I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Epic in scale and intimate in approach, White Teeth is an ambitious novel. Genetics, eugenics, gender, race, class and history are the book's themes but Zadie Smith is gifted with the wit and inventiveness to make these weighty ideas seem effortlessly light.
The story travels through Jamaica, Turkey, Bangladesh and India but ends up in a scrubby North London borough, home of the book's two unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal. They met in the Second World War, as part of a "Buggered Battalion" and have been best friends ever since. Archie marries beautiful, buck-toothed Clara, who's on the run from her Jehovah's Witness mother, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad marries stroppy Alsana and they have twin sons: "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 checks."
Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith's aren't heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided and entirely familiar; reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. A simple scene, Alsana and Clara chatting about their pregnancies in the park: "A woman has to have the private things--a husband needn't be involved in body business, in a lady's ... parts."
Samad's rant about his sons--"They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave--acutely displays "the immigrant fears--dissolution, disappearance" but it also gets to the very heart of Samad.
If you have been (or your parent has been) an immigrant, White Teeth will probably speak to you. My father was the first member of his family born in Canada. He desperately felt the need to fit in, to be Canadian. As a result, when his parents spoke in Danish at home, he always answered them in English. In later life, he could understand Danish, but not speak it, a situation which was sometimes frustrating when dealing with relatives who only spoke Danish. My grandfather came to Canada first, alone, and started out working in the lumber camps of Northern Alberta. He was a religious man and was mortified when he learned that the first English words that he acquired were cuss words. My grandmother is my hero—she came by boat to Quebec and then boarded a train to come to Western Canada. She spoke no English and no French, had 3 small children, a bag of apples, and no money. And yet they all made it to Athabasca to meet Grandpa.
Now, you may think that Danish immigrants would have felt a warm welcome in Canada in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Still, they didn’t fit in because they didn’t yet speak English and they had some different customs. Also, the Danes and the Ukrainians settled in the same area and there was some kind of weird rivalry between the two ethnic groups. Several generations later, and both groups of immigrants fit into Canada like they have always been here. It’s hardest for the first two generations.
So I could identify in a small way with the situation in White Teeth where people trace their heritage back to Jamaica and Bangladesh and are trying to fit into an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon society.
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 what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance.
When your culture is very different from the new country (like Samad and Alsana’s Islamic life), you dread your children acclimatizing to their new surroundings—the religion that you cherish has potential to be lost (Magid) or changed until its unrecognizable (Millat). Contrast that with ever-so-Anglo-Saxon Archie, who ends up with a black daughter. Irie will always be considered foreign, even though she has just as many English ancestors as many Caucasian English, and she really feels her foreign-ness despite being born in North London. Hence her romantic notions of “the homeland” of Jamaica.
It’s amusing to watch Archie—unworthy recipient of white male privilege—seemingly unaware of all the ramifications of racial and class politics that swirl around him. Samad is the intellectual of the two and his intelligence is rarely recognized, while stolid, thick Archie wanders through life seemingly without impediment. Samad is torn between wanting the pleasurable things of life and being a devout Muslim. He literally tears his twin sons apart, sending Magid back to Bangladesh to become a “good boy” and leaving Millat in London, taking on the bad-boy half of the equation (and in many ways, living out some of his father’s desires).
There are lots of good things and many shrewd observations in WT, but to my way of thinking there were too many ideas being bandied about. It seemed to try to tackle everything: colonization, migration, class, race, prejudice, history, genetics—all intertwined, but maybe a bite that is just a little too big to chew. No wonder the book is over 400 pages.
Two weeks ago, I went to our university’s distinguished lecturer series to hear the author, Zadie Smith, speak. As a result, I having been hearing her lovely voice in my mind’s ear as I read, as if she is reading the novel to me. If you ever get a chance to hear her in person, go, do it. She is every bit as direct and funny as her prose would lead you to believe. I think she would be a lot of fun to have lunch with!