Selections of White Teeth: Prepping for a Night with Zadie Smith

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.”

White Teeth“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.

Who Are You Jealous Of?

Winsor McCay, 1930 by Alan Light via Flickr

Winsor McCay, 1930 by Alan Light via Flickr

While meandering the multitude of articles covering aspects of writing earlier this month, I came across one that presented something I’d never heard before. While the article is called How to find your voice, I didn’t take much away from the topic of voice because not only do I agree wholeheartedly with the author, but it’s nothing new.

However, he covers a workshop, and in part of the transcription provided, is this little gem:

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.

I’ve heard of finding writers you admire and emulating them. I’ve heard of writing the books you want to read. I’ve heard of rewriting books that you think you can write better. This idea of jealousy is novel and exciting as far as I’m concerned.

Because Collins, the lady transcribed, hits the nail on the head!

The stories that stay with me, and I mean really stay with me, are the ones that kind of make my chest swell. I read them and get helplessly absorbed in them, to the point I wish real life didn’t exist so I didn’t have to eat, sleep, or all the other necessities, so I can just keep on reading. The ones where when they end I feel like a piece of me has broken off and I don’t know if I’ll ever find it anywhere but in the pages of the book I have to put down. The ones where if someone says they’re name my heart ka-thunks. I’m sure if someone were to scan my brain in the middle of reading my synapses would be flashing like fireworks.

There have been very few books that I’ve finished and stared at the ceiling wishing I’d written them. Hell, wishing I could write anything half as amazing. I used to think this was admiration, but it’s jealousy.

I’ve tried to do the emulating thing and I come off sounding like a hack. But that’s a good thing. The story wasn’t mine, or at least didn’t have the proper flavouring to make it mine. Yet it still let me learn something new. And I’m not going to stop trying, because obviously the goal now is to make some future writer equally jealous with my work. And that’s no small feat.

What stories have inspired this reaction in you?

Mobbing Midnight: The Significance of Supporting Lesser Known Authors

On February 10th, writer and editor April Steenburgh launched a Kickstarter for a book called Mobbing Midnight: An Anthology of Crows. This matters not only because I am a writer whose story will feature in it when it funds, but because a lot of other lesser known authors are devoting their time and energy to the book’s creation as well. Not to mention the artists who are always involved in a book’s formation.

There’s no other way to say it: budding writers need community support. Plain and simple. The life of a new writer is one chock full of rejection. Yes, we’re told that those notches of rejection on our belts mean success will taste all the sweeter when we get there, but it’s a long road. A long, discouraging road. Just ask J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King.

No one in their right mind would continue on such endeavors –endeavours full of blood, sweat, and tears –after having doors slammed shut in their faces right, left, and centre. No one except artists.

We live in an awesome age where people everywhere can support local and/or new artists when they need help getting their voices heard. Crowdfunding. Kickstarter. Two relatively new additions to our vocabulary have already opened up so many doors for patrons and artists.

Kickstarter alone is responsible for the creation of two wildly popular entities: Smut Peddler 2014 by Iron Circus Comics and Exploding Kittens (soon to be coming) by The Oatmeal.

People who consume and appreciate the arts have finally been given a chance to help produce that which they want to see instead of being told what they should want by a bunch of industries. It’s great! And exciting for producers and consumers.

I want you to support this anthology because it means a lot to me personally, too. I don’t see Mobbing Midnight as just another item on my publishing credits list. I love birds. I have always loved birds. To be able to combine these creatures with my love of writing is something I keep doing a happy dance about. On top of the creative freedom April gave us, it’s almost all too good to be true.

My first bird book.

My first bird book.

No, crows are not my favourite bird species. I don’t think I could pick one. But they’ve always intrigued me. There are few birds as intelligent and versatile as the crow –which can be found thriving on every continent except Antarctica. Probably because they haven’t found a means of getting there. Think about that.

Moreover, they feature in a variety of folklore in a ton of different roles. They can be good, evil, contemptuous, brave, heroic, or conniving. These traits make them the perfect point of intersection for an anthology. Imagine the endless possibilities a group of writers can come up with when they’ve been told to write any kind of story they want as long as crows are featured prominently.

I am as thrilled to write my story as I am to read what everyone else comes up with!

Our group, like all artists, just wants to be given the chance to make this anthology happen. We might not be famous yet but we’re as devoted to writing as any of the big-time authors out there. Our main difference is that we’re relying on our campaign to fund.

Every single dollar counts and there are amazing rewards to be had that will speak to anyone’s tastes. At every donation level.

Cover image by artist Jennifer Campbell-Smith

Cover image by artist Jennifer Campbell-Smith

I’m happy to be offering up a reward myself: a character name in my story. It’s not going to have a happy ending but for $100 you can make your name or that of a loved one/enemy go through some serious horror! Isn’t that the coolest gift idea ever?

Your support for our Kickstarter is greatly appreciated! March 12th is our deadline.