Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975, and continues to live in the area. White Teeth is her first novel and has won awards for Best Book and Best Female Newcomer at the BT Emma Awards (Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards), the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread Prize for a first novel in 2000, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction 2000, the WH Smith Book Award for New Talent, the Frankfurt eBook Award for Best Fiction Work Originally Published in 2000 and both the Commonwealth Writers First Book Award and Overall Commonwealth Writers Prize.
An A-Z by Zadie Smith
The neighbours think I'm a whore. I stay in all day, I wear nothing but a night-slip, sometimes men come bearing brown envelopes. I don't do any work yet I seem to have money. On the face of it, whore would be my guess too. Actually I'm a scribbler, all day in a room, not seeing anyone, just looking at this screen - I don't fuck the FedEx boys. I'm not an anchoress, either - though I remember once liking the idea. Cool to be a woman who's isolation is self-inflicted; a mystic retreating from the world for religious purposes. But I never had a purpose, religious or otherwise. I write for money and sometimes its more than that and sometimes it ain't, and there is no mystery to it, and I see no visions, no motherly Christs, or Goblets filled with blood. I don't hear voices. Julian of Norwich (c1343 - after 1416) heard God say All will be well...all manner of things shall be well. Julian was an anchoress and a mystic. She was certain that she knew God intimately. I don't know the man in the flat above me. I have no confidence that all will be well. I'm in the house all day half-dressed, sometimes I eat beans out of the can, occasionally I talk to myself - anchoress is a polite word for what I am.
BABEL/ THE BEASTIE BOYS
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech...And they said, Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven...And the LORD said, behold, the people is one and they have all one language; and this they began to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may no understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad... - Genesis, Chapter 11
Clearly, this was meant to constitute some kind of punishment. But if you're going to go around confounding the language, you should be prepared for people to get creative with their little bit of it. So Shem Begat Arphaxad, and Arphaxad begat Salah and Salah begat Eber, and then somewhere down the line in New York someone begat MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D.
I'm a pistol-packing, monkey-drinking, no-money bum; I come from Brooklyn 'cos that's where I'm from. Hold it Now, Hit it. The Beastie Boys
Punishment, my eye. Anyone who writes a lyric like that has got to be on the side of the angels.
It's important to now the right word for things. Say hash and you say hash but somewhere somebody is using the mid-nineteenth century term charas and getting away with it. I'm not saying you have to use it, but next time you're getting stoned you might want to think about it, is all.
It is not possible to overstate the importance of deviancy. The more accepting everybody gets, the more deviant you have to become.
Back when the idea of soul was fashionable outside of the R&B charts, Aristotle coined this term to describe the first actuality of a living thing - entelechy; the condition in which a potentiality has become an actuality; the essential nature or informing principle of a living thing; the thing that comes before the thing; basically, the soul. He explained himself through an analogy with knowledge: first actuality (entelechy) is to knowledge as second actuality is to the active use of knowledge. I like this idea of a primitive active force. It's the closest I get to a religious belief. I like the idea of force before brain and heart that we have stored up, which powers us like some hidden battery. I also like the idea that the editor of this magazine has given me free reign to reduce a complex philosophical idea I don't understand into an analogy for the Duracell bunny.
Arthur Freed was a producer of musical motion pictures during the golden age of cinema, 1940-1955. He was one of the greatest. In those days, musicals were the biggest earners for the studios, and Arthur was given free reign over MGM and its many departments - the set designers, the orchestra, the choreographers, the actors, the composers, the lyricists, the screenwriters. It was his job to co-ordinate monumental fictions. It was Freed who ensured a whole replica town was built for Meet Me in St Louis. It was Freed who demanded Paris be made hype-real, painted every colour of the rainbow in Gigi. It was Freed who made it rain so consistently, so heavily, so unnaturally in Singin' In The Rain. Cinema wasn't about naturalism in those days. It was about the perfect recreation of ideal forms. Freed made total works of art. He was a conductor of diverse elements on a grand scale, a cinema-choreographer who understood that the money is as important as the violins which are as important as the punctuation which is important as the shoes the hero is wearing. Nothing is below a great artist, not even making the coffee (he did that too).
The power of a pretty girl... totally unquantifiable. But this much is certain: there is nothing a beautiful girl in the West cannot have, for a time. And I don't speak from any far off hilltop - I'm as much a sucker as anyone. I've risked everything for a certain look, for tapered fingers or a particular mole. So I hear you when you say it's not what she says, not what she does, that it's on her. It's something she wears and however skin deep it may be on her, it penetrates you right to the marrow. Pretty girls lie at the centre of straight culture, dyke culture, fag culture. They sell everything, they buy everything, they ruin great men and women, and finally they ruin themselves, accidentally, simply by getting old. I think about them. Sometimes I want them and sometimes I worry about them - even though it's not my business to do. I wonder about them. I wonder if you are the pretty girl in question. I wonder what you do with a power which, though potent, makes you vulnerable to every probe, every demand, every infiltration? I wonder what you do with a power that turns you into an open atlas upon which any idiot can map their own route?
