Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) belongs to a relatively recent subgenre in which children of mixed white and non-white immigrant parents represent as a given a London that is populated by a bewildering mix of cultures, religions, languages and previous nationalities. This latest instance of postcolonial British fiction originated with the publication of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in 1990. His protagonists are Londoners of mixed ethnic parentage like himself whom he takes to be “representative of the movements and aspirations of millions of people” (Borderline 4). Readers are clearly willing to make a similar assumption judging from the large sales of this new form of fiction. While its most celebrated work remains White Teeth, a recent notable addition to the genre has been Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003). This new subgenre became so much in demand in the 1990s that both Smith and Ali were offered contracts with large advances before they had written more than a few chapters of the novels and still managed to receive highly favorable notices from most reviewers. All three writers celebrate the increasingly multicultural nature of London’s inhabitants. All of them differ from their postcolonial predecessors who could still remember their countries of origin and who remained ambivalent about their identity and allegiances. These three writers only know a London characterized by multiculturalism and residual racism. For all three writers London becomes what John Clement Ball has called “a semi-detached signifier: it is and is not Britain; it is and is not the world” (9).
British attitudes to multiculturalism have been changing again recently, partly as an after effect of 9/11. In an interview with the Times (London) published on 2 April 2004, Trevor Phillips, a former champion of multiculturalism and head of the Commission on Racial Equality, said that the 40-year policy of multiculturalism was out of date and no longer useful because it “now means the wrong things” and encourages "separateness" among communities. He added: “We are now in a different world from the Sixties and Seventies. What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are some common values” (“Britain ‘must’”). He gave this interview the same day that a small group British Muslim extremists burned the Union Jack outside the Central Mosque in Regent’s Park. Phillips later explained, “if we put our desire to defend the right to be different ahead of our fight for the right to be equal we can end up by excluding and diminishing the most disadvantaged people in our society” (“Trevor Phillips’s speech”). This latest change in attitude is anticipated by these three writers all of who present protagonists who enter into the mainstream of British culture bringing with them their ethnic heritage rather than defining themselves by their ethnic and cultural difference from their white fellow citizens as do their first generation immigrant parents. These writers, then, reflect a very different situation from that experienced by the first wave of immigrants to Britain that included Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Edward Kamau Braithwaite, and V.S. Naipaul.
From the moment in 1948 when the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury with 492 West Indian immigrants Britain (more specifically England) entered into a crisis of national identity. The mixed nature of British society from its beginnings had been disguised by the fact that most of the earlier waves of migration and invasion had brought differences of culture and language, but not of race and color. The confusion in identity politics after World War Two caused by the new influx of primarily West Indian and Asian immigrants can be epitomized by the actions of Enoch Powell. As Conservative Minister of Health during the early 1960s he was responsible for actively recruiting West Indians to enter the National Health Service. Yet in 1968 he delivered his famous speech in Birmingham in which he warned, “... the immigrant communities can organize . . . to overawe and dominate the rest . . . Like the Roman, I seem to see, 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood’” (“Mr Powell sees”). He advocated repatriating immigrants and was supported by vociferous segments of the population. One of the consequences of the loss of a national sense of self following the divestment of Britain’s colonies was a racist backlash directed at immigrants arriving from countries that had recently been subject colonies. The impetus of that backlash is still evident today, but much diminished, in part due to the ever increasing presence of non-whites in England, and in London in particular.
The latest UK census in 2001 found that over 4.6 million (7.9%) of the total population of 59.2 million was non-white, of which 53% was Asian. Non-whites had grown over the previous decade by 53% from 3 to 4.6 million. Of most interest here is the fact that a new category of “mixed ethnicity” accounted for 15% of the non-white population (1.2 % of the total population). All three novelists considered in this first section – Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali – are of mixed white and non-white parentage. Further, they all write about London which in 2001 contained 53% of the UK’s non-white population, where it comprised 29% of the city’s more than 7 million inhabitants. These rapidly changing demographics have inevitably produced a transformation in the expectations and outlook of the latest generation of non-white English citizens, especially non-white Londoners. All three novelists are not only of mixed ethnicity, but are second generation immigrants, being born and raised in England. This makes it doubly incomprehensible to them (as to all mixed ethnic citizens) when they find themselves treated as foreigners because of the color of their skin or because of their one immigrant parent.
These writers have followed the example of Salman Rushdie, by deconstructing essentialist notions of national identity in their work. Just as Rushdie centers the London chapters of The Satanic Verses (1988) on Brickhall (Southall which has a predominantly Asian population), so they locate their narratives in districts of London, the one-time center of the British Empire, that are predominantly non-white or of mixed ethnicity—Kureishi uses West Kensington in The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and Kilburn in The Black Album (1995), Smith chooses Willesdon Green in White Teeth (2000), and Monica Ali in Brick Lane (2003) focuses on Tower Hamlets (where a quarter of Britain’s Bangladeshis live). In The Satanic Verses Rushdie gave fictional expression to the belief that immigrants help to revivify a nation that had lost its belief in itself after it had lost its empire. All three of these novelists are the product as it were of such a new infusion of lifeblood. They take it for granted that Englishness now inevitably involves ethnic multiplicity and that racism is simply a symptom of the reluctance of the old guard to accept the new hybrid nature of Britain’s population, a mélange which intensifies with the passing of each year. Where V. S. Naipaul as a first generation immigrant spent his life “Finding the Centre” (the title of two autobiographical narratives he published in 1984), these writers turn the periphery into their center. They all occupy highly liminal positions that privilege their positioning themselves both within and outside the many cultures they explore in their fiction. As Monica Ali explains: “Growing up with an English mother and a Bengali father means never being an insider. Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe” (“Real lives”). They all illustrate Bill Buford’s prophetic pronouncement in 1980 that “the imagination [now] resides along the peripheries; it is spoken through minority discourse, with a dominant tongue re-appropriated, re-commanded, and importantly re-invigorated” (16) . They share Kureishi’s conviction that “the immigrant is a kind of modern Everyman” (Borderline 4), that we all find ourselves in some interior sense immigrants.
