This is a Rerun: How Colonial History, Racism, and Cultural Traditions Shape the Immigrant Experience in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, several main characters struggle with their cultural identity as immigrants in contemporary London. During the mid twentieth century, economic opportunities in Great Britain attracted many immigrants from former British colonies. The influx of racially diverse immigrants from ex-colonies caused a backlash of xenophobic sentiments and a resurgence of ever-present racism. Throughout the novel, Smith alludes to the immigrants’ internal conflict between the desire to assimilate and the determination to maintain their traditional culture. In Chapter VII of the novel, two distinct but interwoven journeys occur: Samad travels to meet his mistress, Poppy Burt-Jones, and Samad’s children, Magid and Millat, meet up with their friend Irie, the daughter of Samad’s English friend Archie Jones and his Jamaican wife, Clara Bowden, to bring Harvest Festival donations to J.P. Hamilton, an old British man. Both journeys involve immigrants from former colonies, such as Jamaica and Bangladesh, traveling to see British citizens. The two journeys that occur in Chapter VII represent the immigrant plight in twentieth century London and demonstrate the effects of colonial history, racism, and cultural tradition on the process of assimilating into British society.
The two journeys in Chapter VII mirror the history between the British Empire and its former colonies, specifically Bangladesh and Jamaica, to emphasize the effect of colonial history on immigrant communities in twentieth century London. The narrator introduces the two journeys in the chapter by stating, “unbeknownst to all involved, ancient ley-lines run underneath these two journeys—or, to put it in modern parlance, this is a rerun…we have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombay or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop” (Smith 135). The narrator compares the two journeys to a rerun and hints at the connections between the modern journeys and the British Empire’s colonial past. By mentioning ancient ley-lines, the narrator alludes to not only the metaphorical predetermined path of the journeys but also the tangible ley-lines constructed in many British colonial cities. The three cities that the narrator discusses, Bombay, Kingston, and Dhaka, represent former commercial hubs of the British Empire. Bombay, India, the first city mentioned, was called Mumbai until the British gained control of India and renamed the city. Similarly, Kingston, Jamaica was named by the British as a condensed version of King’s town to honor the British Empire’s monarchical ruler. The mention of the two British-named cities hints at the colonial history of the two nations and the presence of British-built grid systems that involved ley-lines. However, the British never renamed the third city mentioned, the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. The mention of Dhaka, a Bangladeshi city that signifies Samad’s ancestry, and Kingston, representing Clara Bowden’s Jamaican heritage, also suggests that the journeys symbolize a rerun of the immigrants’ initial journey to England. In addition, the depiction of former colonial subjects traveling to visit white Englishmen and Englishwomen symbolizes the initial move from the newly independent colonies to the imperial country. The narrator details the repetitive nature of immigrants by explaining, “they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign” (Smith 136). The narrator explains the habitual repetition of immigrants. The description matches Samad’s journey to see Poppy; Samad, an old Bangladeshi man, visits Poppy, a pale, freckled Englishwoman. Samad’s journey reflects his initial immigration from Bangladesh, a former colony, to England, the imperial sovereign. The two journeys demonstrate the effect of colonial history on the repetitive nature of immigrants in British society.
In both journeys, the travelers encounter characters that embody madness and racism, which highlights the immigrants’ struggle to assimilate into modern British society due to their own resentment of British colonial rule and the ubiquitous presence of racism in British society. While Samad, a Bangladeshi man, and Poppy, an Englishwoman, walk through Harlesden, Samad warns Poppy about a woman called Mad Mary by saying, “She is Mad Mary. And she is not remotely funny. She is dangerous…And she doesn’t like white people” (Smith 147). Samad describes Mad Mary, a black voodoo woman who roams the streets of North London, and mentions that she dislikes white people. Samad’s description and word choice, including the name “Mad Mary,” show that Mad Mary proudly displays both her insanity and her racism. As an immigrant, Mad Mary’s racism represents the immigrant community’s hostility towards British society. After Samad’s warning, Mad Mary accosts the interracial couple and shouts at Samad, “What ‘as dem [British people] ever done for us body bot kill us and enslave us?…What’s de solution?” (Smith 148). Mad Mary demands that Samad tell her the solution to oppression. She refers to the historical mistreatment of colonial peoples by the British and emphasizes the enslavement and widespread violence towards the African, Caribbean, and Indo-Chinese colonies. Mad Mary exemplifies the immigrants’ aversion to British society and resentment over the nation’s imperial past. The character Mad Mary demonstrates how the former colonial peoples’ hatred of British society hinders assimilation. During the chapter’s second journey, Magid, Millat, and Irie bring donated food to an old Englishman named J.P. Hamilton. After the three kids convince Hamilton that they do not want to sell him things or rob him, he tells the children historical tales with added racial slurs, “I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the n****r was by the whiteness of his teeth…Horrid business. Dark as buggery” and he continues with, “There were certainly no wogs as I remember…No Pakistanis…No Pakistanis. The Pakistanis would have been in the Pakistani army, you see, whatever that was” (Smith 144). Hamilton recounts his time in Congo and recalls that Pakistanis did not fight in the British army during World War II. He uses multiple racially charged insults in his stories such as “n****r” and “wog” that clearly express his racist tendencies. Hamilton’s racism represents the widespread, covert racism present among many British citizens. The two mad characters that the travelers encounter display different forms of virulent racism and, similarly, they exhibit different types of insanity. J.P. Hamilton employs the carefully concealed racism of British society and constitutes hidden insanity whereas Mad Mary exudes unconcealed racism and clearly evident insanity. The two journeys involve insane, racist characters to depict the presence of racism in the immigrant experience in British society.
Both journeys demonstrate the fundamental role that cultural traditions play in the immigrants’ assimilation into British society. The first two sentences of the chapter highlight the inescapable nature of cultural tradition by saying, “and the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma” (Smith 135). The narrator believes that the cultural traditions, and sins, of the East transcend the physical distance and follow the immigrants’ children to the West because of a gene-like inheritance. Throughout the novel, the second generation immigrants try to escape their cultural heritage by conforming to Western fashion, changing their appearance, and adopting Western names, which illustrates the pressure to assimilate. However, the children cannot avoid their cultural heritage and the involuntary traits of their culture inhibit their assimilation into British society. While Samad’s children grapple with their cultural identity, Samad struggles to balance his proud Bangladeshi heritage with the new influences of Western society. When Samad walks with Poppy Burt-Jones after their encounter with Mad Mary, the narrator says, “Samad, increasingly given to visions, saw that great-grandfather of his, Mangal Pande, flailing with a musket; fighting against the new, holding on to tradition” (Smith 150). Samad struggles to simultaneously express his Bangladeshi heritage and remain involvement in British society. He becomes prone to visions related to cultural traditions and the corrupting influence of Western society, which highlights the conflict between the modern Western culture and ancient cultural traditions. The two journeys that occur in the chapter highlight the immigrants’ battle between maintaining their own cultural heritage and absorbing the cultural influences of British society.
The two journeys in Chapter VII symbolize the immigrants’ initial journey to England and the difficult task of adjusting to British society. The historical context included in the journeys alludes to the colonial history of the immigrants and the negative effect of imperialism on the immigrant experience. In addition, both of the mentally deranged characters that Samad and his children encounter epitomize the multi-faceted racism present in twentieth century Britain. The journeys also focus on the conflict between modern beliefs and cultural traditions to demonstrate the difficulties associated with assimilation and the generational gap between immigrants and their children. Both journeys recreate the immigrants’ original crossing to England and lay the foundation for understanding the structure of British society.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
Finding a “Neutral Place”: Postcolonialism Pitted Against Predeterminism in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
Because postcolonial studies focuses on historical impacts of cross-cultural assimilation following World War II, it is closely linked with determinism, the notion that every event has an historical antecedent causing the present event’s existence. In the novel White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith, we see many of the characters struggling to find a balance between an acceptance of Postcolonialism and their own will to predestine the lives of other human beings.
