Articles for ‘Zadie Smith’

The Reception of White Teeth

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Although other writers in Cambridge Authors have been heralded, hyped, and given prizes, none of them has undergone this in a media culture that is so familiar to us. Zadie Smith has been the focus of attention from publicity machines, journalists, fellow writers, and prize committees. This is part of the context in which we read White Teeth, and here Frances Winfield presents some aspects of this phenomenon. The point here is to outline the parts of the process by which the profile of the novel was raised, and also to prompt reflection - there are some questions at the end - about how, as readers, we should (or shouldn't) take account of such things.

Initial Reception

In 1997 rumours started flying about a novelist called Zadie Smith. The majority of first-time authors struggle for fame and financial reward, yet she was paid an advance of a quarter of a million pounds for the opening pages of her first novel, White Teeth. The large amount of money involved and the promise of a brilliant new writer naturally fascinated many journalists and critics. Their interest in Smith began at this point and has scarcely diminished since. The journalists' initial reception of Smith and her work was mostly very positive, focusing upon her evident literary ability, creativity, and humour, whilst also commenting upon her youth and mixed-race background. White Teeth was considered an example of the voice of modern, multicultural Britain, and its literary merit was quickly recognized by the public, as demonstrated by its widespread popularity as a bestseller and a book group staple.

Critical Reception

With the advantages of talent and immediate acclaim on Smith's side, all that seemed to be wanting was the approbation of a fellow renowned author, and this was supplied by Salman Rushdie's famous praise which smoothed White Teeth's path to widespread critical recognition. He was quoted on the book's back cover as saying that the novel was 'astonishingly assured', and that he was 'delighted' by it. Receiving such approval from a Booker prize winner helped to ensure serious critical discussion of this new author's work. Critics have noted that one of White Teeth's most impressive qualities is that its prose flows with the confidence and maturity of an older and more experienced writer than Smith, who was only 21 and had just graduated from Cambridge when she was given the advance for the manuscript. In this respect she outstripped Rushdie, and many other established writers, whose works were not written and published until they were considerably older.

Popular and Journalistic Reception

Thanks to Zadie Smith's talent and youth, at the time of White Teeth's publication newspaper editors often wrote about her as one of the bright young things of contemporary writing. The timing of the publication of White Teeth in January 2000 coincided with this viewpoint, allowing journalists like Stephanie Merritt of The Observer to comment that Smith was 'the first publishing sensation of the millennium'. Much of the media interest surrounding White Teeth, heralding a new voice of British creative writing, echoed and also, to some extent, influenced the popular reception of the book. Nonetheless, White Teeth's continued and long-term critical acclaim and popularity is rooted in Zadie Smith's literary skill; critics and readers have applauded the book's wit, humanity, and realism.

White Teeth is profoundly multicultural and representative of the Britain, and more specifically, the London shaped by generations of immigrants. It has attracted many urban readers, including David Sexton, Literary Editor of the capital's Evening Standard newspaper. In a review he fêted White Teeth as 'the novel most alive to the racial mêlée that is London now'. Smith grew up in the multi-ethnic suburb Willesden Green, where the novel is set, and she depicts it with an authentic and engaging atmosphere. Some journalists have remarked upon Smith's own mixed-race heritage in connection with this aspect of White Teeth: the Observer's headline of its review of the book upon its publication was that Smith was 'young, black, British'. Media attention like this may have aided early sales of the book by drawing particular groups of readers towards White Teeth, and by turning Smith into a household name, but White Teeth's critical and popular success is undoubtedly due to the great merit of the book itself and, consequently, word-of-mouth approval. This is exemplified by the praise of Zadie Smith's literary abilities from Andrew Motion, the poet laureate - usually considered a conventional or 'establishment' post in the literary world. He said that the range of novels and poetry studied at school should be extended and 'revitalised' by the inclusion on the curriculum of writers such as Smith. Furthermore, the success of Smith's second and third novels, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, has shown beyond doubt that White Teeth was certainly no one-hit-wonder.

Literary Prizes

Zadie Smith was not a conventional figure in the literary world when White Teeth was first published, as the extraordinary advance she was given shows. The book's commercial success was mirrored by its literary success, as she received many eminent prizes for her first novel. Smith became the recipient of awards ranging from the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, to those such as the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, to the esteemed Whitbread First Novel Award. Although White Teeth did not win the Orange Prize for Fiction when it was shortlisted in 2000, Smith's third novel On Beauty beat fellow celebrated authors Ali Smith and Sarah Waters to gain it in 2006. Zadie Smith has, however, expressed concern about literary awards, claiming on the arts forum website of the Willesden Herald in February 2008 that they are 'only nominally' about literature and more about corporate brand consolidation. This comment caused a flurry of interest and some controversy; there have even been doubts that she really wrote it, though there has been no denial. One thing it does demonstrate is the uneasy relationship that can exist between literature and literary prizes.


