Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories • White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present
1979 A Black Power group takes over the basement in Moses Ascending, Trinidad-born Sam Selvon’s tales of a West Indian landlord in London.
1987 Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lanka-born Canadian writer, weaves native cultures into rich storytelling about the lives of immigrant labourers in Toronto in In the Skin of a Lion.
1991 Renan Demirkan’s semi-autobiographical account of conflicting loyalties in a Turkish family in Germany, Schwarzer Tee mit drei Stuck Zucker (“Black Tea with Three Sugars”), becomes a bestseller.
2004 Small Island, English author Andrea Levy’s story of the lives of two couples, sheds light on the migrant experience in post-war Britain.
Immigration has been a major part of the cultural fabric of the USA, Canada, and the UK for generations, but recent decades have seen a surge of new writing that reflects both the diversity of their populations and the ubiquity of English. The need to assimilate into a new culture tends to suppress migrant voices, so it is often the second generation in immigrant families who are strongly motivated to write stories that reflect the fusion of their cultures. This in part explains the slower emergence of multicultural writing in the rest of Europe and around the world, but as other nations become more diverse, new voices start to be heard. In Germany, for instance, Renan Demirkan has paved the way for Turkish German writing.
In the UK, multicultural literature goes back to major waves of immigration from the Commonwealth in the 1950s, and often brings a troubled, xenophobic space into sharp focus, revealing the lives of people of multiple ethnic groups in major cities. As elsewhere, many mixed-race and second-generation immigrant authors penned first novels that dwell on the integration of diaspora communities. Zadie Smith’s award-winning book White Teeth offers a fresh, youthful perspective on the complex inheritance of multicultural families in North London.
"Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy-tale!"
White Teeth stretches back to the last days of World War II, when the English white working-class Archie Jones is paired with a Bangladeshi Muslim wireless engineer called Samad Iqbal in a British Army tank unit in Greece. The friendship, crossing class and colour lines, continues after the war. The bond is cemented by long afternoons in an Arab-run Irish pub, marital discord, and late-in-life fatherhood for both men. Samad has twin boys, Magid and Millat, through his arranged marriage with Alsana; Archie and his Jamaican-born wife Clara have a daughter named Irie.
Samad, now a “curry shifter” in a local restaurant, decides to send his son Magid back to Bangladesh to have him raised with a respect for his Muslim heritage; but when Magid returns years later, it is as a secular scientist. By ironic contrast, his twin, wild-child Millat, joins a Muslim fundamentalist group. Irie is drawn to her mother’s homeland through her grandmother. Millat, Magid, and Irie struggle, as their parents do, with the feeling that they belong nowhere, in contrast to those that have lived in Britain for generations and enjoy the luxury of history and entitlement. “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.”
Smith has an ear for dialogue, and eyes everywhere — cataloguing assaults on immigrant communities, comprehensive schools awash with hash, and the chattering middle classes — as epitomized by the intellectual white Chalfen family, who exert an inexorable influence on Irie, Millat, and Magid.
Set in part during the Thatcher years — the 1980s — the book is dotted with cultural references, from Salman Rushdie’s fatwa to street crews in Nike gear. Smith has criticized her undergraduate novel, but it remains a feisty chronicle of a time that demanded new definitions of what it was to be British.
In White Teeth, the network of relationships among whites, first-generation immigrants, and their British-born children reflects the changing nature of British society.
Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. Originally named Sadie, she changed her name to Zadie aged 14. Smith wrote her acclaimed first novel White Teeth during her final year at King’s College, Cambridge. Moving to the USA, she studied at Harvard and taught creative writing at Columbia University School of Fine Arts before taking her current post at New York University. She divides her time between New York and London, with her husband, writer Nick Laird, and their two children. Smith has received nearly 20 nominations and awards for her writing. In recent years she has branched into short stories and critical essays. In an article in The Guardian newspaper she was asked to give her 10 golden rules for writing fiction, which included: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it.”
Other key works
2002 The Autograph Man
2005 On Beauty
See also: Cry, the Beloved Country • A House for Mr Biswas • Interpreter of Maladies • Life of Pi • The Kite Runner • Half of a Yellow Sun