Kureishi, the first of these writers of mixed ethnicity to publish a novel, addresses the question of identity by pluralizing it. He sees the self as a polymorphous construct, unstable, and capable of infinite mutations. Any attempt to confine the subject to an essentialized identity is bound to fail, he asserts in an interview with Colin McCabe: “racists find mixing terrifying. But of course it’s inevitable” (50). The two alternative responses to immigration, assimilation and separatism, are equally opposed to Kureishi’s conception of subjectivity as hybrid. Both strategies attempt to restrict the liberating act of multiplying one’s potential selves. Seen from the perspective of a carnivalized portrait of contemporary London youth culture, the racism of a Hairy Back in Buddha, like the Islamic fundamentalism of Riaz and Chad in The Black Album (1995), is comically exposed as an absurd anachronism. Kureishi further represents the difference between an essentialized and pluralistic conception of self by distinguishing between first and second generation immigrants (although he rejects the latter term because it ensures “that there was no mistake about our not really belonging in Britain” [My Beautiful Launderette 134-5]). Haroon, the protagonist Karim’s Indian father in Buddha, starts off attempting to totally assimilate to English culture and ends up adopting an equally essentialist separatism: “I have lived in the West for most of my life, and I will die here, yet I remain to all intents and purposes an Indian man. I will never be anything but an Indian” (263). But Karim, of mixed parentage like Kureishi, has no country to return to if only in the imagination. Instead he chooses to move from the suburbs where his mother sits at home watching Steptoe and Son to West Kensington which “made you vertiginous with possibilities” (126).
If suburbia is a homogenized version of Britishness, central London is where everyone is refashioning him/herself in the pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s. As Stuart Hall observes, popular culture “is profoundly mythic. . . It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented . . . to ourselves for the first time” (474). Even the title of The Black Album is borrowed from Prince’s 1988 LP of that name, which is itself a riposte to the Beatles’ White Album of 1969. Prince represents just those mercurial qualities of hybridity and transformation that Kureishi associates with contemporary British identity. As Deedee describes him in Black Album, “He’s half black and half white, half man, half woman, half size, feminine but macho, too” (34). Kureishi undermines not just racial and ethnic definitions of identity, but those of class and sexual orientation. Karim’s move to West Kensington and beyond acquires the mythic quality of an interior journey into the nature of subjectivity. What he learns through entering the world of the theatre is that the self is something we perform, that it can be changed at will, and that there is no transcendental “I”, only a series of positions which we choose to occupy. In Karim’s case some of the roles he is required to adopt by supposedly avant-garde directors make him conform to others’ racial stereotypes. But the principal lesson he learns is that such roles are as easily discarded as put on. This conception of identity is not confined to Karim. Before he leaves the suburbs he witnesses his Muslim father’s transformation into a Buddhist guru, complete with red and gold waistcoat and Indian pajamas: “Perhaps Daddio really was a magician, having transformed himself by the bootlaces (as he put it) from being an Indian in the Civil Service who was always cleaning his teeth with Monkey Brand black toothpowder manufactured by Nogi & co. of Bombay, into the wise adviser he now appeared to be” (31). Changez undergoes an equally startling transformation. Even Charlie learns to put on a Cockney accent for the Americans, “selling Englishness, and getting a lot of money for it” (247). That is the point, Kureishi implies: Britishness can be any role that helps the individual fulfill him/herself. The trick is to be another by being oneself, to be English, for instance, by being Cockney (which is how Charlie spoke at school). As Pyke teaches Karim in Buddha, “Paradox of paradoxes: to be someone else successfully you must be yourself” (219-20). Performance acts as a signifier of authenticity in Kureishi’s identity politics.
