Zadie Smith transforming assumptions with her writing


Born Sadie Smith in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father, at age fourteen, she changed her name to Zadie. An early interest in jazz singing gave way to the pursuit of a career in writing. While studying English literature at King’s College, her short stories attracted the attention of a publisher, and her professional career was assured even before she graduated. Her first novel, White Teeth (2000), became an immediate bestseller. Since then, she has been a prolific writer of novels, short fiction, and essays. Her novels include The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012), Swing Time (2016), and The Fraud (2019); and in 2019, she also published a short fiction collection, Grand Union: Stories.

In 2002, Smith was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Among her many accolades, her debut novel White Teeth received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Guardian First Book Award; her second book, On Beauty, won the Orange Prize for Fiction. In 2017, she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal by the City College of New York. Since 2010, Zadie Smith has been a tenured professor in the creative writing department at New York University.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

JULIA ELLIOTT the surreal South

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Julia Elliott is a writer of Southern Gothic science fiction. She earned her MFA from Penn State in 1996 and continued on to a PhD from the University of Georgia in 2012. Originally an author of short fiction, her short stories have been published in Tin House, the Georgia Review, Conjunctions, and the New York Times, among other publications. She has received a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and The Best American Short Stories. Julia’s debut story collection, The Wilds, was chosen by Kirkus, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the best books of 2014, and it was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. The Wilds is a combination of genres, including Surrealism, Southern Gothic, fairy tale, and science fiction. Her willingness to experiment with fusing genres has put her on the map.

Julia’s debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, most of which she wrote while she was pregnant, was published in 2015. The work is about a cybernetically enhanced taxidermist; it is, of course, set in the Deep South. In 2016, she was awarded the Shared Worlds Residency by She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she studied as an amateur primatologist. A lot of the content that informs Elliott’s fiction comes from her academic interests; science, gender, and history recombine imaginatively within the pages of her books. Her work is humorous, quirky, speculative, and anachronistic. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband and daughter and teaches English, women’s studies, and gender studies at the University of South Carolina.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Ida B. Wells: Journalist for Justice

By Original: Mary GarrityRestored by Adam Cuerden – Based on image originally from NAEMVZELXQV2iw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, including suffrage. Though she was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months later the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. Even though they were legally free citizens, her family faced racial prejudice and discrimination while living in Mississippi. Her father helped start Shaw University, and Ida received schooling there, but when she was 16, her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. This meant that as the eldest, Ida had to stop going to school and start taking care of her eight sisters and brothers. Since the family direly needed money, Ida ingeniously convinced a county school official that she was 18 and managed to obtain a job as a teacher. In 1882, she moved to her aunt’s in Nashville with several siblings and at last continued her education at Fisk University.

A direct experience of prejudice in 1884 electrifyingly catalyzed Wells’ sense of the need to advocate for justice. While traveling from Memphis to Nashville, she bought a first-class train ticket, but was outraged when the crew told her to move to the car for African Americans. Refusing, Wells was forced off the train bodily; rather than giving in and giving up, she sued the railroad in circuit court and gained a judgment forcing them to pay her $500. Sadly, the state Supreme Court later overturned the decision; but this experience motivated her to write about Southern racial politics and prejudice. Various black publications published her articles, written under the nom-de-plume “Iola”. Wells later became an owner of two papers, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech.

Besides her journalistic and publishing work, she also as a teacher at one of Memphis’ black-only public schools. She became a vocal critic of the condition of these segregated schools. This advocacy caused her to be fired from her job in 1891. The next year, three African American store owners clashed with the white owner of a store nearby who felt they were competing too successfully for local business; when the white store owner attacked their store with several allies, the black store owners ended up shooting several white men while defending their store. The three black men were taken to jail, but never had their day in court – a lynch mob dragged them out and murdered all three men. Moved to action by this horrible tragedy, she started writing about the lynchings of a friend and others, and went on to do in-depth investigative reporting of lynching in America, risking her life to do so.

While away in New York, Wells was told that her office had been trashed by a mob, and that if she ever came back to Memphis she would be killed. She remained in the North and published an in-depth article on lynching for the New York Age, a paper owned by a former slave; she then toured abroad, lecturing on the issue in the hope of enlisting the support of pro-reform whites. When she found out that black exhibitors were banned at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, she published a pamphlet with the support and backing of famed freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as “A Red Record,” a personal report on lynchings in America.

In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women; and in 1898, she took her anti-lynching campaign to the White House and led a protest in Washington D.C. to urge President McKinley to act. She was a founding member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but later cut ties with the organization, feeling that it wasn’t sufficiently focused on taking action. Wells also worked on behalf of all women and was a part of the National Equal Rights League; she continuously fought for women’s suffrage. She even ran for the state senate in 1930, but the next year her health failed, and she died of kidney disease at the age of 68. Well’s life is a testament to courage in the face of danger.

