An essay I did for uni. I admit I didn’t find the novel that enjoyable.
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth encapsulates many writing styles and genres, encapsulated in a rollicking a knowing manner. It can be read as a pure comedy, a pure postcolonial treatise, a pure satire or pastiche – particularly if the viewpoint of Samad Iqbal is considered the primary one – or as a latter day example of postmodernist literature, based on the novel’s chaotic structure and narrative techniques. It could also be read as a “stranger in a strange land” scenario, again with the characters of Samad and his wife, and the Jamaicans, Clara and her mother Hortense. Such is this novel’s versatility in form and structure that it could be presented as any or all of these things. Yet another view is that it is a “narrowly focused bildungsroman” (Squires 2002, p8) which depicts the growing and maturation of the characters within, even if some of them do not “mature” in any commonly-held meaning of the word. Presented in a chatty and discursive manner, White Teeth disguises some of its deeper implications inside successive wraps of comedy and pathos. The largest implication is that many of the protagonists within are the erstwhile colonised, now living in the coloniser’s nation, struggling with identity. Critic James Wood described White Teeth as “hysterical realism”, naming the book “false zaniness” (Wood 2001) and having a fear of silence and even though Smith herself states that her novel is a comedy and that she considers herself a comedic writer (Smith n.d), White Teeth has become an important addition to the postcolonial oeuvre.
Early in the novel, the character of Samad Iqbal says “One strong man and one weak is a colony, Sapper Jones” (Smith 2000, p21), a comment made in 1945 while what is now Bangladesh was still part of the British Raj, and it was not to achieve final independence until 1971 (US Dept. of State 2015). Samad Iqbal, though a loyal member of the British Army, was a British subject, not citizen – a subsidiary of a colony ruled remotely yet directly by the United Kingdom. However, with the passing of the British Nationality Act in 1948 Samad became both a subject and a citizen (legislation.gov.uk 2015). Perhaps there is irony here on the part of Smith, as although Samad fights loyally on the side of the British, he claims ancestry from Mangal Pandey, the purported instigator of the Sepoy Uprising in 1857, which rebelled against the British East India Company, the colonising power (Ludden 2002). There is irony and also idolisation, as one of the recurring motifs throughout White Teeth is Samad’s desire to lionise his ancestor and stress that the warrior spirit has come down the family line to him.
Once Samad migrated to the United Kingdom in 1973, he is beset with a number of difficulties and qualms. There are his struggles to retain his basic ethnic identity and religion – he continually fails in what he sees are his essential obligations as a Muslim – he masturbates and has an extramarital affair with an English woman, among other things. McMann states that Samad does not understand how he can be both British and Bengali, finding no union between the two (McMann 2012) and as Gera Roy suggests, Samad’s “sense of place” has been decontextualized, and in essence, the Bengali in him is being supplanted by the English (Gera Roy, as cited in Bennett 2003, p161). He struggles against this, and vicariously, sends away his son Magid to Bangladesh to become the true and proper Muslim that he is not, a tactic that does not eventuate the way Samad would like. However, this could be a case of Samad using his son Magid to “write back” to the increasing secularisation of Britain and its colonial past, by restoring Magid to some imagined pure and pristine Islamic status. As with most of Samad’s plans and ambitions, this scheme does not occur according to his wishes. Samad is also possibly living the life on an exile or expatriate, cut off from his roots and living with a sense of estrangement (Said 2002).
The other twin son, Millat, initially goes down a different path. Rather than alienation and a fear of assimilation, Millat wants to be more English than the English of London themselves. He embraces a sex-charged, quasi-gangsterised existence, freewheeling, smoking copious amounts of both cigarettes and marijuana and drinking alcohol – few of which are endorsed activities according to Islam. These activities, destructive as they are, could be the net result of Millat “not fitting in” – the son of a migrant from a culture far removed from the Anglo-Celtic majority of England. McMann suggests that after World War Two, racism in Britain targeted at perceived superiority based on skin colour altered to a racism based on cultural superiority (McMann 2012). However, Millat receives far more of the former – he is called a “Paki” a number of times in the book, and he himself finds the culture of the white British majority to be epicene and self-centred. As with many other disillusioned youth of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds, Millat becomes easy fodder for fundamentalists, the ironically labelled “KEVIN”, who eventually draft him into their cause. Here Smith uses a softening technique in her narrative – giving a potentially deadly organisation such a farcical acronym, juxtaposing the serious with the ridiculous. Nonetheless, Millat joins KEVIN with gusto and absorbs their nefarious teachings readily.
