cambridge University.

There's little drama to be wrung out of Smith's life so far: She has a Jamaican mother and an English father. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother in Willesden, in north London, where most of the action in "White Teeth" is set. She always did well in school and was very fond of tap-dancing as a teenager. In her interviews with the British press, she seems eager to nip in the bud the mythology that builds around precocious talent. Smith did not, she recently told the Guardian newspaper, graduate with a Double First (the highest grades possible), as had been reported. "Actually, I got a Third in my Part Ones," she corrected.

Smith comes across in these interviews as poised and thoughtful, quick to joke and not too impressed with herself. Reviewing "White Teeth" herself in British journal Butterfly, Smith wrote, "This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al.), she would just stay still and shut up. 'White Teeth' is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old."

It may be this lack of preoccupation with herself that prepared Smith to write a book so refreshingly out of step with most recent fiction, especially by writers under 40. Her characters run the gamut from Bengali Muslims to Jews to Jamaicans, and she's as comfortable writing male characters as female ones, teenagers as octogenarians. "White Teeth" is not based on my personal family experience," she has reiterated several times. The book also differs from many of its peers by not seeming to be motivated by a desire to express to the world how hard it is for her, or someone like her, to function.

And yet Smith is aware of the overt and subtle ways in which her life has been affected by race: "When I was little," she told the Guardian, "we'd go on holiday to Devon, and there, if you're black and you go into a sweetshop, for instance, everyone turns and looks at you. So my instinct as a child was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the shop, so they knew I wasn't going to take anything or hurt anyone. I think that instinct has spilled over into my writing in some ways, which is not something I like very much or want to continue." She seems especially concerned that the book's optimism about race relations not be perceived as some sort of nicey-nice obliviousness to the ugly realities of how prejudice operates.

The major event of Smith's life so far appears to have been the frenzy that followed her finishing the first 100 pages of "White Teeth," a sample that got her taken on by the prestigious Andrew Wylie agency. The pages were circulated to London publishers, generating unusual commotion and an auction at which Hamish Hamilton, the literary imprint of Penguin in the U.K., came out victorious. "It's very rare for 100 pages to be greeted with this much excitement," says Simon Prosser, Smith's editor at Hamish Hamilton. "What we saw was this work that appealed to anyone, regardless of age, gender or political position. I recently got back from a party where I ran into someone who had just given 'White Teeth' to his grandmother, and she absolutely loved it!" Smith's advance was reported to be in the neighborhood of 250,000 pounds (over $390,000), though her publishers say that that's not entirely accurate.

In the United States, Random House is preparing for a rush on the book when it's made available next week, especially after a glowing review by Michiko Kakutani in Tuesday's New York Times and a forthcoming interview and review to be featured on the cover of Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Smith will be reading as part of the New Yorker Festival on May 5, an event that will kick off her American book tour.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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