Further Reading

  • Claire Squires, Zadie Smith's White Teeth: A Reader's Guide (New York and London, 2002).
  • Tracey L. Walters, ed., Zadie Smith: Critical Essays (New York and Oxford, 2008).

Further Thinking

Winning a literary prize might seem like a good thing and a worthwhile recommendation: a group of experienced readers has endorsed a book. On the other hand, we may prefer literature to resist consensus, and to cause offence to the establishment rather than seeking its approval. What difference does a literary prize make to your assessment of a work before, during, and/or after reading it?

Much of the excitement surrounding White Teeth seems to have happened with absolutely no prompting from the author or her novel. The media machine, and its relationship with the publishing industry, can make their own momentum. However, do you think White Teeth does actually show qualities that might make it liable to that kind of sensational treatment?

A lot of the critical reception of the novel in the press emphasized that White Teeth is the first novel by a young author. Zadie Smith herself describes it in those terms in the interview she gave to the Cambridge Authors project. As you read the novel, do the concepts of 'firstness' and 'youth' seem useful ones to help you understand the novel?

The Human Genome Project

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

In this article, graduate editor Josie Gill investigates the importance of genetics - and of the Human Genome Project, in particular - for our understanding of Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

From Samad's obsession with his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, to the differing personalities of the genetically identical twins and Irie's struggle with her body which is "genetically designed with another country in mind" (White Teeth, p. 266), most of the characters in White Teeth grapple with the question of how far their identities are the result of their genetic inheritance. The exception to this is the Chalfen family whose knowledge of, and confidence in, their own genealogy, stands in stark contrast to the complex histories of the other families in the novel: 'it was the Chalfen family way, handed down the family for generations' (White Teeth, p. 312). The Chalfens' interest in genetics is more utilitarian: Marcus Chalfen is a scientist whose research is focused on a genetically enhanced creation, FutureMouse. His mouse, which has been produced to improve scientific understanding about the growth of cancer tumours, is reminiscent of a real, transgenic mouse, created by a group of scientists at Harvard University in the 1980s called OncoMouse, which was developed to be predisposed to contracting cancer. However, the climactic end, for which Marcus' mouse has been engineered, is perhaps more reminiscent of another development in genetics which had reached its peak by the year 2000, the year of White Teeth's publication.

The Human Genome Project, which was announced in 1989, aimed to map the whole of the human genome sequence and identify its 20-25,000 genes. A draft of the sequence had been achieved by 2000 and the first analyses were made public in 2001. The project was considered a major achievement, allowing scientists unprecedented insight into the workings of the human body, and the announcement of its completion was accompanied by the promise of new cures for diseases and better healthcare.  However, the project was also a source of controversy and arguments about the relative value of the mapping of the genome have continued into the present. Concerns have focused on the way knowledge of individuals' genetic make up could be used to discriminate against people identified as having a particular genetic trait or predisposition. Wider questions have also been asked about the implications of defining humans on the basis of their genes which, it has been argued, may lead to genetic determinism, the idea that genetics is responsible for all aspects of human behaviour, as well as physical traits.

Anxiety about the Human Genome Project, and its attendant controversies, is much in evidence in White Teeth. The grandiose language used in the press release about Marcus' experiments is comparable to the triumphant language used by scientists and politicians at the time that the completion of the genome project was announced. The press release which Irie reads to a journalist proclaims 'The FutureMouse© holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history where we are not the victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate' (White Teeth, p. 433). It is this sense of control over human destiny which can be discerned in a comment by Dr John Sulston, the leader of the Human Genome Project in the UK, who said, 'we've now got to the point in human history where for the first time we are going to hold in our hands the set of instructions to make a human being' (see 'What they said...').  Later, when Marcus is waiting for Magid at the airport and comes across a girl reading his book on genetic engineering, the exchange between them also mirrors typical debates about new genetic technologies. In asking 'Where are we going here? Millions of blonds with blue eyes? Mail order babies?' (White Teeth, p. 418) the girl draws on images which have been commonly used by the media in discussions of biotechnology, images which, as critics have shown, are often taken from fictional or literary imaginings of science. (Nerlich et al., p. 30) Thus Marcus dismisses the girl as 'full of the usual neo-fascist tabloid fantasies - mindless human clones, genetic policing of sexual and racial characteristics'' (White Teeth, p. 419).