One of the primary tenets of Postcolonialism is that the past is expressed through the present, or, as Samad so aptly states to Archibald, “the generations […] speak to each other” (100). Generational discourse is embodied by Alsana and Clara while they are searching for a proper place to raise their children. Alsana, believing “that living near green spaces [is] morally beneficial to the young” (52), chooses a home along the “High Road,” a place in between the urban ghetto of Willesden and Gladstone Park, “named after the Liberal prime minister” (52). Clara, who is also a first-generation immigrant, is searching for “a nice house somewhere midway between the trees and the shit” (40). Clara and Alsana’s identical methodology for home-searching is a way of using their past experiences—from both London and their respective English colonial states—to shape not only their present lives as imminent mothers, but also the “future history” (383) of their children: Magid, Millat, and Irie.
Alsana and Clara’s search for a home, a “neutral place” (383), is not only spatially significant, but also philosophically significant in that they are seamlessly transitioning between their past and present histories, as well as the “future history” of their children, thus metonymically paralleling the structure of postcolonial assimilation. With the dismantling of colonial possessions following World War II, immigrants from typically peripheral nations were ushered into the mainstream of international settling, making the place of one’s birth relatively irrelevant in the ability for the individual to overcome social obstacles. That Clara and Alsana attempt to bridge the physical characteristics of their homeland with the suburban life of the English middle-class, however, shows that they are not only connecting colony and colonizer—an indication of their postcolonial understanding of globalism and assimilation—but that they are also attempting to predestine the lives of their offspring through a location-specific child-rearing, an ostensible contradiction and neglect of the fundamentals of Postcolonialism.
By prophetically defining the lives of their children through a location, Alsana and Clara are corrupting the postcolonial notion that it is the past, and not the spatial subjugation of their children’s future lives, that guides the present. Samad further denies Postcolonialism by sending Magid to Bangladesh in order to rid his son of English culture, once again giving precedent to the location of one’s life as opposed to the history of one’s life, as well as showing an attempt to predetermine the life of another human being. Magid’s spatial discontinuity with Millat only further exemplifies Postcolonialism’s dominance over Samad, Alsana, and Clara’s predetermination of their children’s lives, for Millat and Magid are “tied together like a cat’s cradle, connected like a see-saw, push one end, [and the] other goes up” (183). These “incidentals: similar illnesses, simultaneous accidents, pets dying continents apart” (183) prove that location is completely arbitrary in a postcolonial age; the only valid method for explaining someone’s “fate” is a thorough examination of historical antecedents as they relate to present events.
That the present is fundamentally the amalgamation of past events is never more asserted in the novel than in the penultimate chapter, entitled “The Final Space,” a reference to a conference room “used for the meetings of people who want to meet somewhere neutral” (428). Ironically, the “final space,” valued for its neutrality, is where the novel’s violent resolution takes place, a resolution in which many radical groups, each having a drawn-out history of its own, meet to destroy a geneticist’s lifework. As with Alsana, Clara, and Samad, the geneticist Dr. Chalfen also mistakenly believes in the ability of an individual to predestine his own life path as well as the life paths of others. By using genetic engineering to control living creatures, Chalfen attempts to nullify the active significance of the past as a determinant of the future. In place of determinism, Chalfen offers “the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history, where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our fate” (357). Though Chalfen promises the “[elimination of the] random” (283), his project actively derides Postcolonialism by replacing the bridge between past and present with an undiscerning link between present and future.
Zadie Smith, however, elucidates the dissonant factions of postcolonial determinism and projected predestination by briefly recapping Samad and Archie’s World War II experiences, which are unequivocally the cause of Archie’s interference in an assassination attempt by Magid, a Muslim fundamentalist determined to relive the history of his great-great-grandfather, Mangal Pande. Though the Muslim terrorist group KEVIN and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are involved in the actions of the evening, the animal rights group “Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation” (FATE) does not play a part in the novel’s resolution. Through Smith’s wit, the reader is shown that overall, “FATE” does not influence present events, nor is predetermining the fates of others an achievable feat; the only solidity in modern life is that past human history expresses itself through the present.
In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, many of the characters believe that they can become “directors and arbitrators of [the] fates” (357) of other beings. However, according to postcolonial studies (determinism), as well as the subtext of the novel, one can not modify the fates of others, for only history, with all of its quirky, nuanced, interrelated trivialities, is the driving force behind modern life. Ironically, because history shapes the future, the historical present is always a modifier of the historical future, allowing Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to have a multiplicity of interpretations as they apply to the polemic between postcolonial determinism and the characters’ own predeterminism.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.
White Teeth: Assimilation and Identity in Postcolonial Europe
Since even before its publication in 2000, Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth has been surrounded by intense hype and media publicity. Smith’s status as a young black female writer who received a quarter million pounds advance on a first book no doubt fueled the frenzy and made her a popular talking point. Today, the majority of audiences and critics would agree that the book lived up to its hype. Translated into over 20 languages, praised by veteran writers and a poet laureate, and adapted into a popular television show, the novel was a major success and the sensational rumors now seem warranted. While Smith’s story perhaps was seen as a trendy news piece at first, its investigation of postcolonial European culture and society has made it a serious and important work that aims to make sense of an increasingly complicated, diverse modern world. Smith uses compelling immigrant characters like Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and his twin sons to explore the difficulties of identity and assimilation in late 20th century Europe, illustrating the need for compromise and understanding in navigating multiculturalism today.As is common for many writers, Zadie Smith took her own experiences into account as inspiration for her fiction. Smith herself is of mixed race and is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant mother and British father. To be sure though, Smith’s background speaks to a larger phenomenon, as it is similar to that of millions of Europeans from this century and the last. According to data collected in 2004, approximately 8.3 percent of the population of Great Britain was born abroad. This number takes into account only foreign-born immigrants and not their children who make up a large and uniquely important part of the population. In her novel, Smith explores the difficulties these groups face in postcolonial Europe where an influx of immigrants occurred in the second half of the 20th century from Commonwealth nations such as Jamaica and India. The question of belonging or assimilating into a new society and culture is the crux of Smith’s novel, a process that immigrants and their children deal with in vastly different ways. In the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Riva Kastoryano considers how immigrants are theoretically supposed to undergo the assimilation process into a new country. Kastoryano writes the following: The concept of citizenship is mainly defined by membership in a political community, which takes shape through rights (social, political, and cultural) and duties…implies the integration or the incorporation of “foreigners” into a national community theoretically sharing the same moral and political values. Moreover, these foreigners are supposed to adopt, or even “appropriate,” historical references as a proof of belonging and of loyalty to a nation’s founding principles. Kastoryano outlines these ideas about assimilation commonly held by the hegemony of the ruling society. This view of assimilation defines belonging in a somewhat cold and clinical political sense, as a person changes to become an integrated or incorporated “citizen.” For Kastoryano, the native and often socially, culturally, and economically superior class understands assimilation in this simple way. Kastoryano takes issue with this school of thought as it presents the shedding of an old identity and transition