“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

— Ida B. Wells

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Mae Jemison: First African-American Woman in Space (But Not the Last)

By NASA – NASA Image and Video Library (file), Public Domain.

How many Americans are multilingual, let alone fluent in Swahili, Japanese, and Russian? Mae Jemison is an engineer and physician as well as a U.S. astronaut – an exceptional achiever by any measure. She was born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama; her family soon moved to Chicago, for a chance at better schools and jobs. As a child, she remembers assuming that she would one day escape terrestrial confines: “I thought by now we’d be going into space like you were going to work.” Though her teachers were not especially supportive of her interest in science, her parents encouraged her; she was also attracted to the art of the dance and studied ballet, jazz, modern, and African dance. She graduated early and started at Stanford University at age 16 on a National Achievement Scholarship, graduating in 1977 with a degree in chemical engineering; she also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies. Being a black female engineering major was no easy thing; as she recalls, “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.’”

In 1981, Jemison earned an MD from Cornell Medical College. During her years at Cornell, she spent some of her time providing primary medical care in Cuba, Kenya, and a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand; she also kept up her studies of dance at the Alvin Ailey School. She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and then worked as a general practitioner. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and spent the next two years as the medical officer responsible for corps volunteers’ health in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as assisting with CDC vaccine research.

After completing her hitch with the Peace Corps in 1985, Jemison felt that since fellow Stanford alumna Sally Ride had succeeded in her quest to go to space, the time was ripe to follow her longtime dream, and she applied to join NASA’s astronaut training program. The Challenger disaster of early 1986 delayed the selection process, but when she reapplied a year later, Jemison made the cut, becoming the first African-American woman ever to do so. She was one of only 15 chosen out of 2,000 who tried. When she joined the seven-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Endeavour for an eight-day mission in the fall of 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space, logging a total of over 190 hours in space. She conducted medical and other experiments while aloft.

After leaving the astronaut corps in spring of 1993, she was named to a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth, and taught there from 1995 to 2002; she is a Professor-at- Large at Cornell, and continues to advocate for science education and for getting minority students interested in science. She has also founded two companies, the Jemison Group and BioSentient Corp to research, develop and market various advanced technologies, as well as the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named for her mother, who was a teacher. “The Earth We Share” science camps are among the foundation’s initiatives, as well as the “100 Year Starship” project. Jemison has received many awards as well as honorary doctorates from institutions including Princeton, RPI, and DePaul University. Various public schools and a Chicago science and space museum have also been named for her. She has appeared in several TV shows, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by the invitation of LeVar Burton.

“When I’m asked about the relevance to Black people of what I do, I take that as an affront. It presupposes that Black people have never been involved in exploring the heavens, but this is not so. Ancient African empires – Mali, Songhai, Egypt – had scientists and astronomers. The fact is that space and its resources belong to all of us, not to any one group.”
— Mae Jemison
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Hannah Arendt: A Life of the Mind

By Unknown – American Memory, Public Domain.

German-born Hannah Arendt was a political theorist and philosopher who climbed out of the ivory tower to take direct action against the spread of Fascism. A student
of theology and Greek and the protege/lover of German existentialist philosopher Karl Heidegger, the brilliant student was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg at the ripe old age of twenty-two. After a brief arrest by the Gestapo (she was Jewish), she fled to Paris where she worked for a Zionist resistance organization that sent Jewish orphans to Palestine in the hopes of creating a new united Arab-Jewish nation.

By 1940, she had fled to New York where she lived among other immigrants and worked for the Council on Jewish Relations, as an editor for Shocken Books, and served at the head of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which, post-war, collected Jewish writings that had been dispersed by the Nazis. With her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she pointed out the common elements in Nazi and Stalinist philosophies as well as discussing the roots of anti-Semitism and racism through all of Europe. Her subsequent books include On RevolutionThe Human Condition, and Thinking and Writing, as well as discussion of the trial of a Nazi war criminal, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and countless articles and commentaries on such far-reaching subjects as Watergate, Vietnam, and her famous attack on Bertolt Brecht for his “Hymn to Stalin.” The first woman to become a full professor at Princeton, she also taught at various other institutions and translated and edited the works of Franz Kafka.

A serious thinker, she became a very public and controversial figure with her beliefs that revolution and war were the central forces of the twentieth century; that there was little organized resistance on the part of the Jews in Europe; and that the Nazis were not monsters but pragmatic rational people accepting evil commands in a banal manner.

Arendt’s contributions to the intellectual community are beyond calculating. She made an insular forties America and post-war world look deeply at all the possible causes of the Holocaust. According to his article in Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, Bernard Crick credits Hannah Arendt with “rescue(ing) American intellectuals from an excessive parochiality.”

“Human beings…[are] put into concentration camps by their foes and into internment camps by their friends.”
— Hannah Arendt
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.