Kureishi uses the Bildungsroman to subvert its generic assumption that there is an authentic self waiting to be discovered by the maturing protagonist. Monica Ali employs the same generic form to explore a different aspect of subject formation—the question whether fate or free will most determines the development of the self. Focusing on a Bangladeshi female protagonist, Nazneen, who is brought to London for an arranged marriage from a remote village in East Pakistan, Brick Lane identifies fatalism with her mother’s Bengali culture which stands opposed to the new British culture into which Nazneen is transplanted. When Nazneen appears to be still born, her mother refuses to take her to hospital on the grounds that “my child must not waste any energy fighting against fate” (3). For much of the book Nazneen lives out her mother’s exemplary submission to the will of Allah. As Monica Ali observes in an interview, “Nazneen “has very different terms of reference to the average Westerner, but the issues are universal” (Independent 9). Reviewers of the novel have tended to oversimplify its development by reading it as a journey of self discovery in which Nazneen finally learns to reject the fatalism instilled by her mother and to begin to make her own life-determining decisions. Monica Ali offers a more subtle interpretation of how fate and free will interplay in the book: “The central issue for Nazneen is, ‘What is it in my life that I can control and what must be accepted?’” (“You Ask”). In other words, for Ali it is always a question of balancing both qualities, not a stark choice between opposites. Even if, as Ali suggests, “Nazneen is most often blind to the potential for autonomy” (“You Ask”), there is no question of her totally discarding her fatalism. She reaches her own compromise when she refuses to return to Bangladesh with Chanu, her husband.
What she finally chooses to reject is not so much Chanu as his belief that “Back home we’ll really know what’s what” (347). Chanu is a brilliantly constructed character. Twice Nazneen’s age, weighed down with rolls of stomach fat he caresses fondly, he is nevertheless a loving husband whose deep uncertainties gradually reveal themselves to his young wife. A first generation immigrant, he is defeated by the prejudice he meets and by his own inadequacies. He believes that educational achievement will win him fame and glory, if not in London then on his return to Bangladesh. What Chanu’s friend, Dr. Azad, calls “Going Home Syndrome” (16) finally separates him from his wife and daughters who have become more British than Bengali. Once he does go back to Bangladesh Chanu comes to recognize the truth of a saying he tellingly misattributes to the English (it was first spoken by Heracleitus): “You can’t step into the same river twice” (366). There is no returning to the country of one’s past.
But becoming British for Nazneen does not mean totally rejecting her cultural and religious heritage. It means trying to seek out a way of combining that with the customs and practices of her country of adoption, of combining the fatalism of her culture with the self agency that drives British culture. Her discovery of that agency within herself takes the length of the novel to develop. When she enters into an adulterous relationship with Karim, a charismatic young leader of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, she cannot believe that the passion that awakes within her is a personal response, reflecting: “How could such a weak woman unleash a force so strong? She gave in to fate and not to herself” (218). Once confronted with Chanu’s decision to take the whole family (including their two daughters) home, Nazneen takes her destiny into her own hands. First she decides “I will say what happens to me” (301). But having made herself responsible for her own actions, she cannot decide whether she wants to stay or go. Her decision to stay is only reached after her sister Hasina has written to her from Bangladesh revealing the fact that their mother, despite her belief in resigning oneself to fate, had finally seized that fate by committing suicide: “At the end only she act. She who think all path closed for her. She take the one forbidden” (324).
From the start Hasina has acted as a seeming counterpart to Nazneen’s fatalism. Where Nazneen accepts the husband in London chosen for her, Hasina elopes with Malek, a man with whom she has fallen in love. Yet in a key passage early on in the novel Nazneen finds herself conflating the two terms that seemingly separate the sisters:
It worried her that Hasina kicked against fate. No good could come of it. . . But then, if you looked at it more deeply, how could you be sure that Hasina was not simply following her fate? If fate cannot be changed, no matter how you struggle against it, then perhaps Hasina was fated to run away with Malek. Maybe she struggled against that, and that was what she could not alter. Oh, you think it would be simple, having made the decision long, long ago, to be at the beck and call of fate, but how to know which way it is calling you? (9)
By the end of the novel Nazneen is asking a similar question about agency—to go back or not to go back? Free will can be fate in disguise just as fate can turn out to conceal an exercise in self determination. Hasina’a kicking against fate only leads her into a life of poverty, oppression and temporary prostitution. Nazneen’s submission to the will of Allah equally paradoxically leads her into the sin of adultery. Chanu’s willed return to Bangladesh separates him from the one thing he finally realizes is important--having his family with him (358). The compromise Nazneen reaches at the end--“Staying or going, it’s up to us three” (360)—represents a fusion of cultural attitudes which parallels the fusion of ethnic and religious beliefs which constitute contemporary identity for Nazneen and her two daughters. Identity—national, cultural, ethnic, religious—constitutes a, possibly the major problematic for all of these three writers. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth offers an exemplary and brilliantly executed instance of this quest for a modern understanding of multicultural subjectivity.
From the moment Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, appeared in 2000, it was widely praised for offering new representations of different cultural identities: “an audaciously assured contribution to [the] process of staring into the mirror” (Phillips), a book “about threats to ethnic identity in the modern world” (Wiegand), “a meditation on . . . the impact that cultural and familial history can have on the shape of an individual’s life” (Kakutani). A graduate in English from King’s College, Cambridge (University), Smith is representative of a recent generation of writers who are themselves well aware of poststructuralist and postcolonial theory. Her portrayal of first- and second-generation migrants in London seems to be informed by some of the arguments surrounding postcolonial subjectivity offered by recent critical thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. For instance, the protagonist of her second novel, The Autograph Man, is given “Accidental eyes,” which is another character’s term for “half way between Oriental and Occidental” (40). Caught between a colonial past and a postcolonial present, her characters encounter many of the problems analyzed by Bhabha when discussing how hybrid identities are negotiated through performance. In the portraits of her conflicted immigrant families she gives fictional life to some of the ways in which postcolonial theorists describe how migrant identity can only be represented in terms of difference. As Stuart Hall explains, “what we call ‘the self’ is constituted out of and by difference, and remains contradictory” (“On postmodernism” 145). The racist and ethnic stereotypes of colonial discourse attempt to deny the play of difference. Yet this only causes difference to act as an unconscious repressed that returns to undermine the lingering colonial desire to represent itself through its distinction from the colonized other.
