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The Wife of Willesden

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Notes From Black Reads

From Fiction to Essays and now a play, there’s nothing Zadie Smith can’t write without style, sensitivity, and intelligence.

Zadie Smith's first time writing for the stage, a riotous twenty-first century translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's classic The Wife of Bath

“Married five times. Mother. Lover. Aunt. Friend.
She plays many roles round here. And never
Scared to tell the whole of her truth, whether
Or not anyone wants to hear it. Wife
Of Willesden: pissed enough to tell her life
Story to whoever has ears and eyes . . .”

In her stage-writing debut, celebrated novelist and essayist Zadie Smith brings to life a comedic and cutting twenty-first century translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic The Wife of Bath. The Wife of Willesden follows Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s, as she tells her life story to a band of strangers in a small pub on the Kilburn High Road. Wearing fake gold chains, dressed in knock-off designer clothes, and speaking in a mixture of London slang and patois, Alvita recalls her five marriages in outrageous, bawdy detail, rewrites her mistakes as triumphs, and shares her beliefs on femininity, sexuality, and misogyny with anyone willing to listen.

A thoughtful reimagining of an unforgettable narrative of female sexual power, written with singular verve and wit, The Wife of Willesden shows why Zadie Smith is one of the sharpest and most versatile writers working today.

ISBN-13: 9780593653739

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-14-2023

Pages: 208

Product Dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia, three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free, and Intimations, and a short story collection, Grand Union. She is also the editor of The Book of Other People. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

We are inside the Colin Campbell, a small pub on the Kilburn High Road. The sun is setting on the celebrations of the announcement: Brent is to be the Borough of Culture for 2020. People are pouring into the pub for refreshment and rest. A large banner above the bar reads: 'The Kilburn High Road Pub Crawl'. Another sign reads: 'BRENT BOROUGH OF CULTURE: 2020'.

The Campbell is a quiet pub, usually occupied by a few all-day lone drinkers, but today these old men in their wrinkled suits are suddenly inundated by a colourful crowd. There's been dancing; some people are in carnival-like costume; there are people in their national dress, families, teenagers, lovers. Every possible kind of person. The bar staff struggle to serve the influx of people and seat them all, but after a bit of a kerfuffle, most have a table, and now begin opening packets of crisps, or their own tubs of home-made food ...

There is, in one corner, a little makeshift stage, with a home-made sign hanging behind: 'Celebrating Local Stories'. A red-headed young man with his back to the audience has a video camera on a stand, ready to film whoever comes up to talk - but people seem reluctant. Music is playing, footie is on the TV, we can't hear the people, but we see lots of little local dramas and conversations playing out, and may notice one especially striking woman, ALVITA, WIFE OF WILLESDEN. She's settling seating arguments, she's handing over pints to people who can't reach the bar, laughing and joking with everyone ...

In one corner, the AUTHOR sits, quieter than the rest, with a laptop on her table.

AUTHOR

It was the summer of 2019.

I was back home, checking the local scene

And the whole neighbourhood was in the streets

To celebrate the recent local feat:

Winning the London Borough of Culture.

Call it a pilgrimage: all together

We crawled down Kilburn High Road, until we

Reached the Colin Campbell. We drank. Polly

Bailey, who runs it, suggested a

WHOLE CAST

LOCK-IN!

PUBLICAN POLLY

Let's get our drink on with the whole block.

And, wait, listen: here's what we're gonna do:

From right now till ... let's say ... half past two

We'll have a little contest. Your stories

On that stage. I'll be the judge and MC.

And when everyone's told their tale, the best

One will receive a full English Breakfast

Tomorrow morning, on the house. With chips.

All cheer.

AUTHOR

Everyone got on their open-mic tip ...

We had all types of people in that night,

Young and old, rich and poor, black, brown and white -

But local: students, merchants, a bailiff,

People from church, temple, mosque, shul. And if

There's a person in Brent who doesn't think

Their own life story isn't just the thing

To turn into a four-hundred-page book

I'd like to meet them. So off they went. Look

At them.

We see people encouraging each other up to tell short stories from their life, and the reaction of the crowds.

All telling their stories. Mostly

Men. Not because they had better stories

But because they had no doubt that we should

Hear them. The night wore on. I wondered: Would

A woman speak? And one or two did. But

Like the men - like most of us - they said what

They thought others wanted to hear. Or lied,

Or humble-bragged, or said the nice, polite

ClichŽd things that nice people like to say ...

We see a man and woman on the stage together and we hear the following snippet.

FEMALE SPEAKER

He's just 'the one' - we get married in May.

He's like my rock? Wouldn't you say so, Steven?

MALE SPEAKER

Yeah: everything happens for a reason

And we're just meant to be! Our stars aligned.

FEMALE SPEAKER

It's Fate! (Our gift registry's online.)