However Marcus' unwavering belief in the power of genetic science is undermined and mocked in the novel.  Whilst the media portrayal of biotechnology might well draw on science fiction and fantasy, it is Marcus and his family who are in fact like 'mindless human clones'; 'they were all perfect', Smith writes, and 'like clones of each other, their dinner table was an exercise in mirrored perfection'. (White Teeth, p. 314) The Chalfens are the antithesis of Irie, Magid and Millat, whose lives are characterized by unpredictability and uncertainty. As the chaotic climax of the novel demonstrates, history and relationships have a role to play in 'fate', which cannot be determined by genetics alone. It is uncertain whether Millat's decision to try to shoot the scientist Dr Perret is the result of some genetic predisposition because he is 'a Pandy deep down' and 'there's mutiny in his blood', (White Teeth, p. 526) or is the result of his involvement with the fundamentalist group KEVIN.  In White Teeth, the lines between genetics, history and culture are blurred and genetics, despite the major scientific advances in the field such as the Human Genome Project, can never fully account for the complexities and intricacies of human behaviour.

Have a look at the passage White Teeth that depicts an argument between Samad and Archie. They debate what to do with Dr Sick, a Nazi eugenicist whom they have captured in the Bulgarian village in which they are stranded at the end of World War II. In the light of the article above, what do you find interesting about the depiction of genetic science here? What are the similarities and differences between the discussion of religion and race in this passage and the way these themes are dealt with later in the novel? (If you have a comment you'd like to share, please leave a reply in the box at the bottom of the page.)

[It's a rather long extract and for copyright reasons we can't include it here. It starts 'Once outside, Samad and Archie got into the jeep containing Dr Sick, who was asleep on the dashboard, started the engine and drove into the blackness', and it ends ' "You know," said Archie, searching his brain, "democracy and Sunday dinners, and... and... promenades and piers, and bangers and mash - and the things that are ours. Not yours." ' It can be found in White Teeth, pp. 118-120.]

Further Reading

  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth (London: Penguin, 2001).
  • 'What they said: Genome in quotes', BBC News, Monday 26 June 2000,
  • Brigitte Nerlich, David D. Clarke and Robert Dingwall, 'Fictions, fantasies, and fears: The literary foundations of the cloning debate', Journal of Literary Semantics, 30 (2001), 37-52.
  • Pilnick, Alison, Genetics and Society: An Introduction (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002).
  • Balint, P.J. (eds.) (2001), The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Social and Political Dilemmas, Westport, Praeger.
  • Wilkie, T. (1994), Perilous Knowledge: The Human Genome Project and its Implications, London, Faber and Faber.

This word refers to the coming of a new millennium, which usually means the year 2000, or 1000, etc. It also carries an ominous or climactic potential. Millenialism refers particularly to a belief among some Christians that Christ will return to rule for a thousand years on earth before the last judgment. Millenarianism refers more generally to the feeling that a world-changing, or perhaps world-ending, change is approaching, perhaps at a specific date.

The Satanic Verses Affair

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Graduate editor Josie Gill thinks here about Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses as a context for Smith's White Teeth; while Smith never pronounces on Rushdie's novel, its history and concerns animate the inquiry into identity staged in White Teeth.

About half way through White Teeth, Millat and his friends take the train from London to Bradford to attend a protest against a writer they refer to as a 'coconut' and a 'white man's puppet' who has written, in their opinion, a 'dirty book' (White Teeth, p. 233). Whilst never explicitly named, the writer about whom the boys are so incensed is Salman Rushdie and the book is his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. The date of Millat's trip, 14th January 1989, is the day when copies of The Satanic Verses were infamously burnt at a protest in Bradford. This protest formed part of the growing international demonstrations against the novel's publication, which culminated in a fatwa (a religious ruling or decree) being issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, against Salman Rushdie on 14th February 1989 (see 'Ayatollah Khomeini', BBC, in Further Reading).

The Ayatollah is reported to have said 'I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them' (see 'Rushdie in Hiding'). The novel was considered by some, including the Ayatollah, to be blasphemous against Islam and Salman Rushdie was forced to seek police protection and go into hiding. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa and Rushdie continues to live in secret. Although it appeared that the fatwa might be relaxed in 1998, the death sentence was reasserted by the new Iranian Ayatollah in 2005. Rushdie has continued to write novels and in 1993 his novel Midnight's Children (1981) won the 'Booker of Bookers', an award for the best novel of all the novels which had won the Man Booker Prize in the preceding twenty-five years.