“Subjectivity is a plenary image,” Barthes insisted, “whose deceptive plenitude is merely the wake of all the codes which constitute me” (10). The poststructuralist subject is a discursive construct forever in process. Faced with the particular problems affecting migrants, postcolonialists have seized on the poststructuralist conception of subjectivity to explain the confused sense of identity that so many ex-colonial subjects experience. Franz Fanon, a practicing Lacanian psychoanalyst, first characterized the black ex-colonial subject as alienated from him- or herself by a Manichaean delirium, split between a black exterior and an assumed mask of white culture. Homi Bhabha interprets this dichotomy as itself a product of the discourse of colonialism which attempts to fetishize the subject by denying the difference which constitutes poststructuralist subjectivity. Both Bhabha and Zadie Smith refuse to accept the easy binaries offered by racist (and classist) discourses. Bhabha argues that colonialist discourse, in its attempt to fetishize the other, displays two conflicting “forms of identification complicit with the Imaginary—narcissism and aggressivity.” These two forms of identification are responsible for the stereotype which, “as a multiple and contradictory belief, gives knowledge of difference and simultaneously disavows and masks it.” Bhabha concludes: “like the mirror phase ‘the fullness’ of the stereotype—its image as identity—is always threatened by ‘lack’”(77).
In White Teeth this threat is what ultimately undermines the self-contained culture of superiority that characterizes the Chalfens. Joyce Chalfen’s attempts to colonize Millat are fated to alienate her own son, Joshua, producing an external split in the family that mirrors the internal split diagnosed by Bhabha using Lacan. Claire Squires comments: “The name of Joshua’s animal rights group [FATE] is a heavy hint of the themes played out in the novel” (55). One of the refreshing aspects of White Teeth is the way Smith shows the same ambivalence and internal contradiction fatefully manifesting itself in the migrant families as much as in the white inheritors of the colonial legacy. Samad wants to be a true Muslim believer and to be Western by having an affair with a white Englishwoman. Millat is torn between subscribing to a militant branch of Islamic fundamentalism and living out the fantasies of Western heroism he has acquired from watching his favorite Hollywood movies, Goodfellas and Scarface. Because White Teeth is written in a comic vein, when the internal division characterizing subjectivity emerges in the narrative it assumes the form of farce.
Although Zadie Smith’s first novel was greeted with widespread praise of a high order, a number of critics felt that she still betrayed a beginner’s need to overstretch herself in the way her characters’ consistency appeared to be sacrificed for the sake of comic effects. In particular she is accused of sacrificing psychological probability to a penchant for manipulating her comic plot in improbable ways. “Occasionally, Smith’s eagerness to show the weird interconnectedness of all things leads her to nurture stories and situation tragedies more diffuse than she can fully carry off” (Sandhu). In effect she is said to lose control of her narrative in the course of painting on so wide a multicultural canvas. In a more wide-sweeping condemnation of White Teeth yoked to such other manifestations of what he calls the “big, ambitious novel” as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason and Dixon, Underworld and Infinite Jest, ,James Wood alleges that such novels enforce “connections that are finally conceptual rather than human.” In Smith’s case Wood claims that the conceptual connections are “multiracial multiplicity,” but this “excess of storytelling” leads to “her principal characters mov[ing] in and out of human depth.” Smith is called too inventive: “it is all shiny externality, all caricature” (31). What Wood appears to be attacking is the poststructuralist concept of identity. In the same essay-review he calls for a return to Dickens, to the classic realist novel’s conception of a stable subject with full agency.
What I want to argue is that, to portray the multicultural London she knows, Smith seems encouraged to employ a conception of identity that has close resemblances to poststructuralist conceptions of the subject (possibly further prompted by precedents established by Rushdie and Kureishi). The nature of the multiethnic society she sets out to depict invites Smith to adopt a conception of subjectivity that refuses closure and naturally inhabits the interstices between seemingly stable or at least accepted ideological positions. Far from evading an exploration of immigrants’ identities, as Wood alleges, she has created within a comic mode a subtle and complex cast of characters whose ambiguous and conflictual status reflect the equally difficult problems facing immigrants or the descendents of immigrants and ex-colonials attempting to define their place in the colonial metropolis. Like Rushdie and Kureishi, Smith also appears to assume that all of us living in the modern age are in effect migrants, as we all experience the difference lying at the center of our sense of identity that migrants are forced to be more conscious of than those whose family’s migrancy dates back many more generations.