into a new community as an easy act. In her novel, specifically through characters like Samad Iqbal, Smith similarly aims to complicate this idea of assimilation and illustrate the difficulties it presents for many individuals. Smith’s character Samad Iqbal, World War II veteran and Bangladeshi immigrant, encompasses the struggle of assimilation and the reconciliation of multiple cultures in one individual. Samad’s greatest struggle is arguably a moral one. Though he is a Muslim, and desires to be a good one at that, he finds it difficult to maintain the tenets of his religion in a secular Britain that is full of temptation. His temptations come in several forms. One is lust for his sons’ music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. Although Samad is married and does not wish to be unfaithful to his wife and to sin in the eyes of Allah, he cannot help his arousal and eventually succumbs to it, as he has an affair with Poppy. Earlier in his married life, the man grappled with the morality of masturbation, an act he knew to be prohibited in the Islamic faith. He consulted the Alim at his local mosque but ultimately could not abstain, and so he obsessively repeats Islamic prayers and sayings to make up for his transgressions. Samad also fails to meet with the ideals of his native culture in his married life, as his wife Alsana is not the obedient woman that a Muslim man is supposed to have. Finally, Samad is also tempted by alcohol, a vice that he probably would not have to encounter in Bangladesh, in a community of Muslim peers with similar values. Though he cannot honor them, Samad identifies strongly with his Muslim and Bangladeshi roots. In this new land, foreign compared to the home he is accustomed to, he cannot live up to the ideals he was born into. Smith writes: “To Samad, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn’t mean he could live by them, abide by them or grow in the manner they demanded.” It is not his intention to shirk the values of his roots. In reality, he wishes to return to them as he says, “I don’t wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish return to the East.” Obviously Samad is unable to do this. One way in which the man attempts to hold on to his roots is through family and history, in the figure of his great grandfather Mangal Pandey. When Kastoryano refers to the appropriation of historical references by immigrants, he is probably alluding to examples like Commonwealth nations such as Jamaica whose people felt historically attached to the Motherland of Britain. Samad’s case stands very much in contrast to these positive examples as he champions a relative who is symbolic of British oppression and colonial rebellion. Samad uses Pandey not only as a connection to his native roots, but also as a rejection of his new country and a means of fighting his integration or assimilation into it.Another facet of Samad’s story that speaks to the complicated nature of the immigrant saga is the development of his twin sons, Millat and Magid. Unhappy with his own ability to be true to his roots in a foreign country, Samad desires that his sons grow to become respectable men by Bangladeshi and Muslim standards. The twins, however, express a desire to live by Westernized British standards early on. Research has shown that children of immigrants, or second-generation children, are much more likely to attain a level of engagement with a new culture than their parents. Both children display this willingness to adapt to the British social-scape quickly. Still, the boys often feel uncertain about their identities and struggle to find a sense of community anywhere. For the twins there is the sense that “underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.” They attempt to find purpose and identity in different ways—by embracing gangster culture, boycotting local festivals, disowning their names. In response to his sons’ adolescent rebellions, Samad sends one of them, Magid, back to Bangladesh to be raised in a traditional way, free from the perceived corruption of Britain. Ironically, Magid returns from his father’s homeland an atheist, science student, “more English than the English.” Here it seems Smith is simultaneously criticizing and sympathizing with her characters. She recognizes a father’s tragic desire to see his sons brought up in his own family traditions, but also points at Samad’s unwillingness to adapt or compromise—a necessity for not only the success of an immigrant, but of anyone clinging to the past in a sometimes aggressively modern world. Smith’s personal experiences, coupled with her obvious insight into an increasingly diverse and complicated world, have allowed her to weave a story that unabashedly examines the issues of immigration and assimilation. While it may have been media hype that set off her book’s popularity, its prominence as an important text that speaks to themes past and present in European lives (an American ones, for that matter) is by no means unfounded. In White Teeth, Smith uses her many-layered, dynamic characters such as Samad and his sons to present the difficulties of the immigrant experience—from internal struggles to family battles to attaining meaningful membership in a community—and stresses the importance of compromise and understanding in these modern times of immense diversity and differences.
Cultural Diversity in White Teeth
The search for identity in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is one of the threads that Smith continually weaves throughout her novel. At one point or another, each character deals with the inevitable question of “Who am I?” From Irie’s search for an identity through her family history to Samad’s futile resistance to all things British, it becomes clear that the multiculturalism of modern London is making it increasingly difficult to align one’s self with a singular culture or background. Through the designation of names, nicknames, and other various epithets, Smith allows her characters to explore, choose, or deny their cultural identities in earnest. For somebody like Samad, these “nicknames” are considered slurs because they essentially insult the importance of his cultural background. But for his son, Magid, his attempts at Anglicizing his given birth name are simply attempts to adapt and blend into the multicultural British scene. Such differences, due to the “intergenerational adaptation” that Kris Knauer examined in his essay, are examples of why several characters respond in various ways to their names and nicknames. From “Mark Smith” to KEVIN, names in White Teeth serve to illustrate the difficulty of defining the multicultural British identity.In White Teeth, the characters’ names are constantly altered. The significance of these name changes reflects the fluidity of cultural identities, and how different generations consider the idea of multiculturalism. For the older generation, nicknames and various monikers are perceived as a threat to take away the culture they had brought with them from their homelands. According to Knauer, Smith demonstrates how difficult it was for older generations to accept anything other than their fundamental views of how race and culture are to be socially constructed (177-178). No more is this apparent than in Samad Miah Iqbal. Samad comes from an era in which Bangladesh is still colonially subjected to the British crown; hence, he becomes subjected to the racial and cultural ignorance of his fellow British comrades. In the waning days of World War II, the other men in Samad and Archibald Jones’s tank give Samad the crude nickname of “Sultan.” This nickname is meant to put Samad in his place among the crew, and serves as a constant reminder that he is still essentially an “other” in the British army. “He’ll shut it if he knows what’s good for him, the Indian Sultan bastard,” Roy Mackintosh says to Captain Dickinson-Smith, speaking about Samad as if he were an inherently different species and dumping him into a general ethnic category (Smith 73). Samad takes this incorrect use of culture and throws it back at them, giving them a derogatory nickname of their own. He responds, “To call me Sultan is about as accurate, in terms of the mileage, you understand, as if I referred to you as a Jerry-Hun fat bastard” (73). In such context, Samad’s interactions with these white British men are setting the stage for how he will handle the concepts of multiculturalism and assimilation when he later immigrates to London.Already having been belittled for being from a different culture, Samad also finds it insulting when Archie tries to show solidarity and friendship by calling him the more British moniker, Sam. By trying to use a friendlier nickname for Samad, Archie wants Samad to know that although he is from a different cultural background, it is still possible for them to be friends under the umbrella of British culture. But Samad has already had enough. “Don’t call me Sam… 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,” he growls (94). Samad feels that he cannot be one of Archie’s “English matey-boys” because he is so culturally and racially different from their “Englishness,” a belief that has been ingrained in him because of his earlier nickname, “Sultan.” Overall, Samad cannot fathom a possibility where Bangladeshi and British identities can come together harmoniously. The nicknames he has had to deal with during his time in the British army give him ample reasons for resisting the idea of multiculturalism. According to Nick Bentley’s essay, “Re-writing Englishness,” new ways of thinking about ethnicity are made more difficult by the fact that “old ideas about race and culture are difficult to shift” (499).In contrast, the younger generation in White Teeth seems to have a more eager grasp of becoming British. Whereas their parents “know more about constructs such as ‘otherness’ and ‘difference,’” (Knauer 180) Archie and Samad’s children are more familiar with concepts such as hybridity and multiculturalism. Knauer explains that Glenard Oak, the secondary school in Willesden Green, “is a school in which the word ‘difference’ is not a demonized mumbo jumbo that we somehow have to incorporate… to show how liberal and progressive we are, but it is a part of lived experience of the young crowds” (177). For example, such sentiments arise when Samad’s own son, Magid, embarks on a journey to Anglicize himself, starting with his unfamiliar, un-British birth name.A few months earlier, on Magid’s ninth birthday, a group of very nice-looking white boys with meticulous manners had turned up on the doorstep and asked for Mark Smith. “Mark? No Mark here,” Alsana had said, bending down to their level with a genial smile. “Only the family Iqbal in here. You have the wrong house.” But before she had finished the sentence, Magid had dashed to the door, ushering his mother out of view. “Hi, guys.” “Hi, Mark.” “Off to the chess club, Mum.” “Yes, M-M-Mark,” said Alsana, close to tears at this final snub, the replacement of ‘Mum’ for ‘Amma.’ “Do not be late now.” (Smith 126)As Magid becomes more involved with his British school and white British friends, he feels that in order to fit in properly, he has to publicly shed his given name. At home, Magid still understands and participates in his Bangladeshi background, since his parents were clearly unaware of the British persona that Magid uses to mask himself while at school. It might be that Magid does not want to completely reject his cultural identity, however; it is just that he is searching for another part of it – the British part. Samad himself fails to understand that Magid comes from two worlds, having been born in London to immigrant parents, and therefore cannot be expected to only bind to the Bengali Muslim world that dominates their household. “I told you, Magid, I told you the condition upon which you would be allowed. You come with me on hajj. If I am to touch that black stone before I die I will do it with my eldest son by my side,” Samad fiercely declares to his son in an attempt to show Magid what particular culture he must adhere to (127). It is Samad’s own unwillingness to let British culture seep into their Willesden home that leads to Magid searching for the British part of his cultural identity outside the private sphere.In a different vein, nicknames in the novel are also given in disapproval of certain lifestyle choices that disagree with aspects of one’s culture or heritage. Neena, Alsana Begum Iqbal’s niece, is given the unfavorable epithet of “Niece-of-Shame.” This is in response not specifically to Neena’s embrace of British culture, but to her homosexuality. The nickname “used to come in longer sentences, e.g., You have brought nothing but shame… or My niece, the shameful… but now… it had become abridged to Niece-of-Shame, an all-purpose tag that summed up the general feeling” (53). Rather than being directly designated to Neena, this particular epithet grows out of a gradual process, shrinking down from longer sentences to “an all-purpose tag.” The tag of being someone who has let down the strict traditions of her culture has been firmly affixed to Neena, even though she can still speak Bengali and manages to spend time with her ethnic family. But Alsana, by giving such a nickname to Neena, is demonstrating a disapproval of Neena’s liberal views and homosexuality that can only be possible in a country like Britain. Continuing the theory of intergenerational adaptation, as Samad’s wife, she is also part of the older generation, for Alsana “really was very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith” (53).Speaking in even broader perspectives, particular names also give significant meaning to various institutions and movements that attempt to define some facet of multicultural Britain. Samad’s other son, Millat, whose British upbringing is due to a complete immersion in pop culture rather than education like his twin brother, finds himself at a crossroads in the middle of the novel. His love for American gangster movies instills in him a desire to construct his own identity as a Western icon, something he cannot develop at home because of Samad’s resistance to British culture. Millat is searching to expand his persona as the leader of the Raggastanis, fellow weed-smoker of the black kids, hero and spokesman for the Asians (224-225). Enter the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. The initial appeal of this youthful organization to Millat begins with his old mate Hifan as “the don. Look at the suit… gangster stylee!” (245). The members of this group believe they are fighting for fundamentalist Islam against the tyranny of British imperialism, but who can ignore the fact that their acronym, KEVIN, spells out a common Western boy name? Even their uniform, the gangster-style suits that Millat admire, can be considered distinctly Western. In essence, KEVIN serves as an outlet for the conflicted individuals of Millat’s generation. Having largely ignored his Muslim heritage throughout his whole life in favor of Al Pacino and The Godfather, Millat is trying to compensate for his Westernization by taking part in an extremist Muslim brotherhood. KEVIN’s acronym problem, in fact, reminds readers that prominent members such as Millat are still English born and bred.Undoubtedly like many older generation immigrants like him, Samad is completely unable to grasp the concept of intergenerational adaptation because he fails to see his children as culturally different from him. He cries out, “Don’t speak to me of second generation! One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!” (241). It worries him that his children either will become completely British or not Bangladeshi at all. But times are changing. Smith regards the evolving tales – and indeed, names – of the Iqbal family as an example of how “old categories of race are an inaccurate way of describing the ethnic diversity of contemporary England” (Bentley 496). Even Millat Iqbal’s own middle name is a play on different cultures set on a crash collision course. Millat “lived for the in between, he lived up to his middle name, Zulfikar, the clashing of two swords” (Smith 291).
Perceptions Of Cultural Purity in White Teeth
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, provides complex characters whose psychology provides insight into the meaning of the novel. Samad Miah Iqbal is one character whose psychosis corresponds with the main theme. He chose to immigrate to England in order to provide a better foundation for his family, but is constantly faced with problems of integration. Samad is trying to stay rooted in Islamic religion while the country is swarming with different cultures. However, the Iqbals are unable to maintain their values in a country founded by colonialism and fused together with biracial families and friendships. This imbalance of ethnic identity leads Samad and his family to ultimately end up alienated and worse off than they started.Samad is a character that is intent on maintaining his Islamic identity. His reasons for immigration are based on personal and historical ties to England. Samad came to Britain after fighting in World War II, and he feels a sense of moral responsibility due to his great grandfather’s role in the Indian Rebellion. Samad feels obligated to build a reputation of his own. On his way to earning the respect he deserves, he is accidentally shot in the hand by a comrade. This accident causes him to be deemed unworthy as a pilot, and he is then stationed in the “Buggered Battalion.” This is the root of Samad’s weakened identity. Samad runs off in front of the Russian Army high on morphine, waving his gun around, and threatens to commit suicide. Archie catches up to a distraught and angry Samad who says, “I’m a cripple, Jones. And my faith is crippled…I’m fit for nothing now, not even Allah, who is all powerful in his mercy. What am I going to do, after this war is over”(95). It is evident that Samad needs the model of his great grandfather to establish an identity for himself. A sense of accomplishment is important for Samad to become a man, and to ultimately obtain a core identity. Samad never got this chance. It was stolen from him by an accident. Though the Islamic faith is one based on fate, Samad doesn’t see the connection.Samad doesn’t know who he is from inception. Now in England after the war, working from six in the evening until three in the morning, he feels less self worth. He gets lousy tips and is stuck in an unchallenging environment. Samad wishes he could wear a sign on his neck stating, “I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, A STUDENT…I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FOR-SAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE”(49). Samad, unsure about his relationship with Allah, is unable to feel a pure connection to his religion. Therefore, he is unable to provide his family with an authentic example of how to live an “Islamic life.” Samad only knows what is constant in his life. That he has a wife, two kids, and his best friend is Archibald Jones. Though he admits he is acquainted with Archie’s wife Clara, he claims that his Jamaican wife “is not that kind of black”(50). Samad cannot let down his walls, that his religion has instituted, and accept that he is a friend to