Zadie Smith, the acclaimed novelist who is a professor of creative writing at New York University, has been selected to received the Langston Hughes Medal from the City College of New York. The medal honors writers of poetry, drama, fiction, biographies, and critical essays from throughout the Black diaspora. Professor Smith will honored on November 16 at City College’s annual Langston Hughes Festival.
Previous winners of the Langston Hughes Medal include James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavia Butler, August Wilson, and Edwidge Danticat. Smith is the author of five novels including her latest work Swing Time(Penguin Books, 2016). She also published an essay collection Changing My Mind(Penguin Books, 2009) and writes frequently for the New Yorkermagazine and the New York Review of Books.
A native of London, Professor Smith is a graduate of Kings College of the University of Cambridge. She joined the faculty at New York University in 2010.
Out of that quest comes his third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which begins as the optimistic glow of independence is giving way to the harsh realities of Cold War politics and the rise of gangs connected to the country’s two main political parties. From there, things get only worse: Crack cocaine appears and the gangs go international, setting up operations in Miami and New York.
“The idea for this book is the very first I had, even before the other two novels, because I always was interested in writing about the Jamaica I grew up in,” Mr. James said. “I thought it was going to be a short novel, that it was one person’s story. But I was wrong, because history is always shaping everything.”
Publishers Weekly declared that “no book this fall is more impressive than ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings,’ ” which comes out Thursday from Riverhead Books. In a review in The New York Times last week, Michiko Kakutani described Mr. James as a “prodigious talent” who has produced a novel that is “epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over the top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.”
At 43, Mr. James is part of a new generation of Caribbean writers whose main cultural reference, aside from their home countries, is the United States rather than their former colonial power (in Jamaica’s case, Britain). These writers share some of the concerns of American peers like Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat and view the questions of identity and authenticity, which preoccupy older writers like George Lamming and the Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul, as largely settled.
During a recent interview in the Bronx, where “Seven Killings” concludes, Mr. James called himself a “post-postcolonial writer” with a hybrid intellectual background. So while he read Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Henry Fielding in school, he noted, he also listened to Michael Jackson and Grandmaster Flash; a section of the new novel makes repeated references to Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.”
The plot of “Seven Killings” revolves around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley a few days before he was to give a free concert in Kingston in December 1976, and required the novelist to dig deep into his creative toolbox. Marley, called simply the Singer in the novel, so dominated that period, Mr. James said, that his persona risked overwhelming the novel, which clocks in at just under 700 pages.
“I needed him more to hover over the book, as opposed to being in the middle of it,” he explained. He said he found a solution when he read Gay Talese’s Esquire magazine article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which focuses on the circle around that singer. Another help was Roberto Bolaño’s novel“The Savage Detectives,” which Mr. James described as “a very conscious template.”
Characters based on real-life people, including Cuban exiles and their C.I.A. handlers, play central roles in the novel. Jamaican politicians like the rival former prime ministers Michael Manley and Edward Seaga are very much present, too, along with leaders of the “garrisons,” the communities and criminal militias that their parties controlled.
Mr. James warns, though, that “if you are going to read this as history, you’re bound to be disappointed and confounded.” A lot of the novel, he said, is “just me being a trickster.”
But he does remember overhearing as a child some of the stories he incorporates into the novel. His mother was a police detective and his father a police officer who became a lawyer, “so the world of crime and politics and disturbances was always around,” he said, discussed in hushed and coded adult conversations.
A few years ago, Mr. James said, a European interviewer began a question to him with “as someone who escaped the ghetto….” He remembers objecting: “I grew up in the suburbs, like every other kid in every other part of the world. We had two cars, and we argued about things like ‘Is “T. J. Hooker” better than “Starsky & Hutch?” ’ ”
After studying at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Mr. James spent more than a decade in advertising as a copywriter, graphic designer and art director. His clients included the dancehall star Sean Paul, for whom he designed several CD covers, and The New York Times’s T Magazine. During much of that time, he said, “I made a big point of not writing seriously and even stopped reading for a while, too.”
But he was drawn back to literature by what he described as the “lack of a sense of possibility” he felt in Jamaica. Publishers and agents in New York showed no interest in a draft of what became “John Crow’s Devil,” his first novel. But when he took a chapter to a writing workshop in Kingston taught by a visiting American, Kaylie Jones, she was immediately taken by Mr. James’s writing and choice of subject.
“What leaped out at me right away was that he was a phenomenally visual writer with a lyrical, magical voice,” said Ms. Jones, who teaches writing at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. “I was shocked that nobody had picked up this guy.”
A stint in the writing program at Wilkes enabled Mr. James to work on a second novel, “The Book of Night Women,” set on a sugar plantation in colonial times. He now teaches literature and creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Chunks of Mr. James’s novels, especially “Seven Killings,” are written in Jamaican patois. He describes himself as “bilingual,” fond of using dialect in speech and also to discuss serious questions of race, class and politics in the novel, but equally comfortable employing standard speech in interviews and the classroom, with an accent that is beginning to incorporate the flat tones of the American Midwest.
“When we are taking our business out in the public, that’s not how you are supposed to speak,” he said of patois. “It’s an embarrassment” to older and middle-class Jamaicans, he added, “especially if they hear I’m an English teacher. ‘Why are you speaking broken English?’ As if this is something that needs to be fixed.”