Britain might have abandoned its empire but it is still capable of establishing what Salman Rushdie has called “the new empire within Britain.” In an article with that title Rushdie has written that “the British authorities, no longer capable of exporting governments, have chosen instead to import a new Empire” – its immigrants (Imaginary Homelands 130). Immigrants’ responses to this insidious form of British neo-colonialism have changed with each generation. The first Windrush generation found in Sam Selvon a voice that expressed their bewilderment at the way they were just tolerated but not accepted, let alone welcomed by the metropolis. Moses and his fellow West Indians feel as if they are invisible to the white population, which naturally leads to crises of identity and dreams of a return to their home country. The second generation of immigrants exteriorized their inner conflicts by rioting on the streets (Notting Hill 1958; Brixton 1981; Tottenham 1985) and by celebrating the contributions that immigrants were making to the national culture. In Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses immigrants melt down effigies of Margaret Thatcher, but they also insist that, having “been made again” in Britain, they “will also be the ones to remake this society” (414). By 2000 racism, including institutional racism, hasn’t disappeared (as the Stephen Lawrence case proved), but a new generation of the descendents of immigrants has come to treat it as a fact of life, just another difficulty among the many they have to deal with in encountering adult life in Britain. In White Teeth Zadie Smith depicts in the younger generation of her immigrant characters an unquestioned assumption that they are as English as their white counterparts. According to the Office of National Statistics reporting in January 2004, 87% of people who identified themselves as of mixed ethnic origin described their national identity as British (Carvel “Tebbit’s cricket”). Yet, as Smith shows, they still cannot wholly escape the shadow of the colonial past. They still inherit conflicts that are unique to descendents of immigrants. As subjects in search of authenticity they are still in process, even if that process differs from that defining their parents’ struggle with identity.
One of the many refreshing features of this novel is its matter-of-fact reversal of traditional connotations attaching to whites and immigrants. The novel eases the reader into Willesdon’s multiracial society by first focusing on Archie, a particularly undistinguished representative of Anglo men, about to end his wretched existence. Smith told Vanessa Jones that this sleight of hand, by means of which she lures readers into thinking they are entering a conventional novel about white Britons, was “a small act of subversion” (F1). Archie has to be rescued by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, an Asian Jewish halal butcher who hilariously insists that no one gasses himself on his property—“We are not licensed.” Archie’s grand gesture is negated by Smith’s use of ethnic humor: “If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first” (6). Before turning his attention to Archie, the immigrant butcher is seen fighting an on-going war against the pigeons whose excrement covers the buildings of Willesdon. Sukhdev Sandhu’s review of the novel titled “Excremental Children” highlights the way shit constitutes one of the key metaphors in it: “Shit . . . is what those dusky immigrants . . . are told they are, almost every day of their lives” (5). Mo’s daily battle with London’s pigeons suggests that, “[f]ar from bringing filth and disease to Britain, the immigrants clean it up and save the Archies of this world from the scrap heap of history” (Lowe 169).
The book establishes the marginality of all Londoners not just by reversing the positioning of the ex-colonial other but by revealing how Archie is as split in his inner sense of identity as all the immigrants turn out to be. He opens the novel in a liminal space between life and death. His choice of Cricklewood as a place in which to stage his death is significant: “It was a place a man came to in order to go other places . . .” (3). Archie’s life up to this moment has been primarily “the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen’s speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job” (11-12). His only distinction has been to share thirteenth place for track cycling at the Olympics in London back in 1948. Yet even that small achievement is undercut by its comic description: “What Archie liked about track cycling was the way you went round and round. Round and round”--that is, nowhere (13). Bhabha makes an interesting observation about the way those who find themselves in a borderline space come to intervene in the here and now: “The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. . . it renews the past, re-figuring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” (7). This is what Archie proceeds to do. He encounters Clara, his Jamaican wife to be, who has herself just emerged from her mother’s expectation that the world was coming to an end. When Archie informs her, “I almost died today,’ she ironically responds, “You don’t say. Well, come and join the club” (20-21). By the end of the next chapter Smith reveals the way each of these lost souls rushed into a marriage because they projected onto the other their own need. Neither felt they had a home to go back to. Archie “had unhooked the old life, he was walking into unknown territory” (21). This isn’t the New World. It is a new intermediary space. It is what Bhabha calls “a return to the present . . . to touch the future on its hither side” (7).
Smith again surprises her readers by showing Clara’s Jamaican mother, Hortense, as the parent who disowns her offspring (“on grounds of color rather than of age” 39) for entering into a mixed race marriage. Clara marries Archie because she discerns that, despite his dullness and disparity from her in years, he “was a good man” (41). As for Archie, one of the benefits that follow his highly developed passivity and belief in the power of fate is a total absence of color prejudice. “[W]hy,” he asks himself, “couldn’t people just get on with things, just live together, you know, in peace and harmony or something” (162). Smith’s comic reproduction of Archie’s North London lingo undercuts the political correctness of Archie’s decision with a series of phrases that reveal his inability to think through his instinctual position, phrases like “you know,” and especially the bathetic “or something.” Archie lacks every trait (including racial prejudice) that his ancestors took for granted in their colonization of a third of the world.
