#100PENMembers No.57: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an award-winning novelist and committed member of PEN America.

Photo Credit: Dominique Nabokov

Her first novel, White Teeth won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction and she has since enjoyed huge success with novels such as The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016).

A writer with a significant international profile and a reputation for her thoughtful interventions in contemporary debates, from feminism to race, English nationalism to literary culture itself, she is a frequent contributor to PEN Campaigns and activities.

At the PEN World Voices Festival in 2006 she spoke about how ingrained in a tradition of dead, white male authors she felt and considered the politics of being considered a postcolonial writer. Whilst admitting that many of her early influences were the famous white men whose work dominated her school and university syllabi, she mused: ‘When I first read Virginia Woolf I felt pleasure that she was a genius, but also great relief that she was a genius, because she was a woman.’

Smith also contributed to PEN America’s tribute to Toni Morrison New Daughters of Africa, in 2019. In the piece, she described the gradual impact of groundbreakers like Morrison on her own life and writing. She remembers her mother’s close friend the Ghanaian-born publisher Margaret Busby publishing Daughters of Africa in 1992, featuring writing by Morrison. She goes on: ‘A year after that, Morrison won the Nobel Prize. A year after that, I went to university to embark on a course of English Literature which included not a single daughter of Africa nor any sons either. Change was a long time coming, but Morrison stayed out front, leading us into the future, like a pilot light.’

She remembers this ‘pilot light’ as a school girl in London: ‘It’s hard now, in 2019, to recreate or describe the bottomless need she answered. There was no “black girl magic,” in London, in 1985. Indeed, as far as the broader culture was concerned, there was no black girl anything, outside of singing, dancing, and perhaps running.’ 

Smith admires Morrison’s strength to carry the burden of this expectation, of being the black female author, the one who stood as a beacon to all of those young black school girls all over the world. Movingly, Smith describes herself as not only a daughter of Africa but one of many ‘daughters of Morrison.’

In 2014, she joined other #100PENMembers Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie in adding their name to a call from English PEN and PEN International to prevent the Turkish government from blocking access to Twitter and thus further censoring debate in the country.

Pamuk, the Turkish writer who had helped to coordinate the event commented at the time that the situation for writers in the country ‘is going from bad to worse and even towards terrible.’

She continues to campaign on these issues and to speak out. Ever industrious, Smith used the first lockdown to pen a collection of essays Intimations taking in a range of topics from racism to the inequalities highlighted by Covid. In the book she attacked UK and US responses to the pandemic.

Smith continues to be an active and vocal advocate on issues of free speech, race and inequality all over the world, both in her fiction and beyond.

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