AUTHOR

Some said 'brave' things that took no bravery

To say, or were dull, or didn't move me -

Or spoke about their 'journeys' with an air

Of triumph. I was starting to despair ...

Then I saw Alvita. That is: the Wife

Of Willesden. And the story of her life's

Worth hearing.

RYAN

Tho' she's a bit deaf herself

In one ear ... but otherwise in good health.

WINSTON

And skilful! Makes her own clothes, every stitch.

That's not Armani - that's Alvita!

ASMA

Rich

She is not. But she never passed a Big

Issue vendor without chucking a quid

Their way.

WINSTON

Cuss you if you don't.

ZAIRE

Fake gold chains

Are her jewellery of choice. She drips like rain.

DARREN

Her underwear is dramatic - and red.

Like the soles of her knock-off 'Choos'. It's said

She looks bold. She gives side-eye perfectly.

ZAIRE

She's been that bitch since 1983.

RYAN

And yeah, she's been hitched five times to five men.

WINSTON

(Without counting back-in-the-day bredrin.)

ASMA

But we don't need to get into that now.

She's a well-travelled woman. She allows

Herself adventures. Self-care is her truth.

She's been Ibiza, Corfu, Magaluf.

DARREN

She likes to wander. Hates to be tied down.

With that gap-toothed smile she strides around town

Dressed to impress.

ZAIRE

Wears an isicholo:

A big Zulu hat. She's not Zulu, no ...

But let woman have her hat!

WINSTON

And a skirt

That shows her shape.

DARREN

And them shoes that will hurt

You if you're in her way.

ASMA

She's not just fierce

Though. She's sweet and wise. Cupid's dart has pierced

Her so often, she's an expert on love.

DARREN

Been there, done that. This one knows it all, bruv.

We see ALVITA being ushered towards the little stage, but she refuses it, and instead takes her rightful place, centre stage in the Colin Campbell. The pub turns black: there is a theatrical spotlight upon her. But before she speaks, the scene freezes while the AUTHOR gives her Chaucerian apologia ...

AUTHOR

But before she starts, a word to the wise:

Not a trigger warning, exactly, but

A proviso: it's not my tale. I just

Copied it down from the original.

I could make stuff up and rewrite it all

But that would surely defeat the purpose,

And if Alvita does make you nervous

It's worth remembering - though I'm sure you know -

When wives spoke thus six hundred years ago

You were all shocked then. The shock never ends

When women say things usually said by men ...

And one last thing: if you spot yourself and

Think I've made you posher or more'common'

Than you'd like: sorry. I've got a good ear,

But I can only write down what I hear ...

The Wife of Willesden's Prologue

ALVITA reanimates and the AUTHOR withdraws to her table. Throughout the Prologue, ALVITA regularly breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the real audience as much as the pub one. Her accent is North Weezy with moments of deliberate poshness as well as frequent lapses into Jamaican patois and cockney for comic effect. She is a world-class raconteur. She begins:

ALVITA

Let me tell you something: I do not need

Any permission or college degrees

To speak on how marriage is stress. I been

Married five damn times since I was nineteen!

From mi eye deh a mi knee. But I survived,

Thank God, and I got to say, of the five,

None of them were total wastemen. But last

Week ...

At this point the lights come up again, but there is something surreal about the new lighting in the pub, as if we are in a magical, liminal space between storytelling, memory and reality. The pub people react and laugh and groan like an audience, but they are often roped into the performance, too. Some of these moments are explicitly noted below, but a director should feel free to use the PUB CHORUS to animate and dramatize as many of Alvita's stories as they see fit.

I'm with my Auntie P, yeah, and she starts

In on her Bible talk:

AUNTIE P

Yuh nuh know Christ

Him a wedding guest one time in him life?

In Cana, Galilee? Please, niece, beg yuh

Tell me what you do the opposite for?

How come you believe you can get wedded

Five times? Lawd knows how many times bedded!

Tink when Jesus met the Samaritan,

By dat well: 'member how he cuss her, man,

Him seh, 'Woman, you been married five times

Already. You can't say this man ah fi mi

Because nutten nuh go so. Not at all.

ALVITA

And I was like, look, Auntie, you can bawl

Me out, but I still don't even get why

He said that? She married the first five guys.

So why not six? Is there a set limit?

With me, I'm almost fifty-five, innit,

And if there is a right number of men,

That's news to me. Is it six or eight? Ten?

In my view, people got too much to say;

They chat rubbish. But from my Bible days

I know it says:

We hear church music and see church lighting, and we meet PASTOR JEGEDE in the middle of a sermon. AUNTIE P and KELLY are listening intently.

PASTOR JEGEDE

'Go forth and multiply.'

ALVITA

I remember the bits that weren't too dry ...

