I’m hardly new to the literary world, and before I reserved my tickets to see Zadie Smith at the University of Calgary on February 11th, I had intended to read White Teeth. It’s nice to be spurred into something you intended to do.
Smith is a force in the writing world. Her name carries gravitas and prestige, you know if she’s mentioned in the headline of an article it’s going to be a good read. Her contribution to literature can’t be overstated. There’s a lecture taking place this week about said contributions and I’m choked I can’t make it.
As I write this post and reminisce about White Teeth, which I have just finished, I am floored not only by Smith’s skill as a wordsmith and translator of the human experience, but by her precognition. I don’t want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, but I think you can read the block quotes I’ve transcribed without ruining anything. I’ll provide a little context just so you can understand Smith’s power.
As you read, please remember that White Teeth was published in 2000. So you have to think that the manuscript was submitted around 1998, not to mention the time spent writing the book. We all know what happened in September 2001 (not that that wasn’t the eruption of a lot of history, but still).
For the first two quotes, the scene follows Millat, a main character we watch grow up, and his friends who are about 14 years old. They’re on their way to a rally in which the protestors are decrying Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, though Smith never once states that outright. All of these kids were born in England to immigrant parents. Millat is a Muslim whose ancestors are proud Bangladeshis:
“their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher’s comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with them any more because they looked like trouble. They looked like trouble in stereo.”
“To be more precise, Millat hadn’t read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Rad-clyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a film-maker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshipped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.” (Chapter 9: Mutiny!)
Irie is yet another character we follow as she grows up. She is the daughter of a woman born in Jamaica who came to England with her own mother at about 16 and a white Englishman much older than her mother. In this scene she’s in her (what I would call high school) English class and the teacher is making the students read Shakespeare’s sonnet 130. When called on, Irie hopes for a brief moment to read Shakespeare’s dark lady love as a woman of African descent. The white teacher squashes that desire immediately:
“Irie reddened. She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding […] the reflection that Irie had glimpsed slunk back into the familiar darkness.” (Chapter 11: The Miseducation of Irie Jones)
Hortense is Irie’s grandmother, a zealous Jehovah’s Witness. Though her faith is really a source of humour in the book, there’s almost respect for it, but especially her yearning. Just prior to this comment she’s telling Irie about the young white man she helped bring to the church who has risen higher in its ranks in 15 years than Hortense managed during her full 8 decades of life:
“‘I’ve waited fifty years to do someting else in de Kingdom Hall except clean,’ said Hortense sadly, ‘but dey don’ wan’ women interfering with real church bizness…’” (Chapter 15: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism)
Here we hear from Samad, Millat’s father, the intelligent, promising man born in Bengal, destined for greatness who has ended up with a bum hand working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. After years of disillusionment in England, the country he chose to move to with his wife, where they saw their babies birthed, this is how he feels:
“‘…who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong no where.’” (Chapter 15: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism)
What’s especially powerful about this moment with Samad is that his twin boys, one he sent back to his homeland to be properly educated as a Muslim, have veered off the rails of the tracks he hoped to send them on. The one he kept at home has grown into a radicalized Muslim, the one he sent away has returned to him an atheist. They are the symbols of this devil’s pact he can’t undo.
Near the end of the book, Samad is sent outdoors to quiet the singing protests of some Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet as he comes upon the oldest ladies in the crowd singing at the top of their lungs about God and their love of him, he finds he can’t quiet them. He’s too envious:
“And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be.” (Chapter 19: The Final Space)
And because I can’t help myself, because I think this next statement of Samad’s goes so fittingly with the one above, I must share it:
“He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.” (Chapter 20: Of Mice and Memory)
Finally, the last quote I want to share comes from a minor character who circles in at the end after entering the story in a peculiar fashion in the first chapter. Here, Mo the butcher has become a recent convert to the radical Muslim group Millat has joined forces with. There are two main reasons he’s succumbed to them, the second of which is the most important. Before this quote he recounts the numerous –numerous– beatings he’s received in his shops from Londoners, and the police he’s attempted to report the horrific crimes to:
“But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies and petitions the world could offer. It had brought him more securely within the fold of his faith than even a visitation from the angel Jabrail could have achieved…” (Chapter 18: The End of History versus The Last Man)
Obviously I’ve over simplified my contextual bits but White Teeth truly deserves to be seen as a whole, even though these nuggets are golden. Can you feel the genius here? I am humbled by the different experiences Smith has imparted with her cast. I’ve had my moments of feeling like I don’t belong, but as a third generation Canadian with a good education, blonde hair, and green eyes, it is nothing like what these victims of imperialism have experienced.
Smith’s ability to show the roots of radicalism in both its forms is awe inspiring. I may never understand the acts of zealots, but I understand how they get to that place. I understand that the fragile human psyche can only take so much abuse, face so much derision, before it clings to any ray of hope it can find. And anger, I definitely understand anger, and the roiling need to act on it. While I identify far more with her characters who seek out rational thought and leave behind the shackles of religion, I understand that they too are pieces cast about in a storming sea waiting for relief.
I truly am a believer in the notion that if you tell someone they’re bad and/or worthless enough times they start to believe it. Living in a conservative place I hear comments about immigrants all the time that make my stomach churn. People become self-fulfilling prophecies when they’re trod on enough times, whether the response becomes despair, rage, or an attempt to blend in in whatever way possible. We –we the white people who think we have a right to every place– have to get over this idea and this need we have to alienate other cultures. It’s false, it’s harmful, it’s ludicrous.
Never have a read a book so relevant to the current political climate. Right now many countries the world over are doing their best to help settle the Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland. This is a book the “native” citizens of those countries should read because it might spur their humanity into taking over instead of their prejudices.
I have roots all over Europe, and while I’m fascinated by those ancestries, I am firm in Canadianness. When I think of my history I am not adrift, I know where I fit, where I belong, where I am welcome. The fact that the characters in this book, that the people they reflect in the world, don’t is a horrible tragedy.
In those moments where I think back on this book these are the parts I’m going to remember. I can’t wait to see Zadie Smith, and I intend to write a post about the experience.