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Zadie Smith | Biography

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Early Years and Influences

The child of an English father and a Jamaican mother, Zadie Smith was born in London on October 25, 1975. Growing up in a working-class London neighborhood, Smith wrote stories and poems. She changed her given name, Sadie, to Zadie at age 14.

Smith enrolled in the University of Cambridge, where she studied English literature and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1998. Smith's literary influences include English novelist George Eliot, Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and American writer David Foster Wallace; she also admires British comedy and American actress Katharine Hepburn. But perhaps Smith's greatest literary influence was her father. When Smith's beloved father, a World War II veteran who had worked as a salesman, died in 2006, Smith used writing as a tool to process her grief.

In a 2012 interview, Smith describes how she lost her working-class accent during her years at Cambridge and picked up the speech patterns of the university community. For a while, Smith used these two different voices in different social contexts, but eventually she lost the working-class speech of her childhood, a loss she regrets.

White Teeth Earns Immediate Success

Smith began work on the book that was to become her first novel, White Teeth, while working on her bachelor of arts degree. At age 21 Smith sent a section of the novel to a literary agent. Publishers fought over the rights to the unfinished novel, and Smith sold the book to Hamish Hamilton for an advance of a quarter-million pounds. White Teeth was released in 2000, the year Smith turned 25. In addition to being praised by renowned British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, White Teeth has received numerous awards, among them the Whitbread First Novel Award (2000), the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Prize (2001), and the Guardian First Book Award (2000). Smith became a media darling, hailed by many journalists as the first brilliant literary voice of the new millennium. White Teeth has been translated into more than 20 languages and was adapted for television in 2002.

Smith's Literary Reputation Continues to Grow

As Writer in Residence at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, Smith completed Piece of Flesh, a collection of erotic stories published in 2001. In 2002 her second novel, The Autograph Man, established that the literary brilliance of White Teeth had not been mere beginner's luck. This book earned her the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. The Autograph Man centers on the story of a Chinese Jewish man struggling with the demands of his life in London. After the publication of her second novel, Smith was awarded a fellowship at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Smith cemented her reputation as a major voice in British literature with her third novel, On Beauty, which she modeled on fellow British writer E.M. Forster's 1910 classic novel Howard's End. Published in 2005 and awarded the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction, the book examines the way cultures mingle and clash through the stories of two diverse families living in a university town near Boston, Massachusetts. Smith published a book on writing, Fail Better, in 2006. A collection of Smith's essays, Changing My Mind, appeared in 2009. Smith's fourth novel, 2012's NW, explores the challenges adulthood brings to the childhood friendship between two London women. Smith's fifth novel, 2016's Swing Time, also centers on a long-term friendship.

In 2010 Smith received tenure at New York University.

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