In White Teeth, Millat's and his friends' participation in the protest is narrated to great comic effect. The boys have not read the book they are going to protest about, and Smith plays on this farcical situation, comparing the protests against Rushdie to those which have often plagued writers in the past:

Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D.H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). (White Teeth, p. 233)

Yet, from the beginning of the episode, the reason for the boys' anger, and their enthusiasm for the protest, is clear. In trying to buy a train ticket, albeit with the bravado which typifies his personality, Millat is confronted with the racism which pervades his everyday life when the ticket man says, 'You little bastards. Can't tell me in English? Have to talk your Paki language?' (White Teeth, p. 231).  It is the stereotypes and prejudice with which young men like Millat and his crew are frequently confronted which, it is implied, have enabled the protests to gather such momentum. Millat 'knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state' and therefore he 'recognized the anger' of the protestors' (White Teeth, pp. 233-234).

The furore surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses meant that the novel came to be primarily known for its exploration of Islamic religious beliefs. However the novel is also notable for its examination of multicultural relations and the racism and alienation experienced by immigrants in 1980s Britain. In The Satanic Verses, the formation of culturally hybrid identities and the negotiation of competing cultural affiliations are central themes. It is therefore deeply ironic that Millat and his crew are described, as they travel to Bradford to protest against Rushdie, as 'Raggastanis' who 'spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing' (White Teeth, p. 231). The distinctive, culturally mixed identities which Millat and his contemporaries have created for themselves, and the discrimination they experience in London, are the very issues which Rushdie confronts in The Satanic Verses. Millat's participation in the demonstration against Rushdie's book is therefore a comic, yet poignant moment of misrecognition and confusion, one of many such moments which characterise White Teeth.

Millat is not the only character for whom the question of identity becomes connected to a literary text. Irie studies Shakespeare's sonnets at school and one episode in the novel features an instance of confusion comparable to the The Satanic Verses incident. What is the significance of Shakespeare in the passage? Is Irie's explanation just a case of straightforward misinterpretation? (If you have a comment you'd like to share, please leave a reply in the box at the bottom of the page.)

[It's rather a long passage so for copyright reasons we are unable to include it here. It starts with a quotation from Shakespeare's Sonnets, 'Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place...', and it ends ' "By William Shakespeare: ODE TO LETITIA AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BITCHEZ." '. It can be found in White Teeth, pp. 270-272.]

Further Reading

Intercultural Relationships

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

In this discussion of friendships and relationships in White Teeth, third-year undergraduate Derica Shields shows how social transactions in the novel can alter characters' assumptions about themselves - and perhaps change our minds about ourselves, too.

In the early part of White Teeth, issues of race, ethnicity or difference rarely complicate the relationships between the novel's rainbow characters. While the relations between Irie, Millat, Magid, Joshua, and others of their generation are at various times strained or difficult, this is seldom due to racial tensions. Millat, Magid and Irie are products of a hybrid and culturally mixed community, and this is something they take for granted. At Glenard Oak School they are instructed to 'respect other cultures,' yet in the light of their daily interaction with one another where 'Babelians of every conceivable class and colour' coexist with little trouble, this directive has a slightly inane ring to it. For this generation, cultural mixing is the norm, and they are accustomed to the fluidity of social formations that constitute London's multi-racial society. The idea of 'difference' seems to belong more to the older generation than it does the younger who are oblivious to the baggage that may accompany racial difference. In this depiction of a London community, which does not conform to the negative or troubled model often reported in the media, the novel appears to be opposed to the outlook of sociologists such as , who suggest that those involved can take pleasure in transgressively preserving the racial, cultural, and ethnic gaps. Divisions of race are not presented as unbridgeable in White Teeth, an open attitude not just confined to the second-generation of immigrants and their peers. The relationship between Archie and Samad endures through the 500-page novel, though it is tested at times by Samad's increasing fundamentalism. In most of the meaningful relationships of the novel, between Irie and Millat, and Samad and Archie, race or culture is no boundary at all; the characters are human beings first with culture simply an addendum.

The racial tensions that are a part of the characters' reality are rarely forefronted in the narrative, and seldom play a part in the relationships between the novel's main characters. Racist incidents are often presented retrospectively, forcing a distance between them and the reader. We are more aware of Millat's cultural hybridity than we are that he has been ' fucked with' (232) by the likes of the ticket salesman who refers to him as a 'Paki' (231). This is not to deny that there are incidents of overt racism in the novel; for instance, Mo has been 'a victim of serious attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year', suffering at the hands of 'five policemen', 'secondary school children', 'drunks', 'teenage thugs' and 'general fascists'. These assaults are all racially motivated, and his attackers have one thing in common: 'they [are] all white' (472 - 473). These incidents are significant because they form a background to the main action, and provide motivation for the Muslim characters' ensuing radicalism. But the reader is also invited into an immediate and intimate relationship with the novel's protagonists. They are not 'other', 'alien' or 'different', nor do they perceive themselves in this way. On the contrary, these assessments come from outside, and Smith emphasises this imposition of identity by confining racist incidents to the periphery of the book's narrative. When Irie is branded a 'kinky-haired big-ass bitch' (272), she does not face this taunt directly; instead the statement is mediated by a series of 'handlers.' Smith could be accused of presenting an idealized portrait of London's inhabitants and downplaying the harmful effect of racial attacks. But by confining these incidents to the edges of the narrative the novel manages to convey that for the majority of the time intercultural relations are not as strained or fraught as we might imagine. By doing so, we can encounter the novel's characters as individuals rather than merely as victims - individuals who are perhaps perceived as 'different' or 'other', but who are, in reality, recognisable products of Britain's changing society.