someone who is black.Alsana and Samad are constantly arguing over the move to Britain and the upbringing of their children. She is upset that her children will grow up around Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie, “half blacky-white” (51). Samad thinks that Alsana has been corrupted by British ideals and vice versa. Alsana argues with Samad over the point of moving and complains she has no food for her family. Samad, on the other hand, argues that there is meat in the freezer and if it were his mother in the kitchen she would, “ work through the night preparing meat for her family…His mother did not spend the household money, as Alsana did, on prepared meals, yogurts and canned spaghetti”(190). It is impossible for them to balance their traditional Islamic ways and adapt to some British conventions. Samad believes that there is a right way to live life, and they should remain true to “who they were” when living in Bangladesh. Alsana says, “I am not like Samad Iqbal. I restrain myself. I live. I let live” (195). Apparently Samad and Alsana aren’t on the same page as far as keeping traditions and home economics. It is hopeless for them to raise their children without the influence of Britain on their core identities. Though Samad fought in a British war, cheats on his wife, and makes a habit of drinking in an Irish bar, he blames his family for breaking the mold of living a pure Islamic lifestyle. A storm hits the Iqbal house and Alsana sits on the sofa determined to wait it out. She is adamant about listening to Mr. Fish and says, “If that Mr. Fish says it’s OK, it’s damn well OK. He’s BBC, for God’s sake!” (183). This attitude towards the storm is more closely connected to Muslim belief than Samad recognizes. In the Islamic religion fate is in the hands of Allah, and it cannot be controlled or contained by man. As they pack up the car for the Jones’, Samad is in disbelief when he sees the items they choose to bring with them as “essential, life or death things” (184). Milliat chooses albums and posters of western culture; Alsana brings food, her sewing machine, and cigarettes. Samad’s relationship with God and his background as a soldier are the focus of his decisions. Angry with his family he says, “No penknife, no edibles, no light sources. Bloody great… Nobody even thinks to pick up the Qur’an. Key item in emergency situation: spiritual support” (185). Samad is obsessed with his religion and the purity it calls for. Samad wanting to adhere to his religion is in no way a bad thing, but in the context of the novel, his attitude is a problem. He expects that his wife and two sons live an Islamic lifestyle but he does not commit or deliver any of his time to make this happen. Samad’s one attempt to enforce cultural purity is when he sends his favorite son, Magid, back to Bangladesh. Ironically, he comes back several years later classically British and training to become a lawyer. His other son, Milliat, is alienated by his peers and turns to violence, drugs, and pop culture to find belonging. He joins a crew of fellow ethnic boys who also feel left out: “People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Milliat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with any of them anymore because they looked like trouble” (192-3). Milliat becomes the so-called leader of his crew and finally feels a sense of pride and belonging. However, Alsana’s cousin doesn’t believe this to be true. She says, “He doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. Just like his father. He doesn’t know who he is” (237). Though the focus of the novel is on the isolation and indifference of Samad’s family, they aren’t the only ones who are affected by the multiculturalism of Britain. Many native British, immigrants on the “Empire Windrush,” and other surges of immigrants feel discriminated. Archie, Clara, and their daughter Irie feel isolated as well. Archie is not British enough, Clara is too black, Irie, too thick. As Alsana argues with Samad on what it means to be Bengali, she sums up the theme of the novel. Neither can verbalize a definition of Bengali, so Alsana looks it up in the encyclopedia. The definition explains that Bengali is simply a group of mixed ethnic minorities. She tells Samad, “It just goes to show, you go back and 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!” (196). Whether Bengali, British, or American, people are constantly struggling with their own identities. What we believe “to be” one day can be flipped upside down after a single decision or mistake. Hopefully there is a core within us that we can hold onto, but other elements of us can change readily. The more rigid a person, the more difficult it is for him to adapt – something Samad would have done well to understand.Works CitedSmith, Zadie. White Teeth A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.O’Grady, Kathleen. “White Teeth: A Conversation with Author Zadie Smith.” Atlantis. A Woman’s Studies Journal. 27.1. (Fall 2002):105-111
Certitude, Ambiguity, and Miscalculation in White Teeth
In White Teeth, Zadie Smith develops characters who obsess over preciseness, categorizing, and decisions. This is why Samad’s punishment for making the sole decision to send their son off to Bangladesh is Alsana leaving him in a constant state of ambiguity. ““Maybe none, Samad Miah. Maybe all.” Alsana refuses to answer even the most trivial of Samad’s questions with certainty. The unknown drives Samad up the wall and even worse, his son comes back more “English” than “Bangladeshi” anyways, wrecking Samad’s hopes for one son coming out like he wanted and definitively proving his choice to send Magid incorrect. It seems like Smith’s book punishes those who seek purity in race or culture. The more characters strive towards precision and correct calculation, the more they are struck down by the book’s fate. In this paper I will primarily go through the characters of Samad, Archie, and Irie to identify their tendencies regarding certainty and analyse how that element of their personalities shapes them. I will relate these elements to how damned the characters are to show how the book makes the case for acceptance of fluidity over multiculturalism.
As briefly shown in the previous paragraph, Samad Iqbal is determined to be sure. He is attached to the history surrounding his ancestors, deriving meaning from the past that controls who he is in the present. Samad is convinced that his great-grandfather, Pandes, was a hero in Bangladesh. He tells the war story to everyone and repeatedly, even begging Pandes’ picture to be hung up in a local bar. The more he gets into the story, the more those around him fact check it. Unfortunately for Samad, most historical evidence suggests that his great-grandfather was actually no hero at all. Despite the overwhelming facts, Samad desperately clings to the information he can to prove that his family was indeed great. His desire for the past reroutes him from living in the present, leading him to try to apply his roots to things that no longer exist (and never really did exist as we learn that Pande wasn’t the person Samad makes him out to be), failing him. The structure of the book itself also takes a shot at letting past control the present. In “Chance and Gesture in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and The Autograph Man: A Model for Multicultural Identity?” Jonathan Sell writes that “[The novel’s] foregrounding of the present means that the past is rendered as background and stripped of its conventional prerogative to shape the present, while the usual cast-iron sequence from cause to effect melts into a more liquid and arbitrary relationship of analogy or serendipitous contingency” (2006). This interesting analysis also helps show how the book tries to transcend time, jumping around a lot but still moving forward on average.
Marcus Chalfen is also for ruling out chance and taking complete control of destiny. He even says that his Future Mouse “holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate.” Sell also finds this rootedness in Marcus Chalfen “who believes that if “[y]ou eliminate the random, you rule the world.” (2006). While not obsessed with conventional race, Chalfen is very attached to his family’s own culture of “Chalfenism”. The members of the family boast about their cultural superiority endlessly and know exactly what elements are “Chalfenist” as Joshua thinks Irie may have roots in. Their attachment to Chalfenism is no different than Samad’s attachment to Bangladeshi roots that he wants to impose on his family. The difference is that Samad is obsessed with the past while Marcus is obsessed with the future (literally his entire project has the word Future in it). Neither live presently. Even with the most trivial measurements, the characters in this novel can’t seem to get them right. After proudly being caught with pot, Joshua Chalfen is asked to measure out an eighth of tobacco to prove he is really a drug dealer. As if he knows the difference he asks if he should show them “a European eighth or an English eighth.” He pulls an amount not remotely close to either, embarrassing himself. Though paling in comparison to other characters in this book, Joshua’s stubbornness and determination leads to miscalculation. The mouse that Marcus Chalfen and Magid stand behind represents “just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form.” The end of the book comes down to an epic battle over a mouse representing the characteristics I’ve described: preciseness and control. Characters are divided on either side of the issue with the exception of those who really can’t form any opinion.
