- by Zadie Smith
Winner of multiple awards (incl. Guardian First Book Award and 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award), White Teeth has been heralded as a life-affirming exploration of the new face of multiculturalism in Great Britain. I enjoyed my read of White Teeth several years ago, particularly appreciating the idiosyncratic characters and close exploration of the hard aspects of identity along with the experimental writing. My interest in the novel was energized recently at a book launch for Palgrave Macmillan on a series of studies of writers of new British Fiction. Philip Tew, who had written the Zadie Smith study, spoke at length around the struggle for self-determination in the face of essentialism (the idea that all things have an underlying or true essence; Racial essentialists argue that all members of a specific racial group share certain basic characteristics or qualities that mark them as inherently different from members of other racial groups). Here are some comments from Tew’s study of Smith:
“In his …essay, (Nick) Bentley identifies Smith’s critique of multiculturalism as something not antagonistic to Englishness, and rather concludes that the novel on one level is ‘an attempt to construct a new model of Englishness that is suited to the country’s multi-cultural make-up at the beginning of the twenty-first century’. However, he notes that Smith refuses certain essentialisms and moves ‘beyond the idea of “hybrid” identities…Certainly, Smith’s characters’ lives reflect aspects of a difficult evolution of British culture and identity. Her vision is neither utopian nor essentialist.” (P. 68)
—Both quotations from Philip Tew’s Zadie Smith from the series on New British Fiction by Palgrave Macmillan (available 2010).
As I read and re-read this multi (-facted, generational, cultural, toned) book, I am thinking anew about how literature approaches the contradictions of contemporary formations of identity. Significant literature (by which I mean literature that requires time patience and contemplation to move through the layers of meaning contained) from Homer forward has always in some way queried how we come to know who we are and what forces shape this awareness. Earlier times could rest more solidly on identities rooted in place, nationality or ethnicity which then were shaped by the individual’s interaction with the world they found themselves in.
But we live in more transient (location and cultural) times. Certainly Smith is playing with what a multi-cultural British society looks like. Ten years after the publication of this book, does Smith’s vision still resonate? Are the same issues around identity, history, essentialism, racism, hybridity, generational conflict relevant? One of the reasons I love the Salon studies is that the book offers an (apparently) objective platform for us to consider these loaded issues…and this book does so with humor that I don’t think diminishes the seriousness of the consideration.