The novel's focus then shifts away from the intercultural tensions and conflicts which so captivate the media, and is instead preoccupied with the humdrum nature of intercultural relationships. Samad and Archie's relationship is rather ordinary; they have traditions and customs of their own. Like middle-aged friends of the same race they are comforted by traditions; they visit the same establishment, O'Connells, religiously, and rehash shared experiences. Samad rants about Mangal Pande and his sons, Archie listens and flips a coin if it comes to crunch time. The novel is emphatic that this relationship is one between men, rather than a Bengali man and an English man. By foregrounding the relative banality of the intercultural relationships the novel deliberately undermines our assumptions regarding the 'unbridgeable gaps' between cultures. However, when we witness Samad's guilty confession that his best friend is an 'unbeliever' we are forced to confront the idea of difference, as when Millat breaks up with his white girlfriend Karina.

Shiva declares that intercultural relationships are often doomed because there is 'too much history.' However, the message of the novel appears to be that this dictum need only be true if both parties are intent on dragging that history around with them. Millat's relationship is destroyed by his radicalization because his politics mean that he can no longer enjoy his relationship as a human being.

Way-back when in the fuddle of the hash and the talk Millat remembered a girl called Karina Somethingoranother whom he had liked. And she liked him. And she had a great sense of humour which felt like a miracle, and she looked after him when he was down and he looked after her too, in his own way ... She seemed distant now, like conker fights and childhood. And that was that. (376)

The poignancy of this recollection is partly achieved by its nostalgic comparison to 'childhood' and games that connote freedom from responsibility and a kind of abandon no longer attainable for Millat. The real misfortune here is that Millat has chosen to break off his relationship with a person he clearly cared for deeply. Smith writes, 'And it may be absurd to us that one Iqbal can believe the breadcrumbs laid down by another Iqbal, generations before him, have not yet blown away in the breeze' (506), and in this instance especially it does. While Archie's relationship with Samad survives the radicalization of the latter, the same cannot be said for that between Millat and Karina and the dissolution of their relationship seems needless. Smith's novel suggests that if one does not resist the label of 'difference' imposed by racists, then radicalization is the detrimental outcome. The perception of oneself as 'other' and the decision to embrace this 'otherness' is ultimately as potentially destructive as a gun-wielding Millat in the book's final tableau.

In contrast to Millat, Irie does not become radical or fundamentalist. She is burdened by a desire to be free, to forget her perceived 'difference' and simply 'get on with it.' She expresses a wish to resist all labels and interact simply as a human being rather than be forced to negotiate between who she is and who she 'should be' (515). While Irie experiences the pressure of history and cultural expectations as negative, Millat has been unable to defend who he is from the onslaught of exterior cultural expectations and has succumbed to KEVIN's mores. Irie, however, dreams of her unborn child as a 'perfectly plotted thing with no coordinates' (516): a child without history or discoverable origin. She imagines that in this state her child will be able to interact simply as a free human being and without cultural expectations which may limit or constrain its interactions with others. Perhaps Irie's ultimate dream is of a rootless people sharing the same space, assimilating, integrating and finding new ways of seeing and being. White Teeth suggests that Britain is on its way to achieving something of that kind:

But multiplicity is no illusion. Nor is the speed with which those-in-the-simmering-melting-pot are dashing towards it. Paradoxes aside, they are running, just as Achilles was running. And they will lap those in denial just as surely as Achilles would have made that tortoise eat his dust. (466)

Further Thinking

In this discussion of intercultural relationships in White Teeth, Derica Shields shows how, in the novel, names can become acknowledged and internalized, bringing about wide-reaching psychological and ethical changes that threaten individuals as well as societies. But would you agree with Derica that the book unequivocally celebrates Irie's rootless ideal of a 'plot without coordinates', or do you think that the tortoise holds some surprises, still, for Smith's Achilles?

White Teeth is very clearly interested in the problems and opportunities of racial identity, and one of the book's important social markers is age, or generational identity. Of course many of the book's readers are neither Londoners nor immigrants of colour, and many are young people. How do the book's preoccupations with race, gender, and age include and exclude its readers?

