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2014 Literary Awards

For a list of the 2014 winners please click here.

The DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH and PURDUE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES are pleased to announce the 83rd Annual Literary Awards Banquet will be held on Thursday, April 17, 2014. This year's speaker is British novelist and short story writer Zadie Smith.

The following events are planned:

April 17, 4:30 pm - Literary Awards pre-dinner reception, Anniversary Drawing Room, Purdue Memorial Union (included with the ticket price for the banquet)

April 17, 5:30 pm - Literary Awards Banquet, North Ballroom, Purdue Memorial Union. The Banquet includes dinner, the Literary Awards ceremony and remarks from Ms. Smith about the creative process. All first and second place award winners will receive complimentary tickets. Other tickets ($25 adults/$17 students) can be purchased in Room 324, Heavilon Hall on the Purdue Campus beginning March 24 through April 11, 2014.

April 17, 8:00 pm - Zadie Smith Reading, Fowler Hall, Stewart Center. Free and open to the public.

“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” runs the famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Or as Zadie Smith puts it in NW: “We’re a family. / Strange family. / Only kind there is” (382).

Sadie Smith was born in North-West London in the Borough of Brent which includes Willesden and parts of Wembly, that part of London which is the omphalos of all her novels (even the one set largely in Boston). Her mother was Jamaican and her father English. When she was fourteen, the same year her mother gave her a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (Changing My Mind, 3), she changed her name to Zadie, and these two events may not be unconnected (Zora also turns up as the name for the Belsey daughter in On Beauty). She was educated at Hampstead Comprehensive School and King’s College, Cambridge, from where she graduated in 1997. During the academic year 2002-2003 she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and since 2010 she has been a Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. In addition to being a novelist, she has also taken on the role of public intellectual. She has one volume of cultural essays, Changing my Mind (2009) and since settling in New York she has become a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, which opened its April 3, 2014 issue with her essay on climate change, “Elegy for a Country’s seasons.”

Her first novel, White Teeth (2000), was a sensation from its first appearance, garnering numerous literary accolades, among them the Whitbread Prize for Best First Fiction, The Guardian First Book Award, and The Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. Carnivalesque in both the Bakhtinian and Pre-Lenten sense of the word, it engages a lived multiracial, multicultural, postmodern, urban reality. The Empire is no longer writing back to the Centre (although that activity is far from being moribund), but the Centre itself has now become home to many diasporas, colonial and otherwise and Smith has chose to write them into the literary landscape. The focus in the novel is on families and their misfunctionings in a world that is working- and lower middle-class and explores in particular, the tensions between parents and elders born elsewhere and their children for whom there is no other reference point than the world of North-West London.

The Autograph Man (2002) (Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction) is the most cerebral of her novels. Although it has garnered a steady readership, in comparison with White Teeth, its reception has been relatively muted. Even though the four main protagonists are Jewish, the perspective is still multicultural and multiracial. Alex-Li Tandem who has a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, Mark Rubinfine who is Jewish and Adam Jacobs whose parents are “black Harlem Jews, claiming the tribe of Judah’ (11) are boyhood friends. The novel opens with a trip to a wrestling event at Albert Hall where the boys meet Joseph Klein and where Alex-Li’s father dies of a brain aneurism. The remainder of the novel follows the boys as adults: Joseph is an insurance adjuster, Adam runs a video store, Mark is a rabbi, and Alex-Li is a trader in autographs. The narrative is informed by the Sefer Ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor) and Ten Bulls (or Ten Ox-Herding Pictures) of Zen Buddhism, The ten Sefiroth (emanations of the unknowable divine or En-Sof) which link finite creation with the En-Sof, are assigned a pop-culture significance in addition to their mystical, allegorical and physical meanings. In his Kabbalah, Alex-Li is the Shekhinah, the presence of God, residing in the most mundane Sefirah, Malkhut. Muhammad Ali occupies Yessed, John Lennon, Hood, and so on. In Alex’s secret book, these figures can be Jewish while others like Leonard Cohen are Goyish! But Keter, the unknowable, the unobtainable, is an autograph from Kitty Alexander (there was a “Kitty Alexander” who was an uncredited stand in for Judith Anderson in the 1933 film, Blood Money, and there was a film That [not The] Girl from Peking, but it was a 1975 thriller, not a 1952 musical; the rest as they say is poetic license). The Ten Bulls (the stages towards enlightenment and perfection) section turns the impossible into a (profitable) reality.

On Beauty (2005), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2005 and winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2006, is closer in style and content to White Teeth. It is an academic novel set in Boston at a certain Wellington University which seems to be an amalgam of Wellesley and Radcliffe (although it is not a Women’s College). Smith herself is said to have a cameo appearance as the “feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship” who sneaks out of the faculty meeting before the long anticipated clash between the two main male protagonists, Howard Betsey and Montgomery Kips. If The Autograph Man had been a satire on the world of “collectibles” and those who circulate within it, On Beauty is a satire on the academic world, its folkways and mores, neuroses and pretentions, as well as being a dissection of two dysfunctional families and their mutual disintegration.

Smith’s most recent novel, NW (2012), returns to North-West London, Kilburn in particular (NW6) on the south-east corner of Brent. If White Teeth can be considered Smith’s “Songs of Innocence” (the generation born in London as teenagers), then NW is her “Songs of Experience” (that generation grown up in their thirties and forties). NW still has its light touches, but the violence in it is mindless, the gap between achievers and non-achievers greater, and there is far less room for optimism in this world. Which is perhaps why, even though the novel has proven popular and the reviews have been stellar, it has not appealed to prize awarding committees in the way the first three novels clearly did. Also, in contrast to the conventional styles of the earlier works, the narrative proceeds in ways that may be characterized as unconventional and experimental. There are different size fonts, four chapters numbered 37 (the author’s age at the time of the novel’s appearance for a start) in the opening section, “Visitation,” and no chapter 37 among the 185 chapters (37 x 5) of the long middle section, “Host.” The focus is on families and their struggles and the ties both real and imaginary, which keep the characters linked to the streets and neighbourhoods of their childhood.


Shaun F. D. Hughes