For my British Literature class, I had the opportunity to read White Teeth by Zadie Smith. To call this book “good” is a huge understatement. I don’t have a specific favorite book, but this book has impressed me so much that it most certainly is on my list of favorites. It is a must read. (find the link for the novel below)
Smith tackles the issue of postcolonialism in Britain through three families. There’s the Iqbals who are from Bangladesh, the Joneses who are part-British part-Jamaican, and the Chalfens who are a full white British family. At first glance, you’d wonder where this book is heading. It is very complex. This novel is all about development.
Samad Iqbal faces a lot of issues with his identity which is due to postcolonialism. He lives in Britain but wishes to go back to Bangladesh, however he knows that he cannot go back to Bangladesh the same he was moved to Britain. He is no longer fully Bangladeshi yet is not fully British either. He feels like he has nowhere to call home, nowhere he belongs. Secondly, his relationship with his wife is problematic because he is not attracted to her. At. All. This leads him to extreme measures such as masturbation and cheating. Since he is Muslim, his relationship with Allah causes him anxiety because Samad knows that by abiding to his physical needs he is going against his religion.
To top it off, Samad finds his two sons a complete disgrace. Twins, Magid and Millat are both British and Bangladeshi. They were raised within both cultures; a hybrid culture. Samad finds it difficult to deal with the fact that his two sons are being raised in a culture which is not of his traditional culture and homeland. He takes extreme measures and sends Magid to Bangladesh to be raised the “traditional” way. This only leads Magid to become more English than the English. Millat, on the other hand, faces many identity-related issues which leads him to joining a Muslim fundamentalist group. In Britain.
How is this all related to postcolonialism? The Iqbal family represent the effects of colonialism on individuals, especially the difference within generations. As Smith says in the novel, “what had gone wrong with these first descendants of the great ocean-crossing experiment?” Samad cannot understand his children or educate them because their mindsets are different; his children are effected by the values of the British culture. This causes great distress on Samad as he sees both his children but does not recognize them.
Furthermore, we are introduced later on in the novel to Irie Jones, Archie and Clara’s daughter. Firstly, I absolutely hate Archie. He is the lamest and most average person you could ever encounter. He has no opinion, he takes no action, does not know how to give advice, and has to flip a coin to make a decision. Secondly, Clara is not given voice in the novel which is the only thing I cannot tolerate in this novel. Smith could have easily brought out the cultural problems within a British-postcolonial relationship, yet for some reason, she neglected doing so. However, Irie has voice in this novel at least and we see how she goes through her teenage years trying to fit in within the British society even though she is a curvy, dark-skinned, afro and buck-tooth girl. She wants to be in the intellectual class of the British society, yet at the same time, she wants to connect more with her Jamaican roots.
And finally, the interesting family of the Chalfens. Smith uses them to represent extreme liberalism which within the context of this novel means; trying to help liberate another people because the former thinks they need this help, and this help is enforced on such other people. Aka Chalfenism. Basically, they represent the British empire with its “expeditions” in the East. The way Joyce Chalfen takes care of Millat is simply that she thinks he is “the exotic other”.
Furthermore, Marcus Chalfen is working on an experiment on mice to engineer their genes to cure diseases such as cancer, as well as control the entire life of a mouse. For example, when they would let out certain hormones, when they would start aging, as well as when they would start to die. His aim is to help all of humanity with his research. His ideology could easily be led into fascism as such engineering of genes could lead to governments wanting to choose what genes people have, ultimately changing the cultures of peoples such as in the East. It all represents England’s mission during colonial times to Westernize the East and Smith brings out how its effects still were present in the 1980s and 1990s.
Thus, why did Smith call the novel White Teeth? The imagery of teeth is constantly brought out in the novel. Mr. Hamilton says in the novel that “when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards.” My conclusion on the title is that whatever shade our skin is, all of our teeth is still white. Some died because of having white teeth so pearly. Others couldn’t speak because of their lack of teeth. And some were assumed to have white teeth because they were the norm but weren’t killed; instead they killed others.
Finally, why read this book? Smith creates complex characters in which she is the puppeteer. This book brings out different ideologies and philosophies, different peoples and generations, and most certainly the problematic effects of postcolonialism. Smith manages to do this in a discrete way with the use of metaphors, imagery and references, yet everything is evident. Smith plays with language. She is witty and clever. She makes you laugh as she criticizes her own characters. I loved this book. I want to write a book that will leave the same effect on me like how White Teeth affected me.