And isn't it that God said when they married:

PASTOR JEGEDE

A husband must leave his old family,

And link up mind, body and soul-

ALVITA

With me! Yep. Nothing about bigamy

In there, or more-gamy-than-that (cough, cough).

So how come some people slagging me off?

Nah, I'm not having it. Count the pickney

And women of Marley. How 'bout Stevie?

Now, you know Stevie's had more than one wife!

Blindness don't stop him enjoying his life.

I should be so lucky as Bob Marley.

Rita? Miss Jamaica? He had plenty

Woman, and I'm sure he had a good time

With them all, back in the day. And that's fine.

But let's also thank God for my five men:

Ian, Darren, Winston, Elridge and Ryan.

As this is said we see Alvita's husbands, IAN, DARREN, WINSTON, ELRIDGE and RYAN - who are dotted around the pub - stand up and start looking at each other curiously. We may not notice that the fifth husband, RYAN, is the redhead with the video camera, who we can't really see: the video equipment obscures his face. When he stands it must look as if he is just doing something to his camera. After a moment they sit back down again.

(You think five's a lot? I could've had ten!)

But I'm well choosy. I actually picked them

For their ass-ets, different for each person.

One went to the College of North West London,

Two went to the School of Hard Knocks. The sick

Thing about Kilburn is how we can mix

It up with anyone? High, low. Posh, poor.

We've had practice. We'll walk through any door.

And that's like me spending my time studying

Five different husbands. You learn many things ...

And, honestly, I'm up for Number Six

Whenever, wherever he feels to pitch

Up. Serious: if Five drops dead, boom, like that:

I won't wait for my hymen to grow back.

That's not me. You'll soon see me on Insta

Chucking the bouquet to the next sista ...

Pastor, if your man dies, you're free, innit?

To get hitched again, if you feel like it.

PASTOR JEGEDE looks like he doesn't want to concede this point; also these questions are disturbing his service, which, in a parallel reality, is happening throughout.

Auntie P, isn't St Paul the one who said

AUNTIE P

Better to be married than burn up dead!

ALVITA

But in your church, the one on Willesden Lane

We hear church music again, and see AUNTIE P and her SONS praying in the pub, with PASTOR JEGEDE leading the prayers.

The old Bingo place, you go fill your brain

With judgement. Pastor chatting all that breeze:

PASTOR JEGEDE

... Wicked Lamech, whose sin was bigamy ...

ALVITA

How come Jacob and Abraham marry

Again? And I'm sure Pastor put a ring

On it a few times in Nigeria ...

AUNTIE P

All I know is that the Lord God him nuh

Like looseness. Him defend de marriage bond.

ALVITA

Yeah, but Auntie, the thing is, that's just wrong?

Where do you think you read that? The Good Book?

You can't show it to me. S'not there. I've looked.

AUNTIE P

Me know him defended virginity.

ALVITA

Now hol' up, hol' up, my dear Auntie P:

Thing is: I can read just like you can read,

And I'm telling you no. It's true Paul said

He didn't want us having sex for fun -

But it weren't like: COMMANDMENT NUMBER ONE.

Auntie, what you call laws I call advice!

A guideline. And they all sound very nice,

But everyone got to make their own choice

In life. And if God in his big God voice

Was like:

GOD

Everyone. Asexual. NOW.

ALVITA

It wouldn't make no sense. Because then how's

He expecting to make more pure virgins

When there's nobody to give birth to them?

Please. At least St Paul wasn't all about

Cancelling things God himself hadn't called out!

PASTOR JEGEDE

We aim for chastity. This is the prize.

The contest is to be pure in God's eyes.

KELLY, Alvita's very nerdy, shy and put-upon niece, dares to raise her voice:

KELLY

But that's not, like, meant for ... well, like, maybe -

ALVITA

Yes, girl - g'wan - say it! (That's my niece, Kelly.)

KELLY

Maybe that's not meant for everybody?

Like, Mum, maybe God makes some people true

Saints, yeah? But with some he's like: s'up to you ...

Like, I totally get Jesus was pure

And he was into that but are you sure

It's got to be like that for me and you?

ALVITA

This is what I'm saying! Kelly, thank you.

Bottom line, Auntie, I have permission

From bloody St Paul himself to go fishing

For husbands when and where I feel like it.

The only thing I'm willing to admit

Is you probably have to wait till one dies

Before you move on, because bigamy-wise

That'd be an issue.

PASTOR JEGEDE

It is clearly

Said, by the apostle, that purity

Is best.

ALVITA

Yeah, but he was chatting about

Himself! St Paul be like:

ST PAUL/HUSBAND IAN

I won't go out

With you. I will not come back to your place.

I won't submit to your sinful embrace.

We're not 'getting it on' on your sofa.

ALVITA

A holy man plus a supernova

Like me? You put us together? There will