Names are essential. Hedley is a great name for a character. Other favourites: Rubenstein, ira, Clive, Janice and Hampus Lindwall. But Hedley I inspired. So far I've never used it. It's almost too good to use. One day.
In Samuel, 4:21, Eli's daughter-in-law names her son Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel. Ichabod is a disappointed word for disappointment. It's also, technically, an interjection. It's to be shouted whenever you feel Regret at former glories or higher standards (O.E.D). Ichabod! But its good as a noun, I think. England is an ichabod. My favourite kind of scribblers are ichabods. To be an ichabod is to be a nostalgia artist. Let the futurists do their thing, let the ichabods do theirs. Both are necessary. I have only known the meaning of the word ichabod for about two months, but long before I came across it in the dictionary, a friend and I used it as a noun to describe his uncle, a nice enough man who happens to have no neck. Only the very best words get used by instinct, without definition. It means that they are phonetically irresistible. And as it turns out, this neckless state is perfectly ichabodic(!); shoulders that had hoped for better, a head that fondly recalls a neck somewhere beneath the rolls of ft.
A first love. He was beautiful, but that wasn't it. He was bright and funny, but that wasn't it. He showed me how to sit on a gravestone and laugh my head off, but that wasn't it either. He didn't want me, that was it. You try and try for someone, and then, without realising it, in the striving you become yourself. People always ask musicians which bands influenced them, and directors which movies, sportsmen which champions. You get asked, who were the writers that...? It's hard to explain that before any other scribblers there was someone else. And he's still there, like a watermark in everything I do, in the paper somewhere, visible if you hold it up to the light.
Def. In the fullness of time, the propitious moment for a decision or an action. I like to write about folks who are looking for this moment, waiting for it, who pre-empt it, or fuck it up completely. Fate and Luck are other words for it, I guess, but to me it feels more like a science, or at least as much of a science as fishing - biding your time, pacing yourself. I can't fish.
A story a scribbler told me: Aged twelve years old, a child is instructed to take a shower she doesn't want. So she enters the bathroom and stages an elaborate lie; wets the floor, wets the towel, squeezes out some shower gel - even leaves wet footprints on the floor - all without getting in the actual shower. So much more trouble than a shower would have been. And this lie, though carefully executed, is not quite good enough. She is discovered, there is an almighty row, tears before bedtime. Father is yelling, mother is asking where she went wrong - and all the child can think is: But it might as well be true. The scribbler told me that every time he sits down in front of his Apple Mac, the same instinct runs though him. I don't know if this attitude is true of all scribblers, but maybe you want to avoid relationships with them in future, just to be on the safe side.
MATER DOLOROSA/MADDONA (CICCINOE)
Latin for Sorrowful Mother. The Mater Dolorosa is the weeping woman kneeling at the foot of the crucifix during the passion of Christ. To me, she is everything that is Womanish (as opposed to Feminine, which is a kind of elaborate stage show that should be reserved for Drag Queens.) Something in the Women at Christ's feet, something in their weeping and wailing, sucks the life out of him, kills him. And then, three days later, something in their weeping and wailing brings him back. As for Madonna, I love her; I've always loved her - ever since she danced by some lockers in the video for Get Into The Groove. But I've never loved her as much as I do now. And it's so amazing to watch her slowly and comfortably slide into the role of Mater Dolorosa, the woman you think might just suck the soul out of you, but also the woman who could just save your life. (Show a young man a recent picture of Madonna. Watch his face! Ten years ago, he thought he just wanted to fuck her. Now he's not sure if he wants to sleep with her or ask for motherly protection.)
Everybody knows that words win the war against sticks and stones, but who would have thought a word could be neutralized, de-commissioned - simply by subtracting two letters and adding one? I love this word. I put my full support behind it. And I don't know what gangsta rap is, I don't think it exists outside of certain broadsheets. What I know is a medium that has always taken whatever it could lay its hands on (half a set of turn-tables, a scratched record) and turned it into gold. So it is with Nigga. Some of my favourite tunes include it. I'd concede that it's still an unstable element, like uranium. It requires an experienced logodaedalist. It needs to be handled only by people who know what they're doing. But don't worry, Miss Burchill. Method Man knows what he's doing.
A snake (occasionally a dragon) swallowing its tail; the symbol for infinity. In Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, the 1000 page epistolary novel from hell, the evil Lovelace has it inscribed on the eponymous heroine's coffin. It would also make a pretty good tattoo.
