Posts Tagged ‘zadie smith’
The book was published in 1999 to great critical acclaim; it won a clutch of prizes, including the Guardian first book award and the James Tait Black prize for fiction. A TV series was made (still available on 4OD, and well worth a watch). Something about Smith’s multi-faceted, warm, funny tableaux of London life at the turn of the century caught the nation’s imagination and tugged at its heartstrings.
At the time, Smith insisted that White Teeth wasn’t a political statement. ‘I wasn’t trying to write about race,’ she said. ‘I was trying to write about the country I live in.’ Yet it can’t be denied that the book was hailed as a watershed moment for multiculturalism. What was it about White Teeth that captured that particular moment in time so perfectly?
The book follows the lives of two London families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, across two generations. For most of the novel, the two families live next door each other in Willesden, an area of north-west London. The Iqbals are from Bangladesh; Archie Jones is from London, and his wife Clara is Jamaican.
It would have been easy, then, for this novel to focus exclusively on the races of its main characters. But Smith doesn’t take the easy way out: what she does with White Teeth is infinitely more interesting and relevant. Race is a backdrop in White Teeth. It’s never forgotten about; indeed, it informs some of the major plot points of the novel; but neither is it the book’s sole focus.
White Teeth is by no means colourblind, but neither does it see things exclusively in black and white – if you’ll excuse a slightly mixed metaphor. Instead it focuses on the grey areas in between, the everyday reality of life for both of these families.
The book’s temporality ought not to be forgotten, either, when discussing its attitudes towards multiculturalism. The main action happens in two sections: the first, concentrating on the first generation of the families – Samad and Alsana as adult immigrants, and Clara having immigrated with her mother as a child – has a very different focus and attitude towards race than the second. For example, reactions to Archie and Clara’s marriage are mixed: Clara’s mother strongly disapproves ‘on grounds of colour rather than of age, and of hearing of [the marriage] promptly ostracized her daughter one morning on the doorstep’.
Similarly, Archie’s employer attempts, through an excruciatingly awkward conversation of which Archie entirely misses the point, to communicate that his ‘attitude is a little strange’: ‘you see the wives don’t like it because, let’s face it, she’s a sort, a real beauty – incredible legs, Archie, I’d like to congratulate you on them legs – and then men, well, the men don’t like it ‘cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s…you know…they don’t know what to make of that at all’.
What’s interesting here, perhaps, isn’t the attitude towards race itself, which is depressing but not entirely unexpected: it is the way in which Smith cleverly buries it in euphemism. Archie’s boss – the significantly named Mr Hero – insists that ‘it’s not that I’m a racialist [...] I’d spit on that Enoch Powell…but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he?’ It’s an attitude that we’ve all seen people articulate, whether in our direction or elsewhere, and in having Archie so totally misunderstand the point of the conversation, Smith manages to skilfully satirise it without ever letting us escape its painful intent.
The second half of the book deals with the children of the two families: Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie, and Samad and Alsana’s twin sons, Magid and Millat. Each of the three children has their own take on the world and their place on it. Again, race isn’t the sole focus of the novel – the growing pains of three teenagers make up a large part of it – but it certainly isn’t brushed under the carpet. Most notably, Samad makes the decision to send one of his young sons to Bangladesh, to be raised ‘traditionally’ by his family in the hope of avoiding ‘corruption’. ‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Smith writes, ‘tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rearely appears sinister.’
The sending away of Magid – chosen over his twin because ‘Magid had the brains, Magid would settle down quicker, learn the language, quicker, and Archie had a vested interest in keeping Millat in the country because he was the best striker Willesden Athletic FC (under fifteens) had seen in decades’ – forms the spine of the book’s second half.
Samad’s plan, of course, fails. Magid does not become ‘for God, not for men…a real Bengali, a proper Muslim’ in the way that Samad
wants him to be. Instead he becomes a scientist, mixed up in controversial research against which Samad is protesting. Meanwhile, Millat joins an extremist Muslim group in the UK – ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation’, or the wonderfully-deflating KEVIN (‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’).
Irie, meanwhile, has developed a teenage crush on a whole family, the New Age, middle-class Chalfens, well-meaning but still unable to see beyond her skin colour. ‘She had a nebulous fifteen-year-old’s passion for them, overwhelming, yet with no real direction or object. She just wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfishness. The purity of it.’ Both she and Millat are very aware of their racial identities and their heritages; both, too, have problematic relationships with their parents; but they both deal with it in different ways, and this is how Smith really brings her characters to life.
(I don’t want to give away too much about the end of this book, because it’s wonderful and well worth reading, but suffice to say that the Iqbals, Joneses and Chalfens of both generations eventually collide in a hilarious, poignant, tumultuous finale.)
Although Smith might claim that White Teeth isn’t a political novel, then, its political dimensions are pretty glaring, all things considered. But it’s more than simply a polemic – Smith is writing more after the fashion of Dickens than, say, Orwell; what makes this novel great is that it is an exploration of what it’s like to grow up in the last decades of the twentieth century, in a London still finding its multicultural feet. One of the most memorable passages from the novel, for me at least, is this one, which seems to encapsulate everything I’m trying to say:
‘It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.’
Next Week: Drugs and the Modern Working Class: Irvine Welsh and the ‘Trainspotting’ Generation