It was the first summer lecture on the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck University 2017. We were discussing how a writer finds and defines their voice and their territory. The set reading was Zadie Smith’s 2007 essay, ‘Fail Better’. The essay eloquently discussed failing honourably in literature and the responsibility of a writer. It seemed to resonate deeply with the entire lecture hall. It was compelling and utterly honest, sending me into a frenzy. I wanted to know who Zadie Smith was.
Turns out Zadie was born in Brent and her first novel White Teeth (1999) was set in Willesden. Smith nurses an intricate kaleidoscope view of London, whereby she embraces and celebrates London’s melting pot of cultures, embodying the city as a ‘state of mind.’ After reading Zadie’s books, one may observe Smith’s storytelling gives special attention to areas reflective of her humble beginning, places that ring the north circular like Wembley, Neasden, Kilburn, Harlesden and her beloved Willesden. Zadie still lives in Brent for half the year and resides in New York for the other. Zadie is often praised for her realism in her writing, much of that stemming from her use of slang or of her realistic portrayal of London through mirroring the streets of Brent. She is clear in her understanding of the needs of her local community, and the characters dwelling through these parts and their potential. Multiculturalism is a solid theme throughout her work, alongside her character as a writer who clearly holds Brent dear.
Pop culture podcast SRSLY by the New Statesman discussed the television adaptation of her popular novel NW. The reworking of the 2012 novel was reviewed in link to social mobility, a theme ever present in Brent. The podcast discussed Zadie’s relatability to her characters struggles of ‘getting out’ of social housing, an ideology she to this day feels associated with, but also described as blurred. As an accomplished writer, Zadie may have ‘escaped’ her humble beginnings, yet currently lives in America in what she describes as a place that looks, and feels like a tower block. On the contrary, it lacks the community she once had. The television adaptation was beautifully shot in Kilburn, reflecting the themes of change and movement effectively.
Zadie’s contribution to literature and Brent’s legacy have come hand in hand throughout her career. She steadily employs her fame to shine light on the potential of the area. Her adoration of Kilburn high road is reflected in NW, as well as through her voluntary contributions to the borough. In 2016, Zadie campaigned for children centres in Kilburn, Granville and Carlton. To support the cause, she read extracts from an essay concerning the importance of local services.
Zadie discussed the ‘Brent Youth Orchestra’ in her 2011 short story ‘Sweet Charity’ for the New Yorker and reminisces on the Willesden Green bookshop which she strongly believes shaped her writing in The Guardian. She’s also spoke candidly defending Brent Libraries on how they were essential to her growth as a writer and places weight on Willesden libraries importance to her acceptance into the pearly gates of Cambridge University.
Smith is a force to be reckoned with amongst mainstream writers and additionally is a great candidate to reflect the borough of Brent in the mayor Sadiq Khan’s London borough of culture 2020 bid.