To write this, I am using the Word 2000 package on a Packard Bell PC. Earlier in this A-Z, I mentioned the Duracell bunny. The word Duracell immediately capitalized itself. Bill must like Duracell. What else does Bill like? Bill likes Disney, Microsoft, and Odeon. He smokes Marlboro and is into Madonna (as a pop or religious concept - who can say?) though no Jesus or Christ of the good lord himself. Someone at Nintendo paid Bill some money, but Sega didn't. Silly Sega! Silly Nike and Reebok, too. Get with the program! Be Bill's friends like Cadbury's and the nice people at Goodyear tyres. Drink some Heineken with Bill and some Carlsberg but don't touch the Bacardi. Bill doesn't like it. He likes Hershey bars and Rothmans.
QUILTY, Dr CLARE
The very greatest of the literary bad guys. He has feminine handwriting. He has peculiar t's, w's and l's. He goes by pseudonyms:
Dr Gratiano Forbeson of Mirandola NY
A.Person, of Porlock, England.
Arthur Rainbow Morris Schmetterling
And many more. His is an evil that runs through all the best books, never quite revealing itself, loping in the shadows, just behind our hero. Quelque-part Island is one of his favourite residences. Humbert suspects him of being a repressed undinist (a man who is aroused by water, esp. urine).
I don't do it, if I can help it. Research is for people with huge hulking frontal craniums. You've got to have the brain for it and the patience and a good university library. And once you've conceded, as Vonnegut did, that novelists, by and large, have about he same I.Q's as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale's department store, you stop stressing about stuff like research. Leave it to people who know what they're doing.
God's greatest food.
Much maligned Twentieth-century art form. Greatest practitioner: Fred Astaire. Kelly's good, but he's too ballet influenced. Some days, I would even put Donald O'Connor second, just for the Moses Supposes routine in Singin' in the Rain. If you're thinking of taking it up (it's good for fitness, too), make sure you get double taps on both toe and heel, and you go to someone who knows what they're talking about like the people at Freed's on St Martin's Lane. A bad, cheap tap-shoe will cause you nothing but misery and you'll never get a good sound out of it.
Everybody's looking for the job in which you never have to pay anyone their pound of flesh. Self-employed nirvana. A lot of artists like to think of themselves as uncompromising; a lot of management consultants won't tell you what they do until they've sunk five pints. I don't think anybody should give themselves air just because they don't have to hand over a pound of flesh every day at 5pm, and I don't think anyone should beat themselves with broken glass because they do. If you're an artist, well, good for you. Thank your lucky stars every evening and dance in the garden with the fairies. But don't fool yourself that you occupy some kind of higher moral ground. You have to work for that. Writing a few lines, painting a pretty picture - that just won't do it.
There aren't that many people who can open a volume of their own writing thus: This is a very great book by an American genius.
I came to Vonnegut very late in the day on the advice of my younger brother, and maybe you've all already read him, but if you haven't, do. The effect of Slaughterhouse Five on me was something akin to being doused in cold water at five in the morning, turned upside down and hung from a lamppost in the middle of a town square until dry. He is wakeup call, and also the best giver of advice imaginable He says: Any person who can't explain his work to a fourteen-year old is a charlatan.He calls his genre Blitvit, a word he defines as the combination of fact and fiction. Otherwise known as two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag. I think I aspire to write Blitvit. When I went to New York recently, I spotted a listing advertising a reading Vonnegut was to give in a small Irish bar on the east side with a much younger writer, formerly homeless, whom he had befriended. I was out-of-my-mind excited. I got there early and got a spot near the front, but within twenty minutes there were a hundred people in a fifty person space, a physical Blitvit, if you like. Then the news went round that Vonnegut had banged his head, wasn't coming. Everybody left, including me. That poor ex-homeless guy had to read to an empty room.
Personally, I can't write on it. But I'm half-Jamaican. If I didn't give the weed at least two mentions in this A-Z I'd be arrested by the tourist board. Weed ... weed makes things ... slow. There's even a town in Jamaica called Wait-a-Bit. I have a postcard of their police station. Wait-a-bit Police Station, it says. I swear. To. God.
Last time I was on a plane, a Virgin plane, I spent a nice flight watching my movie screen, eating the food, playing Mario Cart. When we landed I stood up, and saw in front of me a hundred movie screens, all playing the same image of a boy snow-boarding, all partly obscured by the empty trays of eaten food and drink bottles. All the time, I'd kidded myself I'd just had an experience of my own, private, exclusive to me. But in every seat throughout the airplane it had been Xeroxed, perfectly.
I'm all about vengeance. I have stalked boys, I have phoned them at two in the morning, I have scared off their girlfriends, I have smashed their mirrors, ripped up their clothes and thrown their stereos down corridors. I don't know why, I just can't help it. I have never been able to hide a feeling. I have never been able to understand the principles of House and Contents Insurance. I have never been able to forgive anybody anything.
A good name for a little girl, if you're having one. A good woman to name a little girl after. Zora Neale Hurston. One of those scribblers who feels like an old friend.