Paul Gilroy is the author is the author of a number of important books on Black cultural identity in Britain and beyond. See There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987), and Between Camps: Nations, Cultures, and the Allure of Race (2000).

Cultural Diversity: Negotiating Mixed Cultural Identities in White Teeth

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

In this discussion of identity and history in White Teeth, third-year undergraduate Derica Shields considers the novel's interest in the competing claims of cultural purity and assimilation.

What’s Samad’s Problem? The men of White Teeth’s Iqbal family are forced at various junctures to grapple with their identities and negotiate the challenges of making England their home. Samad is a wannabe patriarch and his struggle to reconcile his ethnicity with his identity as a British subject causes him considerable inner turmoil and precipitates many of the main dramas of the novel. His sons Magid and Millat are also conflicted. As Neena, 'Niece of Shame', comments, Millat does not 'know who he is', 'just like his father' (p. 284). Yet, unlike their father Millat and Magid have grown up in a community where cultural mixing is commonplace, and for this reason they envisage identity in relation to their nationality, ethnicity, and religion quite differently from their father. This generational gap sees a shift in the perception of cultural belonging between first- and second- generation immigrants. Millat and Magid inhabit a microclimate where cultural hybrids are the norm. Their father on the other hand clings to the essentialist notion of cultural purity. It is this ideal of cultural purity which causes Samad the most difficulty in the course of the novel, as the notion is continually challenged and finally exposed as fallacy in the central irony of White Teeth.

One might reasonably ask how Samad is able to reconcile his ethnic identity as a Bengali man with serving in the British Army during the second world war. Britain, as the colonising nation, must naturally be his enemy, and the conflict this causes for Samad becomes clear as he is in one moment an outspoken Bengali radical and in the next the embodiment of the obedient colonial subject. Without questioning the contradiction he snidely remarks: 'give Bengal independence... leave India in bed with the British, if that’s what she likes’ (p. 88), earlier having entreated his colleagues to unite with him to 'fight together as British subjects’ (p. 86). He is clearly proud to serve in the British army, only wishing that he were 'soaring in the Royal Airborne Force’ (p. 87) rather than trundling along with the affectionately named 'Buggered Battalion’. Samad appears to have simply accepted duality as the condition of colonial subjectivity; he embraces his racial identity as a Bengali and also identifies with the British Empire which has endowed him with his colonial education and sense of patriotic duty. As long as Samad views himself as a colonial subject he is able to keep his racial and national affiliations separate.

Yet this duality goes on to anguish Samad as he experiences ever more difficulty in conclusively delineating the two cultures. Crucial to his construction of identity is that his two affiliations be kept separate; one allegiance must never be allowed to 'corrupt’ or overpower the other. This preoccupation with keeping the lines of demarcation intact is manifest in his reaction to being called 'Sultan’ and, later, Sam:

"Don’t call me Sam," he growled . . . "I’m not one of your English matey-boys. My name is Samad Miah Iqbal. Not Sam. Not Sammy. And not – God forbid – Samuel. It is Samad." (p. 112)

He is sensitive to the inaccuracy of the 'sultan’ nickname, perhaps objecting to the arbitrary grouping of all brown-skinned peoples it denotes. Yet this also betrays the roots of what will become his main problem. He is obsessed by the idea of ethnic purity, and his violent reaction to Archie’s Anglicization of his name is also symptomatic of this. These incidents are, for Samad, verbal assaults on his precariously balanced identity. Samad believes that if he accepts either of these epithets he would effectively relinquish his Bengali allegiance. While he can negotiate the coexistence of national and racial affiliations as independent categories, he resists the erasure of one for the sake of the other. It is crucial that he keep his identity compartmentalized in order to avoid nullification of either.

When Samad decides to move to England he cannot sustain this colonial way of thinking for long. As London transforms itself from colonial metropolis to postcolonial cosmopolis, Samad must similarly refashion his identity from colonial to postcolonial subject. His inability to do this is what drives him toward fundamentalism. While the colonial structure allowed, and even encouraged, Samad to keep his identity compartmentalized, the hybrid nature of London’s culture is bewildering for Samad and ranks among blasphemy and wanton promiscuity in his estimation. But what is at the root of this determination to keep the two cultures with which he is affiliated so completely separate? The belief underlying Samad’s doggedness is revealed in a wry exchange with Archie:

"I don’t eat [pork] for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman."

"Why’s that?" said Archie, pausing from his feast.

