Zadie Smith Review: The empire strikes back
A version of this interview appeared in Women’s Review of Books
When the renowned Andrew Wylie literary agency secured a rumored $400,000 advance for a first-time author, based on only a plot synopsis and two completed chapters, the British literary world took a serious look at the young woman who could command such numbers for the mere idea of a novel. The media tagged along, too, having already fueled the sudden rise of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. As is turned out, 24-year-old Zadie Smith did not disappoint. White Teeth has summoned (accurate) comparisons to Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace, and has stolen a bit of the limelight from the infamous British “lad lit” of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Nick Hornby, et al.
White Teeth seems an unlikely first novel from a student who, during its composition, was completing her BA in English literature (with modest grades) at Cambridge University. Stylistically, it is epic in scale and does not shy away from the biggest issues if urban living: cultural identity, assimilation, exile and estrangement. Set in polyglot and multiracial London, the novel is a comedic charge through the Post-Colonial theory camp. But this is terrain that Smith knows well; the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white English father, she has lived most of her life in London and continues to make it her home.
As she writes in White Teeth:
This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups… [I]t makes an immigrant laugh to hear the dears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance (pp. 271-272)
I first came across Smith’s writings during my own doctoral studies at Cambridge University in the mid-1990s, when I sat on the editorial board for the May Anthologies, a two-volume compilation of prose and poetry by Oxbridge students that is published each academic year. I well remember sitting on the floor in my damp flat, tea at the ready, papers strewn across every conceivable surface, searching rather desperately through hundreds of poems and stories for a single piece that did not read like a pseudo-autobiographical account of failed romance or the literary pastiche of a budding student of literature. It took only two paragraphs of my first Zadie Smith short story to experience the visceral charge that comes when you read one finely turned sentence after another. In this early work, Smith already managed a complex and sophisticated plot line with vivid characterizations etched in clean, clear prose. And it was from one of her subsequent publications in the May Anthologies that an agent “discovered” her.
In a recent conversation with Zadie, I asked her how she managed the media attention. She remains remarkably unseduced by the glowing reviews she has been receiving (enthusiastic sentiments from Salman Rushdie, with whom she recently completed a New York book tour, adorn the cover of White Teeth). She conceded that few women of late have secured the spotlight for serious novel writing, and it sometimes gets lonely among the literary lads. “It does feel like a boy’s gang,” she told me. But she is equally frustrated at the kinds of fiction that women are writing at the moment, noting that it’s “the kind of ‘Bridget Jones-ish’ school [which] is about being looked at and observed and judged by other people. And that is not a good state of mind to be in if you want to write fiction…. Women need to feel that they are the subjects and the person who is doing the writing and not the thing who is being looked at or judged or observed by other people.
Undoubtedly, White Teeth is a far cry from Bridget Jones or the equally popular The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Smith pays scant attention to the crises of the single, white, thirty-something female of the Prozac generation. Her novel jostles between the patois of London’s Raggastani gangs, the lyrical consonances of Jamaican immigrants, clipped tones of second-generation Londoners and the Bollywood hyperbolic expressions of the Indian diaspora. It was written with a poet’s ear for cadence, nuance and rhythm and constitutes nothing less than an ode to contemporary London living.
White Teeth is framed by the story of two rather ordinary middle-aged men – Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim transplant to London who waits tables, and Archibald Jones, an unprepossessing native Englishman who folds paper for a living. These seemingly banal companions, World War Two veterans, spend their free hours at O’Connell’s, the local Irish pub. Typical of hybrid London, O’Connell’s is owned and operated by a Middle Eastern family, Ali and his five sons (all named Abdul). Abdul-Mickey, as one of the sons is familiarly known, serves eggs, beans and beer; on the wall of the pub hanging fragments of the Quran, alongside pictures of Irish racehorses and the pub license, registered under the name “Andrew O’Connell Yusuf.”
As the novel’s backdrop, the pub provides an escape from the complications of Archie and Samad’s family lives, which rival O’Connell’s in their composite origins. Archie is the husband of Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman half his age; Samad marries Alsana Begum, a Bengali Muslim who does not take well to London. Alsana is fond of repeating the story of nineteenth-century Lord Ellenborough, who sent a one-word telegram to declare his conquest of the Sand province of India: peccavi, meaning, “I have sinned” in Latin “’The English are the only people,’ she would say with distaste, ‘who want to teach you and steal from you at the same time.’” White Teeth traverses the complex genealogy of each family and foretells the impact this cultural and familial history will have on their London-born children: Irie, the endearingly awkward daughter of Archie, and Millat and Magid, the sexy twin sons of Samad.
Smith has a talent for constructing extraordinary characters, placing them in extraordinary circumstances, and making it all appear perfectly ordinary. So it goes with Millat and Magid, who are separated by their father Samad as young boys. In order for Magid, the smarter of the two, to learn to respect and cherish his cultural and religious roots, Samad has him raised and educated in Bangladesh while Millat remains in polyphonic London.
Smith handles the contrast between the twins to great comic effect. Magid returns to London an ardent atheist and Anglophile, clad proudly in white Levi jeans. Millat, meanwhile, joins an Islamic fundamentalist group, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (with the unfortunate acronym KEVIN): “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim.” He struts, Rambo-style, around his prayer mat.
But it is Irie, half-Jamaican, half English and all Londoner, who is at the core of the novel. We follow Irie’s endeavours to make her (mother-inherited) Jamaican proportions and features conform to a willowy British femininity, and the extreme pain and self-deprecation she endures in her attempt to make the impossible happen – all the while incapable of seeing her own natural beauty.
Smith writes about the “deathly thing” a black hair salon can be:
Here, the impossible desire for straightness and ”movement” fought daily with the stubborn determination of the curved African follicle; here ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins, and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and were doing their damnedest to bear each curly hair into submission
“Is it straight?” was the only question you heard as the towels came off and the heads emerged from the dryer pulsating with pain. (p.229)
Irie’s self-mortification in the quest for beauty is not just an individual battle. As smith editorializes, mid-novel, there are Iries everywhere striving for European straightness: no curves, no curls, please.
While Millat, Magid and Irie each struggle with their cultural shadows – alternately embracing and rejecting their heritage with an eclectic and hap-hazard frenzy – other white Londoners are just as frantically trying to reconstruct, create, or steal an “exotic” heritage for themselves: “It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble).” White Teeth capers through this minefield of “origins,” satirizing equally the most earnest efforts of those who seek a return to their toots and those desperate for Western homogenization, but with dep sympathy and understanding. We are all in this now, Smith suggests, and the proliferation of differences has only just begun.
It is Irie who becomes the bearer, in almost messianic terms, of the third generation of Londoners. The grand, moralizing finale is the only weakness of Smith’s sophisticated plot success. Irie becomes pregnant with the promise of the next generation. Herself a “half-caste,” Irie’s progeny adds to her English-Jamaican mixture a Bengalese heritage that is as complex in its origins as her own.
Smith revels in this coming new age of polyracial Londoners, and the novel often has a celebratory tone. In our conversation, she said: “I find a lot to celebrate in the community I live in and the people I see around me…. There is a red head [walking with] a Chinese kid, a black kid, an Asian kid, and it doesn’t even seem to concern them. And it really lifts your spirits.” In White Teeth, the cultural past infuses the present generation, and the future is an experiment already in motion. For Smith, this variegated London landscape promises abundant beginnings for a new age that will never outgrow – nor escape – it’s many birthrights.