It is interesting that Marcus/Magid are on one side of the debate with Samad/Joshua on the other. It shows how forcing a culture on children inevitably fails, even entirely turning on characters. What does happen however, is that both children are still equally very determined people interested in precision and certainty, they have just gone over to the other side. Despite Samad’s obsession with decision, he still believes in fate created by God and also uses coins to make his choices, just like Archie. The backing away from choices in reality while putting together the appearance of decisiveness is what Samad’s problem is. He can never seemingly make a choice without worrying for a long time, and then letting a coin or God make the true call. The idea of splitting two brothers up, one to Bangladesh roots, and one to contemporary England, shows the inability to pick just one race, instead trying to live out both. What Samad doesn’t understand is that there has been a “root canal.” Once one generation crossed borders, there was no going back; the root was removed. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in the novel are not exempt from this analysis and correlation and are probably the most obvious example for criticism of not living presently. Every time a date they claim will be the end of the world passes without a hiccup, they notice a miscalculation that caused the inaccurate prediction and proclaim a new date. While not being obsessed with dividing their movement among racial or cultural lines, they instead exclude women from accessing their movement at a higher level. They spend the time leading up the proclaimed date making preparations and living entirely for the date. The Jehovah’s Witnesses live in the future instead of the past in this way, which still leads to them throwing away their lives. Their determinism in the faith as well as with keeping women out distracts them from being rational human beings a lot of the time
.In contrast to Samad, Archie Jones is willing to leave everything up to chance. He uses a coin to decide between life and death twice (both resulting in life). Even meeting Clara is a completely random occurrence. Archie doesn’t seem to be interested in making any choices himself, but still requires one to be made as opposed to leaving things open. This means that Archie still supports sending one of Samad’s children to Bangladesh and picking a side on Future Mouse, it just means he doesn’t care about putting thought into the decision. In her presentation at the Literature Colloquium, Paula mentioned the incident where the kids go to deliver a care package to an old white man who tells them a war story about using the contrast of white teeth against brown skin to determine whom to kill. The problem was that when the teeth would rot, it would be hard to tell who was the bad guy. Paula says this is another instance of ambiguity in the novel leading to a decision that results in life or death. Especially when remembering that teeth in this novel represent rootedness and tradition, the book seems to be making the argument that when culture or race isn’t defined, safety is ensured (because you are harder to target). Archie’s passive nature towards decision is passed on to his daughter. Irie Jones is easily influenced and victim to the choices that other people make for her. Most notably, this comes when she learns that her idol, Marcus Chalfen, thinks she can amount to a dentist but nothing more. She promptly changes her career aspirations and heads to dental school, letting Chalfen have jurisdiction over choices that should have been hers. This section is still at a time when Irie struggles with identity (typical for someone her age but her struggle is rooted in race which is more interesting than the average non-mixed race teen). In “The mouseness of the mouse: The competing discourses of genetics and history in White Teeth” by Michele Braun, she writes that Irie “wants to be one with the Chalfens, to separate “from the chaotic, random flesh of her own family and [be] transgenically fused with another. A unique animal. A new breed” (2013). In Irie’s imagination, the hybridity of a transgenic animal is attractive. It allows her a fantasy of escape from the tyranny of her family life and her part-black, part-white bodily traits because she imagines a blended identity will transcend the limits of either “black or white.”
At this point in the novel, Irie is intrigued by mixing cultures and races to achieve the best of multiculturalism. She has not yet learned to reject these things outright. When I argue that the novel makes an argument for fluidity, I don’t mean multiculturalism. I actually think the novel takes a much more radical stance and argues for tossing out culture based on geographic or racial lines altogether. In “After the Century of Strangers: Hospitality and Crashing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth,” Ryan Trimm writes that “Smith’s novel uses the family as a miniature of the nation, a well-worn cliché for how domestic units turn “social processes into natural, instinctive ones,” a process stressing racial homogeneity.” (2015). I think Trimm is right in their analysis, that this novel shows the harms of prioritizing things like racial homogeneity, but I think they are wrong when they call it a well-worn cliche because I think Smith’s allegory shows something different. Rather than call out just racial homogeneity, Smith calls out every instance of certainty, of boundary, of value on borders. I think this is what makes this novel unique and interesting. Hoping for certain outcomes usually leaves the characters disappointed. When Archie hopes for certain outcomes, like his half-black daughter having blue eyes, he is typically left disappointed. Archie doesn’t really consider race when making the decision to be with Clara. In fact, he is excited to have a daughter with dark skin and blue eyes. This attachment to multiculturalism leads to his disappointment when Irie ends up having dark eyes (along with the other “worst parts of both parents”). With this, Smith critiques the fetishization of multiracial babies, shutting down the trope. In the last part of the novel, Irie gets pregnant after sleeping with both Iqbal twins. After being upset for a while at the prospect of her child having “no real coordinates,” she thinks “whatever. It was always going to turn out like this.” Irie’s child will be without roots, floating in some ambiguous space – not multicultural and interested in an assortment of their roots, but pure space. Irie chalks up the fluidity of the child’s history and ancestry to fate. The child, who would be the most racially diverse character in this book (a quarter English, a quarter Jamaican, and half Bangladeshi), is the most accepted. The child won’t be sent around to countries to try to reclaim roots. The child will “feel free as Pinocchio”, free of unnecessary ties to the past or to racial or cultural boundaries. This, the book argues, is optimal.
We can tell by analysing these characters that the book makes an argument of rejecting boundaries and defined identities. It seems that anyone who pushes to maintain a defined life is also someone who defends protecting cultural and racial institutions. These people end up losing the battle against the melting pot that is multicultural England. However, the characters who are seemingly liberal with these things aren’t any better. Acceptance of multiculturalism is also not something that is praised in the novel. Instead, Zadie Smith sets up a goal of fluidity of life and culture. This fluidity ignores roots in other countries and other cultures and encourages characters to live without influence, wholly as themselves.
Braun, Michele. “The mouseness of the mouse: The competing discourses of genetics and history in White Teeth.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. June, 2013. 01 Nov. 2016. Sell, J.P. “Chance and Gesture in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and The Autograph Man : A Model for Multicultural Identity?” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature September 2006. 01. Nov. 2016.Trimm, Ryan S. “After the Century of Strangers: Hospitality and Crashing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” Contemporary Literature ISSN: 0010-7484, 2015. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.
The Quagmire of Love and Marriage in Smith’s White Teeth
Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth depicts the relationship between love and marriage in a manner that contrasts from Western expectations. Set in the United Kingdom, the story primarily follows the relationship of Archibald and Clara as compared with the relationship of Samad Miah and Alsana. In many ways, these relationships would not be uncommon to Westerners, but in at least as many respects, these same relationships come to defy certain conventions that Western tradition imposes on the ideal marriage—in Britain’s case, a couple that embodies British national identity.
Archibald and Clara represent a couple that, in large part, defies Western, conventional expectations of the ideal marriage simply by being an interracial couple in the first place. Archie is a White man who marries a Jamaican woman, and for that matter, she is toothless when he meets her. In this way, they challenge conventional aesthetics that Westerners are likely to associate with the idea of marriage, which are the surface details; however, a great deal of deeper challenges remain to also serve as a commentary on the differences between their marriage and those proposed by Western perspective.
