At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
Until recently I haven’t read a lot of British books, especially the really famous ones like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I suppose because my serious reading addiction began with YA, which is such a US-dominated market, before stretching in more recent years to authors like Stephanie Danler, Catherine Lacey and Jia Tolentino – your basic Belletrist book club reading list – not to mention how America-centric a lot of the TV we’re watching is…
Basically what I’m saying is as a young-ish, internet dwelling person you sort of end up adopting the US as the norm, which is something I hadn’t even really realised I’d done until I discovered how intensely refreshing I found books like Queenie, Girl, Woman, Other and Everything I Know About Love – books that look at the deep problems and deep silliness that I see in my own days.
White Teeth was a particularly powerful example of this. A novel that spans two(ish) decades, it’s a multi generational story of multiculturalism, immigration and racism that came out in 2000, but still felt very much like a contemporary novel. In it, Zadie touches on micro aggressions, white fragility and white saviourism – conversations we’re having in such depth right now (at least, I should caveat, on my feeds, though if The Social Dilemma has taught us anything its that what’s true for us certainly isn’t for everybody!) – but at the time of the book’s publication, at least among its white readers, I imagine were somewhat more fringe. I couldn’t decide whether this felt like progress (we’re having these conversations now!) or its opposite (we’re still having these conversations?).
It’s a book that is deeply concerned with questions of identity, particularly immigrant identity and how that is formed in a country that is often either hostile, or ignores you altogether. The book comes from a multitude of perspectives and two different families, parent and child, which means you experience this from so many different angles. For Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who immigrated from Bangladesh, so much of that identity is bound up in loss. From the loss of their one-time home to watching their children grow up and reach, it seems, ever further and further away from their heritage with every passing year, there is a sense of grief that often expresses itself in ways destructive to their family.
“But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”
Equally for their kids there is a sense of loss from growing up in a country that so often excludes them, stereotypes them, perpetuates violence against them.
I’ve written about this a lot lately, but here in the UK we quite like to pretend that we don’t have ‘a race problem’, that all that is – going back to my previous point – ‘an American thing’. In this novel Zadie dispenses with the myth completely, representing multiculturalism for what it really is – enriching, joyful and filled with opportunity, but also complex, fraught and rife with the problems of systemic racism we still refuse to tackle.
“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). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all that, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.”
It’s also an intensely funny novel, filled with unexpected dramatic irony in how it all unfolds. There are no words wasted. Every moment of this story leads to the dramatic – and utterly ridiculous – finale, highlighting how each decision we make ripples outwards in ways we cannot foresee. Much as it is a novel about loss, it is also a novel about the past, and its refusal to stay back where you left it. You carry every piece of your life with you, for better and for worse – and even though it’s often maddening and painful, there’s something hopeful in it too, I think.
I truly haven’t read anything quite like this before. I have since become completely obsessed with Zadie Smith, seeking out her podcasts, essays, interviews – there is something about her intellect that is simultaneously comforting and challenging.
I might be in love with her.
I’m okay with it. In this shittiest of years, she might be one of my best discoveries.
(I know it sounds sort of ridiculous to talk about ‘discovering’ Zadie Smith cause I know she’s really famous, but whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m late to the party! But I am here now. With bells on.)
It’s Black History Month, so I’m dropping in with an accountability check for my fellow white readers in particular. How diverse are your bookshelves? When did you last pick up a book written by a person of colour? If your answers to those are ‘not very’ and ‘um…’ then you need to do something about that. Not sure where to start? Hop over to Instagram and follow @bookishandblack, @theblackbookblog1 and @novelallure to get started building your reading list. Also pick up Zadie Smith. Seriously. I can’t believe I lived my life this long without her.