The Real Women Of Zadie Smith’s NW London

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Few writers manage to capture the essence of a place as Zadie Smith does London. Ever since her debut novel White Teeth, set in Willesden in the north-west of the capital, catapulted her to literary stardom in 2000 at the age of 24, she has maintained a reputation as one of the city's finest storytellers.
Smith, who hails from north-west London herself and now divides her time between it and New York, has been described as the "voice of multicultural London", but it's the NW area in particular that seems to hold a special place in her heart. In her new novel, Swing Time, the two protagonists meet at a dance class held at a church in Kilburn. But it was Smith's previous novel, the critically acclaimed NW, released in 2012, that put her corner of the capital centre stage. The book, which has just been adapted into a 90-minute drama airing on BBC Two tonight, tells the story of Natalie and Leah, friends who grew up together in the area, whose lives have taken them in different directions.
It tackles race, class, identity, love, desire, sex, gender, fertility, hatred, violence, and of course, multicultural urban living. As in real life, in Smith's version of NW, wealth and poverty are only streets apart, life is fragile and secrets are dangerous.
But there is beauty and community to be found amid the gloom, as Smith writes in the book's first two lines: "The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on the school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside."
There's a lot to love about an area bursting with such character, vibrance and so many contradictions. Last week, Refinery29 went out to meet women in NW – which contains a diversity of districts, from Hampstead and Kentish Town to Willesden and Kilburn – to find out what it's like living and working in Zadie Smith's London.
Watch NW tonight at 9 pm on BBC Two.

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