"It’s in our cultures, my friend." He thought for a minute. "Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones." (p. 96)

Samad’s mistake is to define culture as something inherent rather than environmental. Rather than in the 'bones’, culture is exposed as being characteristically hybrid and mutable, not fixed and eternal as Samad would like to believe. This thinking leads him to imagine that unless he manifests all the traits of a typical Bengali man he does some disservice to his ethnic heritage. This means that dress, speech, and religion are paramount for him. Instead of realising that all people are shaped by their environment, Samad is determined to seal himself off, claiming that he does not want to be 'a modern man.’ However, his assumption that certain characteristics are innate and not dependent on context or environment results in Samad’s painfully humorous, almost schizophrenic behaviour. He retreats into an intolerant fundamentalism which alienates his sons, who rather than attempt to fashion cultures as separate from one another, are quite accustomed to the kind of hybridity of which Irie is a physical example. Samad even reacts against her appearance, assessing her as 'not a pretty child: she had got her genes mixed up…’. The reality is waved at him by Alsana, his sons, Archie and the thronging, increasingly hybrid London around him, but Samad remains stubbornly fixed.

As a result of this personal philosophy, Samad feels increasingly as though his mixed cultural identity is destroying him. His attempts to adhere to the teachings of Islam, while keeping the company of Archie – an unbeliever – and during a brief affair with Poppy Burt-Jones, lead him down a path of self-accusation and self-loathing. While he believes that being a 'true Bengali' requires that he be a devout Muslim, religion, as Shiva observes, 'doesn’t suit’ him. He becomes fearful of what he perceives as Western 'corruption’ and invests in the idea that as a Bengali man there are certain ideals and characteristics all individuals of that ethnicity must possess. He holds himself, and his family, answerable to this ideal; he remarks to Alsana: 'You’re a Bengali. Act like one.' When she retorts 'And what is a Bengali, husband, please?', he has no answer. In reality, the idea of cultural separation between the East and West is an illusion, as Alsana points out when she reads from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

… The vast majority of Bangladesh’s inhabitants are Bengalis, who are largely descended from Indo-Aryans who began to migrate into the country from the west thousands of years ago and who mixed within Bengal with indigenous groups of various racial stocks….

"Oi, mister! Indo-Aryans . . . it looks like I am Western after all! … It just goes to show," said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, "you go back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy-tale!" (p. 236)

Alsana, like her sons, recognises that the notion of cultural purity is one of the most prevalent illusions of our time.

Unlike their father, Millat and Magid have never set foot in the 'homeland’ and therefore their connection to it is tenuous at best. Their idea of home is restricted to Willesden Green, the community in which they have grown up. These second-generation immigrants face new challenges as they construct identities for themselves. Physically they are different in appearance from their peers, but aside from this, as Irie moans, 'Everyone’s the same here’ (p. 377). The second-generation of immigrants do not share the racialized world of their parents, because they have grown up in a world where hybridity is the norm:

Everyone at Glenard Oak was at work; they were Babelians of every conceivable class and colour speaking in tongues… (Brent Schools Report 1990: 67 different faiths, 123 different languages). (p. 292)

While construction of an identity proves challenging for both Millat and Magid who tend to go to extremes, they have grown up in a community where cultures are not sealed off from each other. Millat is part of a gang called 'Raggastani… a new breed… manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel… Raggastantis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican Patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English’ (p. 321). The second-generation immigrants are constantly constructing new identities based on composites of the interpenetrating cultures of East and West. The ultimate irony of the novel intends to explode Samad’s essentialism once and for all, as Magid returns from the 'homeland’ an anglophile dandy who shatters Samad’s illusions of cultural purity. Samad’s anger at this springs out of the knowledge that he has been misled by the false notion of a pure identity: 'a real Bengali, a proper Muslim' is simply a comforting fantasy.

Further Thinking

In this account of White Teeth, history turns out to be a false friend for Samad – instead of justifying his anxious grip on his identity, it seems to expose that identity as a sham. Does the 'history' of the book's narrative hold similar surprises for its characters, do you think?

From names to religions to races, labels are very important for some of the people in the mixed urban environment of this novel. What kinds of liberties – or what kinds of confusions – are created by this novel's breakdown of categories and classifications?

An Interview with Zadie Smith

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Graduate student Josie Gill put some questions to Zadie Smith about her experience of Cambridge, her writing, and her life as a writer.

Studying at Cambridge

What was your sense of Cambridge as a place, and as a community for writing and thinking?