Much nearer to the mentality of the imperial British is Archie’s friend, Samad Iqbal. Samad, a Bangladeshi immigrant, is everything Archie isn’t – well educated (a scientist with a degree from Delhi University), intelligent, determined to control his destiny—and a racial bigot. All he has “learned from the city is to cross the road at the sight of dark-skinned men” (138). However, Smith is not content to reverse the conventional privileging of binaries. Samad himself occupies a liminal position in British society that cannot even call him a Bangladeshi. As a “Paki” he is neither British nor Bangladeshi, but an invention of the British media, a potential victim of the verbal and physical Paki-bashing that Mo Hussein-Ishmael continually endures. Samad’s liminality partly derives from his subscription to Muslim practices of resigning himself to the will of Allah while simultaneously modeling himself on the British belief in creating one’s destiny. He wittily undercuts the Anglo sense of superiority to the Muslim practice of arranged marriages by exposing the relativity of all cultural practices:
- “Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
- “Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.” (83)
At the same time Smith even handedly undermines the Muslim’s belief that arranged marriages work better. Samad’s assumption that such a marriage will provide him with a quiescent wife is quickly shown to be mistaken when Alsana (a Bengali Muslim woman who is “very religious, lacking nothing except the faith” ) proves his superior even in physical contests. When Samad forces Alsana to vote for his resolution to remove the Harvest Festival from the school calendar, two white women from the Women’s Action Group “looked over to her with the piteous, saddened smiles they reserved for subjugated Muslim women.” What they cannot see is that with her other non-voting arm Alsana is “deftly elbowing him in the crotch” (110).
Smith constantly reverses national, ethnic, cultural and religious stereotypes to expose the way difference lies at the heart of all forms of subjectivity. As Stuart Hall insists, identity “is constructed in or through différance and is constantly destabilized by what it leaves out” (“Introduction” 5). Many postcolonial writers have concentrated exclusively on the difference separating various nationalities or ethnicities. Smith shows that difference is an effect of occupying any subjective position, not simply an effect of two different forms of identification. Alsana perfectly illustrates the interiority of the difference constituting subjectivity by simultaneously resenting Millat’s incorporation into the white culture of the Chalfens and yet pouring scorn on Samad’s claim to Bengali purity: “it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe” (196). With one breath she is complaining that the Chalfens are “deliberately leading [Millat] away from his culture and his family and his religion—“ (286), and with another breath she is burning Millat’s T-shirts and other Western paraphernalia after he has helped burn Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, on the unarguable grounds that ”[e]ither everything is sacred or nothing is” (197).
You could argue that Smith is unconsciously performing a deconstructive reversal and reinscription of traditional binaries employed in the case of British and Commonwealth citizens, which derive from the earlier binaries of colonizer and colonized, both polarities also involving black/colored and white racial differences. Clara, another first generation immigrant, can only trace her origins back to her Jamaican maternal grandmother and her white colonial grandfather. But that is sufficient to undercut any claims to pure origin. Clara’s sense of identity comes not from a return to her roots, but, as Paul Gilroy puts it in The Black Atlantic, from coming to terms with her cultural routes. If the white teeth of the title of the book are intended to be associated with identity (used for identifying otherwise anonymous corpses), then Clara’s false teeth represent a deliberate confusion of such closed forms of identity. As the racist Mr. Hamilton points out, the whiteness of the Africans’ teeth during World War Two only led to their deaths. The Chalfens attempt to impose closure on their sense of British identity. They deny the force of difference within their genealogy and use their relationship to what they are not, what they lack, to define what they are. This constructed form of closure produces its own excess. The Chalfens who pass themselves off as a typical white middle class English family turn out to be a third generation immigrant family—Irish Catholic on Joyce’s side and German /Polish Jewish on Marcus’s. To essentialize ethnic identity requires the repression of the past which contains the mixed ethnicity of everyone.
Ironically the Chalfens advocate genetic cross breeding in their respective pursuits. Joyce Chalfen urges cross pollination on her readers in her one claim to fame, her book titled The New Flower Power. The hubris underlying her idea of the need to produce more varied offspring comes in the last sentence from the one quoted extract from her book: “Mother Earth is great and plentiful, but even she requires the occasional helpful hand” (258). This is quite a different matter from allowing natural cross pollination, more like Captain Durham’s rape of Clara’s grandmother. To add insult to injury the Chalfens keep themselves hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. They even refer “to themselves as nouns and verbs, and occasionally adjectives” (261). Both parents advocate a form of what David Wiegand calls “intellectual imperialism,” colonizing Jamaican and Asian children “as if they were new species to add to [Joyce’s] garden” (Lowe 168). The grafting of Millat, Magid and Irie onto the Chalfen family is treated as Joyce’s way of producing, as she puts it, “more and better quality seeds”” (258). Smith clearly opposes any interference with the forces of natural selection. Her poststructuralist conception of cultural identity has everything to do with learned performance, not genetics which promotes the search for lost roots.
The repressed emotions such genetic closure produces return in a number of ways. Joyce betrays the unconscious racism that requires an Other to hold the Chalfen sense of self in place when she asks Millat where he originally comes from. “Whitechapel,” Millat replies sarcastically. “Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus” (265). The Chalfens seek to differentiate themselves from the Iqbals and Jones’s of this world by adding class distinctions to those of ethnicity and nationality. They consider themselves the middle class “inheritors of the enlightenment, the creators of the welfare state, the intellectual elite, and the source of all culture” (359). More threatening to the Chalfens’ sense of stability is the rebellion staged by Josh, the eldest son, against Marcus’s attempts to genetically engineer mice (paralleling Joyce’s cross pollination). Jan Lowe has argued that the Chalfen parents’ “overreaching of themselves exposes how, in spite of their professional success, they are still, at heart, afraid of racism, still insecure Jewish and Irish immigrants who must ever prove their indispensability to society or face rejection” (273). As Bhabha points out, the “desire for the Other is doubled by the desire in language, which splits the difference between Self and Other so that both positions are partial; neither is sufficient unto itself” (50). The very attempt to place the difference outside the family only results in a split within the family which leaves insider and outsider equally incomplete.