It is the need to belong to something tangible that drives both Millat and Irie. Irie, especially, belongs to two worlds being the mixed raced offspring of a white Englishman and an Afro-Caribbean woman. Both friends attempt assimilation into the nation they were born into, but are culturally foreign to. Irie has forsaken any notion of being Jamaican – she wants straight hair, and to be thin, and to be another white English face in the crowd. As McMann asserts, both Irie and Millat are fulfilling the nightmare that Alsana Iqbal dreamt, that her descendants will become diluted and finally faceless Britons (McMann 2012). This nightmare is given some real credence later in the novel when Magid becomes “Mark Smith” and orders a bacon sandwich in insouciant defiance of his religious culture.
The use of language by the characters within White Teeth also gives insight into the postcolonial and migrant milieu. Smith dubs the street vernacular used by Millat and his gang as “Raggastani”, an unlikely pairing of Caribbean slang with that of Bengali. Watts suggests that Millat does this to go beyond the restrictions placed on him by his Bengali heritage and his English birth (Watts 2013, p.856). Millat seems to want to transcend known language and create a kind of “Nadsat” for himself and his friends, much like Alex and his “droogs” did in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (Burgess 1962). In using this new slang, Millat is disconnecting himself from racial and social pressures and conformity, and as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin suggest, he is subverting the colonialist English, much the same way the speech of Clara and Hortense, with its code-switching, is an assertion of their heritage amidst a sea of linguistic conformity (2002 p 71).
Millat avoids the speech of lower class North Londoners, something he describes in the book as a “creole” and likewise avoids the speech of his domestic life, the Bengali of Bangladesh, laden as it is with culture, tradition and the Islamic religion. Here too is further use of irony by Smith – Millat uses the word “creole” to imply that the language of the majority around them is base and uncultured, yet unaware that the word could readily to the language spoken by Irie’s mother and grandmother, as Creole languages are widely spoken in the West Indies (Taylor 1977). In fact, Irie comes to understand that the manner of speech inherited from her mother and grandmother is socially unacceptable and endeavours to improve herself by stressing her consonants and pronouncing actually as “akchully” (Watts 2013 p858).
Zadie Smith herself is mixed race, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white Englishman, though she disavows that White Teeth and the character of Irie are autobiographical in any way (Smith n.d), yet it is clear she is a keen observer of multicultural life, being raised in the polyglot and melting pot North London districts of Willesden and Kilburn. It is this background that gives White Teeth its potent postcolonial verisimilitude and while James Wood alleges that novelists such as Smith fear silence (Wood 2001) a counter-argument can readily be made that to remain silent on such incendiary issues like racism, postcolonialism and religious extremism is to live uncritically.
In summary, White Teeth is a seminal work in postcolonial literature, as well as comedy and perhaps bildungsroman. It adds to the oeuvre by injecting it with a good deal of wit, mirth and keen observation. It couches its serious subjects with sharp humour, irony and pastiche. The novel would not work as well if its author had not such an adept ear for dialogue and situation, and the ability to reach in to the innermost ego of its characters and lay bare their every fear and desire.
Ashcroft, B, Griffiths, G & Tiffin, H 2002, The Empire Writes Back, 2nd ed, Routledge, London
Burgess, A 1962, A Clockwork Orange, William Heineman, London
Gera Roy, A 2003, ‘Only connect: Holding postcolonial ground in the global village’, in B Bennett (ed.), Resistance and reconciliation; writing in the Commonwealth, University of New South Wales, Sydney, pp. 152-165
Legislation.gov.uk 2015, British Nationality Act 1948, viewed 22 July 2015, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/11-12/56/enacted
Ludden, D 2002, India and South Asia: a short history, Oneworld, Oxford, UK
McMann, M 2012. British black box: A return to race and science in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Modern Fiction Studies, 58(3), pp. 616-636,656
Said, E 2002, Reflections on exile, viewed 21 July 2015, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~germ43/pdfs/said_reflections.pdf
Smith, Z (n.d.), An interview with Zadie Smith, viewed 21 July 2015, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/teeth/ei_smith_int.html
Smith, Z 2000, White Teeth (large print edition), Wheeler Publishing, Farmington Hills, Michigan
Squires, C 2002, Zadie Smith’s White teeth; a reader’s guide, Continuum, London
Taylor, D 1977, Languages of the West Indies, Johns Hopkins University Press, London
US Dept. of State, 2015, U.S. Relations with Bangladesh, viewed 21 July 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3452.htm
Watts, C 2013, ‘We are divided people, aren’t we?’ The politics of multicultural language and dialect crossing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth’, Textual Practice, 27(5), pp 851-874
Wood, J 2001, Tell me how does it feel? viewed 22 July 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/06/fictionl me how does it feel?