I didn't come from an intellectual background. The parent of a friend introduced me to the idea of Cambridge when I was about sixteen, and then, in the two years during my A levels, I constructed a great fantasy about the place - I felt it was going to save me. So I came with the highest expectations, and with no experience at all, which should have led to a great disappointment, but the opposite was true. I found it to be pretty much everything I hoped it would be. But I also credit King's for that. Since then, I've visited other colleges in a professional capacity, and also to see friends, and the more I see of Cambridge, the more I feel King's is unique. It was a real intellectual community; I knew nothing about drinking societies or Blues or banking. Maybe it went on, but I never saw it. To me King's was one long, invigorating conversation.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience of the English course - Which aspects did you enjoy the most? Which elements seem the most important now?

It was thorough. It started at the beginning and ended near-ish the end. And the things it missed out - contemporary Americans, contemporary British - I didn't miss; I read them later. I can't exaggerate my lack of preparedness when I arrived: I knew nothing, so I could have no complaints about what was put in front of me.

The most important to me, though, were the literary theory and the philosophy. They left me capable of independent thought, something my school education never really achieved.

How did studying prepare you for writing, if at all?

Without it, I never would have written anything. The great breadth of novels I read - they made me write.

You started work on your first novel and had short stories published in The Mays whilst you were a student. Looking back, was there a particular moment or event which inspired you to write?

There was no particular moment. I had always wanted to write, and the more I read the more sure I was of that.

Literary connections

You describe your last novel, On Beauty, as 'a novel inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted'. What is it about Forster's writing that you find so attractive? Can you say a bit more about how he has inspired your other fiction?

I have to say I find him a lot less attractive than I used to. I've written and talked about him too much. The reasons are very personal - when I was in North London, reading about Cambridge, trying to imagine being there, Forster was the only one of that lot - Strachey, the Stephens boys, Keynes, Brooke, etc. - who seemed to me 'within reach'; he wasn't as intimidating as the rest; he was suburban; he wasn't especially bold, but his was work had a radical tinge... a sort of iron fist in velvet glove approach. And that suited me, as something to aspire to, at the time.

Forster aside, are there other obvious or subtle debts in your fiction? Can you point to specific moments or examples where this is apparent?

White Teeth has always seemed to me one enormous act of plagiarism. But I'm not going to help anyone 'spot the author'. It's a young person's book, written by a very young person heavily under the influence of her reading. Any sharp-eyed reader will find the clues here and there.

You have been described as having 'one eye on contemporary life and the other on literary heritage'.  Do you agree with this description? Is this something you set out to achieve in your writing?

Literary heritage matters to me. Specifically the history of English literature. I loved Milton when I was 14 in Kilburn - I don't feel a radical break with that language, or with the language of Keats or Pope. There is change and there is also continuity - that seems obvious enough to me. And I don't believe the language degenerates; I think the language of, say, British hip-hop is an addition to the language of Milton, not a threat to him. And the centuries speak to each other - the radical leaflets of the 17th century Catholic insurgency are not a million miles from the fundamentalist Islamic pamphlets you can pick up on the Kilburn high road...

Life as a writer

How do you think life as a writer today differs from the lives of writers in the past? How would you compare your life with that of Forster or even Byron?

Well, Byron had a bear. I didn't get one of those. And Forster had an independent living. I didn't get one of those. Then again, neither of them had to go on a book tour, so it's swings and roundabouts.

You've written a lot of critical essays for newspapers and literary publications. What's the relationship between these and your creative writing?

They're the same thing to me. Except when I'm writing criticism, I'm in much less pain.

You have just been named in the Powerlist 2008 of Britain's 100 most influential black people.  How do you feel about this?

I have no feeling about it!

The term 'black British' is often used to describe your fiction. Do you think this a useful way to categorise your writing?

It's a perfect term to describe the genetic/cultural entity that is me. Less effective description of the fiction, though.

What are your thoughts about being studied at A Level?

Honoured, incredulous, a tiny bit depressed. I mean, happy obviously, but not if I'm taking the place of an actual dead person who might be more useful to them. Seems to me that you can read White Teeth any time - I don't think it serves much of a purpose on a syllabus.

Zadie Smith

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Zadie Smith was born in 1975 and grew up in London. She studied English at King's College, Cambridge between 1994 and 1997, during which time she published short stories in and began working on her first novel, White Teeth. Smith has published three novels to date: White Teeth in 2000, The Autograph Man in 2002 and On Beauty in 2005, which won the Orange prize for fiction in 2006.

Unlike most of the other authors represented in the Cambridge Authors project, Smith is a contemporary writer in some ways still at the beginning of her career as a novelist and critic. She is also a writer whose works reflect her position in a modern, urban community, as well as in an intellectual and literary culture defined by the great English writers of the past (one of whom, E. M. Forster, is another of our Cambridge Authors). The essays and resources - including an interview - available here reflect these emphases.

The Mays anthology is an annual collection of student writing from Oxford and Cambridge universities. It is published annually in the late spring.