Zadie Smith on NW

First aired on Writers & Company (7/10/12)

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British writer Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and On Beauty, has a new novel, NW, set in her home turf in London. She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in a special onstage interview at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto recently.

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Smith was still a student at Cambridge when she started writing White Teeth, and she was just 24 when it was published. A big, vibrant story of cross-cultural, cross-generational, ethnically diverse North West London, White Teeth won a trio of first novel awards -- the Whitbread, the Guardian and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize -- and was adapted as a television series. It was translated into 20 languages and sold more than a million copies worldwide.

On Beauty, her 2005 novel, is another big multicultural, multi-generational story, but it's set in New England, mostly the Boston area, and the main character is a professor of art history. (Smith spent a year at Harvard, and now teaches at New York University.) It was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Orange Prize. Smith said that her way of writing fiction has changed, and she's not interested in producing big novels in a 19th-century style. The result is her new book, NW, short for "north west," which is centred on four Londoners who grew up on a council estate in that area of the city. It's about time, race, class and friendship.

Some of the characters have an ambivalent relationship with the neighbourhood. Smith described Keisha, who later is known as Natalie, as "a very ambitious child, and she's trying to utilize what was then a possible situation in England, of passing through the education system to advance." But there can be other obstacles, she added, pointing to her own experience. "When I got to Cambridge, there were maybe four or five other black women in the entire place of 30,000 people. And you have to think, well, why is that? If the education is free, if all it took was to pass the exams and go to the interview," she said. She later took part in a recruitment campaign that targeted schools such as her own, and realize that "the block was so much deeper and so much more psychological than anything else."

Natalie is a lawyer, and operates in a world that Smith sees as "a similar kind of place." She went on to describe it as "a system of acculturation. You have to be a certain way to survive in that world. And that's what interested me, really, what people have to leave behind in order to survive in various worlds."

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In creating the character of Keisha/Natalie, Smith drew on what she'd heard from a young male black barrister, who felt forced to change in order to get along in the system. "He realized that his normal way of being registered to the judge as aggressive. And that was to do with his accent, his colour, his mode of being," she said. "He had to kind of consciously become another way in order to make his way in this courtroom."

Smith said she also was interested in writing an "existential black novel." She pointed out that in most black fiction, everyone has a firm sense of identity. "There are these incredibly confident black women who are always full of wisdom. I wanted to try and reflect the fact that people of colour also have existential crises, also have a dubious sense of self, like everyone else."

Natalie's best friend is Leah, who stays closer to her roots. "That's where her whole sense of self is determined," Smith said. The two women have what she calls a "frenemy" relationship, which is both close and antagonistic. Smith said that the complicated nature of friendship and family relationships has always interested her. "In some sense they're very pure and they're also personal, to me even more than romantic relationships in some ways."

Race differences are also part of the fabric of the novel, and the two male characters are much worse off than the women, and have less opportunity -- a situation that Smith says reflects the reality of British society. "I'm trying to write about life as I see it, and the numbers, I think, will back me up," she said. "In British life anyway, black women have been professionally much more successful than their male counterparts."

p>In form, NW differs strikingly from Smith's earlier novels. One of the characters, Felix, has an expansive, third-person voice. "He's very jolly, he's very positive, and he also thinks of his life as like a novel, thinking, here I am, the star of this novel, moving through my life, everything's going great for me. He has that kind of constant narrative in his head," Smith explained. But she decided not to use that voice for all four of the main characters. "I wanted to inflect each section with the voice of the person who was in it. I wanted to make the reader to feel a very different way in each section."

She also wanted to give a sense of what it's like to be "in a city which is a constant process of quick adaptation, of learning how to switch your perspective, switch your voice, switch your consciousness in some way, from corner to corner."

The Keisha/Natalie section is broken into brief, numbered sections. "Natalie sees the future as this bright place for her, so I like the idea of her chasing down the future in these short sections." Smith also sees it as something like "the form of moral philosophy, a series of numbered disquisitions instead of this long, seamless narrative. What would that feel like, to be a person in that circumstance? And I think it's a deeply unnerving feeling, because we like to think of ourselves as these seamless, wonderful, enormous, capacious, 19th-century folk. And to suddenly see yourself in these flashes, as something that is not consistent, that is constantly behaving outside of consistency, that interested me."

This new novel is in keeping with her interest in language itself, and wanting to write "a different kind of sentence. To me the sentences of White Teeth are very different from The Autograph Man, and are very different from On Beauty, and these are different again."

Smith said she found NW "a joy to write, because I had so many different ways to construct a sentence."

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