The Brit-lit darling on hip-hop, her favourite Amis, and why “multiculturalism” makes her cringe.
1. She broke the template for Great British Writers.
Zadie Smith is arguably the most exciting and original fiction writer to emerge from Ol’ Blighty since Martin Amis. Published when she was just 24, Smith’s debut, White Teeth (2000), focused on two middle-aged friends—one English, one Bangladeshi—to paint a wry, generous portrait of modern, multicultural London. Five years later, Time named it one of the 100 most important English-language novels to be published since 1923. Smith’s latest book, NW, is a rich, rambling novel set in northwest London that abounds with sharp observations and even sharper prose. Take this description of a 10-year-old heartthrob: “Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.” Given her vivid, playful style, reviewers can’t help but compare Smith to Amis, often cited as the finest composer of sentences in the English language. She admits to having read two of his classic ’80s satires, Money (also included in Time’s top 100) and London Fields, but hesitates to call him an influence. “As Martin would tell you himself, I’m slightly out of touch with my generation. It was his father who meant an enormous amount to me. Martin is a great guy, but it was Kingsley that I read as a kid.”
2. Even so, she and Martin Amis share a writing philosophy.
Amis once told The Paris Review that his only concern when writing a novel was style; plot, character, themes and psychological insight were “merely secondary interests.” Smith, who admits to weakness in the plotting department, is a more humanistic author than Amis, but she, too, insists on the primacy of the prose. “When I’m writing,” she says, “I’m thinking about a new way, or an interesting way, or a fresh way to write sentences,” she says. Style-wise, NW is undoubtedly her most challenging and courageous novel. The dialogue is richly colloquial, shaded with Jamaican patois and Cockney slang, which will sometimes break off into fragments. Interior monologues merge with third-person narration. One chapter consists of nothing but a menu; another is made up of concrete poetry. “It really was an instinctive book to write,” she says. “I really went with my gut, and I wanted it to be disjointed, to have a different colour in each section—which is a replication of how it is to live in a city.”
3. She thinks the word “diversity” is kind of sinister.
Smith grew up in cosmopolitan London, and now makes her home in New York. While she revels in multiculturalism, she disdains words like “diverse,” “ethnic” and all the other patronizing adjectives used to describe immigrant communities. “I don’t really think that people live their lives in that way, and think of themselves as diverse. They think of themselves as central. I don’t think that cities as a whole have any business accommodating cultures one way or another; I don’t think people are like animals to be accommodated or tolerated,” she says. “As a policy, [diversity] doesn’t really interest me.”
4. She’s got serious hip-hop cred.
Earlier this month, the New York Times T Magazine ran Smith’s fascinating profile of Jay-Z. While the piece opens with a declaration of wary intent (“It’s difficult to know what to ask a rapper”), it turns out to be a mesmerizing character study. Jay-Z’s albums “are showrooms of hip-hop, displaying the various possibilities of the form,” she writes, adding that his persona is “cool, calm, almost frustratingly self-controlled.” It helps that Smith is something of a hip-hop head herself—not only is she well-versed in Hova’s back catalogue, but she drops knowing references to Rakim, Mobb Deep, and Odd Future. Smith digs a good beat, but what really turns her on is verbal dexterity. “The only other person I’ve ever interviewed is Eminem. In both cases, it’s just a privilege to interview someone who is so interested in words. My original [Jay-Z] article was about nine times as long—we just talked about lyrics all day, and it was a joy.”
i) Zadie Smith reads at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay W.) on Sept. 25. 416-973-4000, harbourfrontcentre.com.