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.
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