Is it this desire to stabilize and foreclose identity that characterizes all the older characters in this novel? How do they differ from the younger generation, especially the children of the first generation immigrants? Smith represents the Chalfens and the Iqbals as equally frustrated by their attempts to pass on to their children an idea of their identity which allows no room for process, for change and mutation. As has been seen, the attempt to expel difference from their sense of subjectivity only serves to expose its status as a condition and effect of representation. The more categorically Samad imposes his idea of a hermetically sealed Bengali identity on Magid the more confirmed Magid becomes that “We must become more like the English” (240). After Irie’s parents have spent sixteen years withholding the whole truth about her family origins from her (a similar form of forced closure), she is so “sick of never getting the whole truth” that she leaves home to live with her Jamaican grandmother (314). The desire of first generation immigrants to protect their children from the uncertainties of a hybrid identity invariably externalizes the internal split which becomes a split between generations.
But the younger generation cannot escape the ties of history by simply leaving the family home. History emerges in the novel as an inescapable component of subjectivity constantly in process. Irie in particular longs to be rid of the long shadow of history. Is this because, according to Fanon, the colonial subject (or that subject’s offspring) is always “overdetermined from without” (116)? Near the end in her outburst on the bus Irie voices a longing that all her generation share--to live without having to hear about “everybody’s old historical shit all over the place” (426). But the narrator is skeptical about the myth that immigrants enter their new country, “Happy Multicultural Land,” “as blank people, free of any kind of baggage, . . . merging with the oneness of this greenandpleasantlibertarianlandofthefree” (384). The tautology alone (“Libertarian” and “free”) linguistically undercuts the clarity of the myth of a multicultural melting pot. A careful reader will be warned by the epigraph: “What is past is prologue,” uttered by Antonio in The Tempest (2.1.253). By the time Smith stages the reunion of Millat and Magid they are too conditioned by the past to reconcile their differences. Like the tortoise and Achilles in Zeno’s paradox, “the two brothers will race toward the future only to find they more and more eloquently express their past” (385). We are all fated to greater or lesser extent to repeat the past, which doesn’t mean that the past is all-determining.
Smith gives linguistic life to this belief by employing repetition as both a trope and a thematic motif throughout the book. One phrase that punningly recurs like a refrain is “past-tense, future-perfect.” It represents “the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect” (448), the dream of all immigrants that their miserable earlier life will be transformed once they have entered the city where streets are paved in gold. The first generation immigrants cannot extricate themselves from that myth. But are their children also condemned to relive their parents’ original trauma, “the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another” (136), ending up in a confused and confusing state of liminality, neither one nor the other? And if this is the case, is not such liminality the condition not just of immigrants and their children but that of everyone belonging to the culture which necessarily constitutes an arena of struggle?
The entire novel is set in a past period (1974-92) and vacillates between various pasts and a historic present. Three chapters of “Root Canals” trace the lives of three leading characters back to their particular pasts. Chapter 5 goes back to 1945 when Samad and Archie began their unlikely friendship serving in the same tank crew. Chapter 10 recounts the incident in 1857 when Samad’s ancestor, Mangal Pange, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate his English superior officer. But in this instance Archie and Samad put completely different spins on the same set of facts. Archie thinks fatalistically, “Maybe he just couldn’t do it” (216), while Samad defends intentionality: “He won’t let the new order roll over him without a struggle” (217). The past then is not set in stone, but something to be reinvented by the present. Chapter 13 traces Hortense’s subscription to the Jehovah Witnesses’ belief in the imminent end of the world to her mother’s conversion after conceiving her (“The Truth. . . flowed through the bloodstream directly from Ambrosia to Hortense” ) and to her birth during the Jamaican earthquake of 1907. Religious ideology, originating in a quirk of nature, becomes psychologically determinate for two generations and even Irie believes in it during her childhood before discarding it as she enters adulthood. According to Irie, Bowdenism (the apocalyptic outlook of her mother and grandmother) “was living in the eternal instant, ceaselessly teetering on the precipice of total annihilation” (327). Irie admires the Chalfens on the mistaken assumption that they are “unblocked by history, free” (265). No one is free of history. Yet, as Stuart Hall insists, “cultural identities are . . . the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning” (“Cultural Identity” 395). And such continuity with the past is always accompanied by the inscription of difference—think of that between Millat and Magid.
