Yesterday, I finished reading Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’. It’s her debut novel and came out at the turn of the millennium. Set in London, the book tells of different families who have come together from all corners of the Earth, or the British Empire, to create lives in this new place.
I picked up this book because a friend of mine recommended I read both the author and the book. The friend is a brilliant writer and reader so needless to say I trusted her opinion.
What first struck me about this book is how ably Smith transitions between her wild scenes. For example, she tells the story of Samad Miah Iqbal through many different timelines which constantly inform one another.
But, it’s not as though one needs a pen and paper to keep track of it all because ‘White Teeth’ is a tight, engaging read despite it’s 540 page length.
This Iqbal is shown as a wise and yet always ineffectual man. Throughout his life he is underachieving, it becomes clear the he ends up as a waiter through a lack of jobs for immigrants and not really because he can’t do something else – he’s one of the more intelligent characters in the book depsite being a slave to his desires. On the one hand, he’s a man in an arranged marriage who sees the “liberal western woman” as another of the chances he missed out on because of his birthplace.
The Iqbal clan, there’s father, mother and twin boys in the book, grows and lives in the burgeoning Britain of the 70s-late 90s, a place which realized it cannot go invade other peoples lands and denigrate the experience of living there without maybe some people wanted to go see what’s so damn great about the ‘ole Britannia.
The other ‘half’ of the novel comes in Clara Bowden, Archie Jones and their daughter Irie. The two parents met at a party that Clara hosted upon the date fixed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the faith of her family and formerely herself, as the end of the world.
The interplay between Clara with her Jamaican roots and Archie who’s about as British as you can get without people caring to paint a picture of your ancestors. The depiction of Archie has given me a lot to think about, given that I’m a dumb white dude too. It makes me think about how little has changed among dumb white dudes who haven’t had some reason to change. It makes me wonder if I do things in an asinine yet beneficial way, if I should do more and what that even means.
In case you were wondering, I think such introspection is what good literature enables in you. As Ralph Ellison once said to Baldwin, without this context but that doesn’t really matter, “all literature is protest”. Protest being, for me, a set of signs that something ought to change so that we might live more harmoniously, or at least with less strife and discord.
So, as literature ‘White Teeth’ is a fantastic look into a world filled with such preconceptions that I don’t know if the racism or the immigrant came first. You hear immigrant these days and one cannot help but get some idea in their head – good or bad – of that class in question.
As someone who reads more than they should, I’m clearly in the camp of the immigrants as more afraid of you than you are of them. It’s patently false to assume a person coming over, spreading the seeds of family and friends, of life and love, would be gripped by an overwhelming desire to denigrate the English culture and customs that mean so much to people. This novel shows that maybe, just maybe, people are people. That some of the things we hate about each other are selected for that purpose and not a conclusion from evidence.
Anyways, I’d say read this book if you want to become a better, more compassionate person, or even just to see how structure a tidy novel.