One aspect of both marriages at which Western ideology cringes is the vast age differences involved. Archibald is forty-seven when he meets Clara who is nineteen, and this is the sort of age difference that makes Western society uncomfortable. Deeper still, though, is the fact that they appear to have met by chance, which is in keeping with a significant motif used in the text. Western presuppositions about the ideal marriage, that which coincides with the model of British national identity, attributes this profoundly abstract and immeasurable notion of fate to those who are in love. The idea is that the ideal, budding relationship is fostered out of a love so powerful that it transcends both time and circumstance to ultimately bring two soul mates together, and while the text does hint at Archie’s consideration of this possibility when he meets Clara, the pervasive motif of chance makes a significant showing as well and may even be read as overpowering the likelihood of fate as the reader continues due to how often chance appears.
As a matter of fact, the description of their, perhaps, chance meeting is described more as one of chance than of fate. Archie merely ponders the likelihood of it having been fate thereafter, but with fate comes a connotation of certainty that is absent in their meeting. If it were fate, some might argue that they should recognize the moment and appraise it accurately, but Archie and Clara are uncertain of how to classify the experience. The description of their meeting reads: A dark line would now be drawn underneath the whole incident, underneath the whole sorry day, had something not happened that led to the transformation of Archie Jones in every particular that a man can be transformed; and not due to any particular effort on his part, but by means of the entirely random, adventitious collision of one person with another. Something happened by accident. That accident was Clara Bowden. (Smith 56) The long and short of the narration depicts their encounter as an accident. On the basis of principle, the Western model of marriage suggests that an accident is not ideal but, rather, an unconventional precursor to marriage, and the result is that Westerners would likely view this as the more likely marriage to fail in comparison to one in which lovers claimed to be drawn by fate.
Samad and Alsana can be observed to extrapolate just as many challenges to Western conventions of the British model of marriage. In fact, it is worth noting that the British model would be that of a White couple as opposed to a Bangladeshi, immigrant couple. In addition to this, as has been mentioned, Samad and Alsana have a comparable age difference to that of Archie and Clara. In many of the aforementioned, superficial and aesthetic ways, Samad and Alsana fail to meet the rigidly conservative parameters of Western expectations of marriage.
In addition to these superficial upsets, Samad and Alsana’s relationship also serves to create several deeper challenges to the aforementioned, Western conventions just like Archie and Clara’s relationship. The institution of marriage, as conceptualized by Western tradition, is meant to perpetuate the true love that was initially fated. Satisfaction with the resultant relationship, in fact, is supposed to magically be automatic, but of course, the Iqbal marriage holds no such delusions of grandeur. Samad explains to Archie his reasoning behind marrying Alsana, and it is more akin to reconciliation with midlife crisis than the Western idea of love. “Look at me,” Samad tells Archie, “Marrying Alsana has given me this new lease on living, you understand? She opens up for me the new possibilities. She’s so young, so vital—like a breath of fresh air” (Smith 34). For Samad, Alsana fills a personal void and even enables him to adjust his own view of self to a more comfortable one. He holds this conversation with Archie, in fact, with an advisory tone as if to suggest that Archie should be taking to heart the idea that a wife should be whatever a man needs to feel the way he needs to feel to keep living.
Similarly at a much later point in the novel, Alsana disillusions Clara of the romantic notions of marriage. Her description can actually be argued as an even less romantic perspective than Samad’s, perhaps more cynical. Her explanation to Clara is that they essentially spend too much time deliberately deluding themselves, trying not to examine their husbands too closely for fear of ruining some modicum of mystique still manifesting in their marriages, but Alsana goes further to explain that, at some point, that which is problematic must be examined up close: “So look at it—no, dearie, it must be done—look at it close up. Look at what is left. Samad has one hand; says he wants to find God but the fact is God’s given him the slip; and he has been in that curry house for two years already, serving up stringy goat to the whiteys who don’t know any better, and Archibald—well, look at the thing close up …” (Smith 174-5) This demonstrates an even more cynical view. Alsana’s perspective on marriage, relative to hers and Clara’s, is simply that their husbands are utterly undesirable and that there is nothing worth praising. When she trails off at the end of the quote, she pauses to allow Clara to envision what is problematic about Archie before she finishes, saying, “… folds paper for a living, dear Jesus” (Smith 175).
The problem that arises from comparing these relationships to those that ideally fit the British model of marriage or, more generally, fit Western conventions regarding the ideal marriage is that love is unquantifiable and, perhaps, even unrealistic in the sense that it is a much more uncommon sight than one might expect. The fact that national conceptualization of marriage constructs a model that is not commonly seen means that, of course, the model challenges itself. This is likely one of Smith’s points in writing White Teeth. Relationships are spawned haphazardly throughout the book, even across history, and one of the few constants in observing the depicted relationships is that they do not fit the model. People are conventionally mismatched, which applies not just to marriages but all relationships (e.g. that of Chalfens and Bowdens or of Archie and Samad). The chance occurrences of so many of these relationships also speaks to how unlikely Smith suggests it may be for Western tradition’s template for love and marriage to be fulfilled because no relationship in the text brings it to fruition. Even the Chalfens themselves serve as more of a fringe rendering of the British model of marriage due to their bizarre, collective independence.
Marriage and love are not shown to be mutually exclusive in the text, nor does Smith imply that one is natural precursor to the other. The novel attacks the Western, traditional expectation that love be the principle on which a marriage is based, and it also attacks the notion that marriage is likely to perpetuate or generate that love after the fact. The question of love and marriage, therefore, irrevocably pits tradition against realism such that the two cannot coincide, and examining this phenomenon leads the reader to presume that their inability to coincide may actually be a natural truth. Traditional, Western expectations of love and marriage assert certain ideas about the abstract concept and its corresponding institution that suggest there is an inexorable correlation, yet Smith’s depictions of marriage brazenly chip away at tradition on the basis that there is a time and place for idealism but that asserting romanticized ideas as truth is little more than misleading—a collection of socially constructed falsehoods.
