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Zadie Smith on beauty, sex and Philip Roth

Zadie Smith's best-seller On Beauty has been written partly as a reaction to the usual trope of an older man seducing a younger woman.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2006 19:19 IST

British author Zadie Smith does not despise Philip Roth, but she said Wednesday her latest international bestseller On Beauty was partly a reaction to male writers like him.

"I don't hate Philip Roth, I like Philip Roth. But sometimes a story needs to be told from a different perspective," she said, referring to the venerable US writer of Portnoy's Complaint and The Human Stain.

Smith said there were more than enough novels on the market written from the point of view of an older man seducing a younger woman.

"Something about men is that they're able to find their own attractiveness long past its actuality. That's nice. I wish women felt the same way. It would be nice seeing older women winking at 20-year-old men."

Smith, 30, was at the Frankfurt Book Fair to present the German translation of her third novel, a retelling of EM Forster's end-of-the-last-century novel Howard's End, set at an elite university strongly reminiscent of Harvard.

Fans of her wildly successful debut White Teeth have praised the new novel's familiarly heady blend of race, class and gender themes, reflecting Smith's own multicultural background as the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father.

 
Smith, was at the Frankfurt Book Fair to present the German translation of her third novel, a retelling of EM Forster's Howard's End

Smith said she did not normally create "heroes" as characters in her books but noted that Kiki, the African-American matriarch of the Belsey family in "On Beauty", came close.

"I did want to create a female hero," she said.

"Male fiction is full of such characters, quite unashamedly and unabashedly and quite often as a stand-in for the author."

Smith said Kiki's children were boxed in by other people's definitions of being "black", an experience she could relate to.

"This word fits about 15 people and the rest of us are doomed," she said.

"I just think of culture as accumulated habit," she said, adding that she found the culture of being a man or a woman far more interesting than the purported culture of being black or white.

"The mystery is how a woman marries a man at all," quipped Smith, who recently wedded the poet Nick Laird. "The culture is less relevant to me."

Smith said she also drew from the ideological battles she witnessed as a fellow at Harvard in 2002 and 2003 in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

"I don't have strong opinions of that kind. I don't even see the necessity of strong opinions," she said.

"Ideology is a rather boring word. It is often the inability to accept human nature or ambivalence and uncertainty. It's ambivalence and uncertainty that interest me -- those things can be wonderful."

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing industry's biggest annual event, opened Wednesday with a record 7,272 exhibitors from more than 100 countries. It runs through Sunday.