Repetition equally governs the actions of some of the major characters, and not just the immigrants. When Archie gets himself shot in the leg a second time in the course of saving Dr. Perret’s life, this is part of a larger pattern of repetitions in the book. These two near escapes from death belong to a series of incidents in which Archie narrowly avoids death, starting with his opening attempt to kill himself in his car, and including his return to his tank during the war to find the rest of the crew killed, as well as his narrowly avoiding being crushed to death by a tree during the hurricane of 1987. In each case chance plays a major role, as it does in such repetitious coincidences as the way Bangladesh and London suffer disastrous storms and both Iqbal boys break their noses at the same time in the novel. As Alsana observes, “By God, they’re tied together like a cat’s cradle” (183). They’re tied together by their past history. The most telling use of repetition comes in the finale when Millat unsuccessfully attempts to assassinate Dr. Perret on his reappearance. When Archie sees that Millat is reaching for his gun he understands what is happening because he has had to listen to Samad’s repetitious account of a similar action by his famous ancestor, Mangal Pande, similarly prevented. What Archie sees is that “Millat is reaching like Pande” (442), unconsciously imitating a pattern established by his ancestor.
Where Archie normally resigns himself to chance, Pande, Samad and his sons opt for choice. Like Monica Ali’s ambiguous treatment of fate and free will in Brick Lane, Smith shows a similar neutrality between the forces of chance and choice. Archie is for ever deciding future actions on the basis of a toss of the coin. The trajectory the flipped coin takes in O’Connell’s is itself a repetition of the chronologically earlier occasion when Archie is trying to decide whether or not to shoot Dr. Perret. At that time Samad had insisted, “We are at a moral crossroads” (99). Yet Archie’s seemingly irresponsible resort to the flip of a coin avoids a criminal act of summary justice/vengeance. Smith further complicates the opposition between chance and choice by paralleling Samad’s belief in choice with that of Dr. Perret and of Marcus Chalfen. Both these men believe in exercising their choice over the random chance of genetic evolution. Dr. Perret “wants to control the future” by “breeding people as if they were so many chickens” to create “a race of indestructible men”(100). Similarly Marcus according to Magid is “correcting the Creator’s mistakes” (383), setting himself up as a god (or idol). The conviction that humans can be saved from themselves by the exercise of choice is also responsible for the excesses of Millat and his fellow Islamic militants who burn books they regard as heretical and want to kill Dr. Perret for opposing the will of Allah. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to eliminate chance by determining the precise date for the end of the world.
In the novel every attempt to control destiny and dictate modes of subjectivity comes unstuck (as is expected in a comic narrative). More often than not what upsets the exercise of choice is the intervention of chance. What then are we meant to understand by Archie’s impulsive intervention at the end? He has no time to flip a coin. He is forced to make a choice. Yet the consequence of that choice is a return to chance. Millat’s and Marcus’s attempts to choose a future are negated by Archie’s action. So his one resort to choice returns the situation to a state of random chance in which Millat and Magid cannot be distinguished by witnesses to the event and end up sharing the same community service, negating their two opposing choices of action. According to Dominic Head this “signals Smith’s conviction: that we are all hybrid post-colonials, biologically as well as culturally, and the pursuit of pure ethnic origins is a pointless objective” (114)
So how do the two generations of immigrants differ? Like their parents, the younger generation seem to ricochet between the poles of assimilation and cultural separatism. They too are torn between two cultures, two countries, two ethnicities. “There was England,” Irie reflects, “a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a strange land” (222). Millat “was neither one thing nor the other, this or that, Muslim or Christian, Englishman or Bengali; he lived for the in-between” (291). But that state of in-between-ness is what Homi Bhabha celebrates as “crucial for the emergence of new historical subjects” (217). Unlike Samad’s generation of immigrants, the next generation have no memories of their country of origin; so unlike Samad they do not regret that, having made the “devil’s pact” with the country to which you emigrated, “suddenly you are unsuitable to return . . . you belong nowhere” (336). In fact the very dystopia that Samad has just painted to Irie sounded “like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom” (337). Irie and Millat belong as firmly to England as do the Chalfen children. But that doesn’t prevent them from being sutured to the history of their parents’ culture. As the narrator remarks, “It will take a few replays before they move on to the next tune” (136). As they grow up this younger generation grow away from their parents’ continuing sense of alienation. Smith has said: “My generation . . . don’t carry the same kind of baggage” about race, for instance, as did the previous one” (Merritt). The difference today is that an in-between state, hybridity, doesn’t have to be a choice between “either a clash or a syncretic merging of cultures, races” (Moss 13). The younger generation might try both (as respectively Millat and Magid do). But the futuristic ending to the novel shows them leaving this polarity of choices behind. Hybridity does not have to mean a the hybridization of essentialist notions of identity. If all culture is constructed then “[w]ith hybridity, anything is possible for the simple reason that hybridity is about making meaning without the repression of a pre-existing normativity” (Radhakkrishnan 1). Chance leaves the next generation (Irie’s daughter) even freer of the patriarchal bonds from the past with which Samad and Marcus have constrained their children. Yet choice has played its part in this utopian vision of a sexually leveled playing field when Abdul-Mickey “finally opened his doors to women” (44). Choices can be liberating (think of Archie’s only exercise of choice) rather than restrictive. Both chance and choice determine the extent to which Zadie Smith’s characters can reconstruct their identities. They negotiate their hybrid sense of selves through repeated performances. As Judith Butler insists, “Identifications are never fully and finally made; they are incessantly reconstituted” (105).
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Copyright 1992 Brian Finney