The Garden of Ideology: Leafs and Leaflets in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
“Oh fuck me, another leaflet? You can’t fucking move-pardon my French-but you can’t move for leaflets in Norf London these days” (373). Leaflets, brochures, letters, and other forms of publication and circulation are recurrent motifs in White Teeth (much to the annoyance of people like Abdul-Mickey) and Zadie Smith explores the humorous and poignant results of her characters’ struggles to communicate. Smith characters have causes, and throughout her narrative they fruitlessly and comically attempt to press their own beliefs on others, refute others’ beliefs, and convert others to the correct way of thinking. Leaflets and other forms of publication are the tools they use to proliferate their ideologies and-as Ryan Topps declares to Marcus Chalfen, “Myself and yourself are at war. There can only be one winner”-there is only room for one correct interpretation (421). Not surprisingly, these attempts to proselytize backfire and are ultimately unsuccessful. In Smith’s world, ideology is the culprit responsible for the most divisive differences between her characters and their most unyielding Manichean prejudices. Smith is not implying that ideology is a negative thing, but rather, that the attempt to exhort one’s individual beliefs on others is a waste of energy, because everyone has a different interpretation of truth that varies according to their own experiences, histories, and ideals.In White Teeth, ideological circulation is literally circular, because the vast majority of people are too obdurate to even listen to others’ views, much less alter their own belief systems. The inflexible and almost fanatic nature of belief, as well as the relentless need of different factions to publicize their opinions regardless of the result, reveals that something about ideology resists reality, that common sense does not carry over to the world of credo. Even letters sound like they are composed more for the addressor than to the addressee. Horst Ibelgaufts frequently sends letters to Archie Jones detailing mundane and random occurrences in his life (which Archie doubtlessly does not care to hear), from “I am building a crude velodrome” (13) to “I am taking up the harp” (14) to “each of my children has a vase of peonies on their windowsill” (163). Ibelgaufts also repeatedly offers Archie unasked-for advice and anecdotes from his own life that only he understands, and consequently, his letters sound as if written to a brick wall. Moreover, when Marcus and Magid write, it sounds as if they are addressing mirror images of themselves, vainly reflecting their shared ideas. Marcus: “You think like me. You’re precise. I like that.” Magid: “You put it so well and speak my thoughts better than I ever could.” Clearly, if Marcus and Magid did not think so much alike, there could never be “such a successful merging of two people from ink and paper despite the distance between them” (304). Smith’s characters have insatiable drives to communicate, but more often than not, communication fails because there is no mutual or reciprocal response. Communication is most successful, as in the case of Marcus and Magid, when it challenges nothing, when it merely confirms previously held believes. Why, then, do people feel the need to publicize even when no one will listen? Smith writes, “[Samad] had instead the urge, the need, to speak to every man, and like the Ancient Mariner, explain constantly, constantly wanting to reassert something, anything. Wasn’t that important” (49)? Perhaps, as Smith seems to suggest, people have a heightened sense of their own importance. Because Hortense believes her daughter Clara is “the Lord’s child, Hortense’s miracle baby” (28) she forces Clara to “help her with doorstepping, administration, writing speeches, and all the varied business of the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses…This child’s work was just beginning” (29). For Hortense, “those neighbors, those who failed to listen to your warnings…shall die that day that their bodies, if lined up side by side, will stretch three hundred times round the earth and on their charred remains shall the true Witnesses of the Lord walk to his side. -The Clarion Bell, issue 245” (28). None of Smith’s characters have the slightest suspicion that they could possibly be wrong, and even in the face of contrary evidence, they still persist in their dogma. When the world does not end on January 1, 1914, 1925, or 1975, Hortense still has faith that the Lambeth branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses will correctly identify the exact date of the Apocalypse. Even when Samad breaks Islamic tenet after tenet, he still holds on to the belief that, one day, he will be a good Muslim. The self-importance of Smith’s characters is the fuel for the ideological fire, the impetus behind their circulation of belief.While Smith’s characters do not realize is that they preach like broken records, Smith is fully cognizant of the circuitous, ineffectual nature of gospel. “The other problem with Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah, the biggest problem perhaps, was his great affection for tautology. Though he promised explanation, elucidation, and exposition, linguistically he put one in mind of a dog chasing its own tail” (388). Dogma adheres most strongly to those, like Ryan Topps, who “didn’t move, not an inch. But then, that had always been his talent; he had mono-intelligence, an ability to hold on to a single idea with phenomenal tenacity, and he never found anything that suited it as well as the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses” (421). In White Teeth, it appears that preaching and believing are inextricably related-as if the more one preaches, the stronger their beliefs become and the more they come to believe that their views are true. Bombarded by leaflets from all sides, Smith’s characters need to publicize their own ideas so that their voices are not immersed, consumed, or erased. Publication-the act of putting an idea on paper-is an attempt at permanence, the small insurance that the idea will exist as long as publication is in circulation. History is not the truth, but rather the story that survives. “History was a different business…taught with one eye on narrative, the other on drama, no matter how unlikely or chronologically inaccurate” (211). By publicizing their beliefs, Smith’s characters attempt to put their individual marks on the history of ideas.Like Samad, who writes “IQBAL” in blood on a bench because, as he says, “I wanted to write my name in the world. It mean I presumed” (418), Smith’s characters all suffer anxiety over their own historical inconsequence. Upon finding his father’s name, Millat sneers at his father’s small contribution, thinking: “It just meant you’re nothing…a man who had spent eighteen years in a strange land and made no more mark than this” (419). Samad believes wholeheartedly that his ancestor Mangal Pande is a hero, but Archie disagrees, arguing, “All right, then: Pande. What did he achieve? Nothing” (213)! Though every book save one describes Pande as a military traitor, Samad chooses to believe the one “bound in a tan leather and covered in light dust that denotes something incredibly precious” which claims the little known Mangal Pande “succeeded in laying the foundations of the Independence to be won in 1947”-in 1857 (215). People are arbitrary and believe the ideas they will, and when an idea somehow relates to their self-concept, like Magal Pande’s heroism to Samad’s personal history, it becomes even more entrenched. Joshua Chalfen becomes a militant animal rights activist out of resentment toward his father, not because he actually cares deeply about animals. Even as he rants to Irie about the injustice of the battery chicken’s life, he admits that he is not yet a vegetarian (“I’m becoming a fucking vegetarian”) and that he has not given up animal products (“I’m giving up leather-wearing it-and all other animal by-products”). Smith’s characters seem to form opinions more from of a sense of ownership or self-centeredness than out of any great allegiance to the world of ideas. Ideology can be interpreted as a form of egotism, because it is necessarily self-reflexive; it links and anchors the subjective and the personal to the greater universe, and the act of defining oneself according to a presumption of absolute universal truth seems, like Samad’s supposition that Mangal Pande was Gandhi’s mentor, incredibly audacious. White Teeth does not comment on the truthfulness of ideology, on which beliefs are better than others, on who is right and who is wrong. Instead, Smith focuses on the ways that beliefs can become divisive and destructive when they are coercively applied to others. When Marcus publishes his article on FutureMouse, he receives hateful from “factions as disparate as the Conservative Ladies Association, the Anti-Vivisection lobby, the Nation of Islam, the rector of St-Agne’s Church, Berkshire, and the editorial board of the far-left Schnews,” (347) and he is thoroughly bewildered at the response his experiment has provoked when, according to him, mapping the life of a mouse will help scientists understand how people live and why they die. People accuse Marcus of playing God, and Marcus argues that scientific knowledge exists for its own sake, that FutureMouse could not lead to a form of eugenics unless employed that way. “Of course, he understood that the work he did involved some element of moral luck; so it is for all men of science. You work partly in the dark, uncertain of future ramifications, unsure what blackness your name might yet carry, what bodies will be laid at your door” (347). Marcus’ publication is innocuous on its own, but applied to others or manipulated to apply to others (which Smith ostensibly hints is an inevitability), it can have devastating results. It is ironic that one of the most insightful quotes in White Teeth comes straight from Joyce Chalfen, a character who is habitually oblivious to reality. In an article about flowers and gardening, she says, “If we wish to provide happy playgrounds for our children, and corners of contemplation for our husbands, we need to create gardens of diversity and interest. Mother Earth is great and plentiful, but even she requires the occasional helping hand” (258). Self-consciously and cheekily sentimental, Smith and Chalfen both acknowledge that the world is a garden comprised of many different types of plants, and in order to have a happy and peaceful world, we must learn to accept the diversity that surrounds us, which includes the different beliefs of others. We have no other choice. Zadie Smith quotes a famous song called “As Time Goes By,” citing “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss,/ A sigh is just a sigh;/ The fundamental things apply,/ As time goes by” (341). Smith suggests that some things, like ideology, never really change, that the “fundamental” beliefs of people are sometimes so deeply rooted that they cannot be altered. We can litter the world of leaflets and change nothing. At such a monumental impasse, our only solution is acceptance.