A Post Colonial Essay on the Novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith

A Post Colonial Essay on the Novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith

‘These texts are a celebration of the collapsing of boundaries.’ Explore ways that your chosen texts support this statement.
Boundaries within society are like, “The clouds on the map” where they “would move, reform, disappear, and “new distinct areas would form.” [1] The “clouds” we would see as a cultural identity, sets us in a situation where we become distant. Race in White Teeth, religion in Londonstani and immigrants in The Emperor’s Babe all “move, reform” and “disappear” until a celebration is underway with the newly formed “distinct areas.” Through language we explore a variety of chosen words which sets us apart from what we are to believe; creating boundaries between us and the characters within the chapters of the books.

Outlined by Bhabha, a “homogenizing, unifying force” is “authenticated by the original past” [2] helps us visualise that, what we truly are is what we were originally in the past. This is when the boundary of race and nationality would be seen as broken by either referring back to the roots within a family, or living up a nationality you are familiar and have been with throughout life. White Teeth being a novel, allows us to witness a beginning, middle and end to the story, which is split into 4 sections and can relate to the race and nationality the characters within the novel. The fact that it is split a novel of characters – “Archie” who is English and Caucasian, “Samad” who is Bengali and Asian, “Irie” who is a Jamaican and English but Mixed-Race and “Magid, Millat and Marcus” who are different races and nationalities – allows us to understand that there is a boundary of race and nationality in London during the time of “1974 to 1999.” (Smith, Contents) Similarly in Londonstani, Gautam Malkani writes the book as a novel with a beginning middle and end however, it is logically divided into 3 exact chapters, “Paki,” (Malkani, 2) “Sher,” (Malkani, 135) and “Desi.”(Malkani, 271)

Irie, a character formed by Zadie Smith in White Teeth tries to conform to the English nationality in appose to her Jamaican and become what Smith calls an “Englishman.” (Smith, 5) During the beginning, we are thrown into the deep side where, “there was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land.” (Smith, 266) Irie herself, lives in England where the image of a gigantic mirror represents the looks of an English person, yet when Irie stands in front of the mirror, she has no reflection. This is due to her distinctive Jamaican looks. The fact that she has a “big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth,” (Smith, 265) does not allow her to be accepted within England, which according to Walsh through an anonymous review, was like “a literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.”[3] The short sentence “A stranger in a stranger land,” creates a strong image where it suggests that even though she is half English, she is still portrayed as a stranger in the country, and sees this country as a foreign place. In 1948, Empire Windrush was “the first large wave of Jamaican immigrants to the UK,” [4] and history like this portrayed people like Irie to be classed as an Immigrant regardless of her English half. It then became apparent, according to Holbourne that, “Growing up in 1970s London” was where “people tried to apply labels to me and call me ‘half caste … half pint … half breed’ [5]. Thus, Irie felt like “a stranger in a stranger land,” as she would be seen different to the British, and never would be classed as one. Being Jamaican whether half English did not matter to society, which was evidently show later on in history, where “racial inequality was highlighted by the 1981 Brixton riot.”[6]

Some would say that the middle of the story changed Irie’s tone, where she wanted “straight and red” (Smith, 277) hair, in order to become an English person. She had transformed into someone who “looked beautiful. She looked straight, unkinky. Beautiful” (Smith, 283). However, it is evident that it is a follow through from the beginning of Irie’s story. Through the narratives language, the “borders” (Smith, 328) suggest that she is set into a boundary where she is “sneaking into England.” (Smith, 328) Her being an English/Jamaican race should not allow her to feel “like a Jew munching a sausage,” (Smith, 328) nor should she feel “like some terribly mutinous act,” (Smith, 328) as she is originally part-English through blood. However, through society during Multiculturalism she would be seen as “wearing somebody else’s uniform or somebody else’s skin” (Smith, 328), as she would be associated to the Jamaican group of Immigrants, not the British of “Englishman.” (Smith, 5) Thus, the structure of the book, through the beginning and middle of Irie’s story makes us believe, that she has not broken any boundary even with trying.

Undoubtedly, towards the ending of Irie in White Teeth, it is believed that she celebrates a happy ending through broken boundaries. Irie decided to go to the “Root Canals of Hortense Bowden,” (Smith, 356) where she will learn about her “roots” of her “original past.”[7] By learning through her grandmother Hortense Bowden, it enabled her to evolve into the ideology of a black person, where she became a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite Hortense’s view of black people as Jehovah Witnesses’, through history, leaders were both White and black, one of which being “Nathan Homer Knorr,”[8] so many would criticise that Hortense’s view is insufficient and wrong. According to a criticism of the film White Teeth film, “a Jehovah’s Witness would never have a cross in the home” as “crosses are pagan relics that have no place in a witnesses’ worship.”[9] This demonstrates that through different interpretations of White Teeth, some have not taken into consideration the aspects of what one race celebrates and so boundaries sets us apart in religious beliefs and races. Nevertheless, we can still imply that Irie’s breaking of the racial boundary - that had troubled her - brought people like Millat and Majid into her life. The “cross pollination produces more varied off spring which are able to cope with a changed environment” (Smith, 258) signifies the short relationship with twins Millat and Majid and as a consequence she was going to give birth to two twins. The fact that the children have a complete mix of nationality (British, Jamaican and Bangladeshi) would allow them to adapt to the upcoming environment when born, as all 3 parents have successfully broken the boundaries presented which implies that they will in the near future. Thus the form of White Teeth allows us to interpret each character individually and understand where the boundaries are either unbroken or broken.

In contrast, Malkani sets the boundaries of nationality through the “mash-up of London street slang; popular Americanisms (such as “feds” or “bucks”); Panjabi slang and hip-hop slang.”[10] Within Britain, proper English would want to be used in respect to the English Culture however Malkani sets us readers apart from characters by the use of language in two different ways. From the very beginning we are presented with the three titles of the chapters “Paki … Sher … Desi.” The word “Paki,” was initially used as a short term of saying Pakistani and has a meaning of the pure. Although in modern terms, proved by Hardjit when he said “shudn’t b callin me a Paki, innit” (Malkani, 3) evidently shows there are boundaries to which a “gora” – (Malkani, 3) which is defined as a white person – can talk to a Pakistani person. According to Ahmed the word Paki “was intended to be a form of violence and intimidation towards immigrants who had come to these shores from the Indian subcontinent,” [11] hence the actions of Hardjit had occurred, despite the “white boy” (Malkani, 3) not intending it that way. Thus, any person who is not from Pakistan cannot call a Pakistani a “Paki,” just like a white person cannot call a black person “nigger … an extremely offensive name for a Black person … only a Black can call another Black a nigga.” [12] The word Desi refers to people from South Asia and their cultures, thus the transition from Paki to Desi. Thus, referring back to Holbourne’s experience of where “people tried to apply labels to me” Jas also refers to this hence the name change to Desi because they went through a name transition of “rudeboys … Indian niggas … rajamuffins … raggastanis … brit-asians … fuckin ido-brits.”Hence the boundary between them and society, they are seen as something the society is not.

This sways us towards the second way Malkani presents the boundary, this time between us readers and the main Pakistani protagonist, Hardjit. The use of words such as “kutta” (Malkani, 3) and phrases such as “ki dekh da payeh” (Malkani, 4) firstly shows that they have a split language within themselves by using Panjabi and English. Although for us readers, we read something we don’t understand which sets barriers where we cannot enter. As Malkani said, “these are rules and codes with all slang – otherwise slang wouldn’t create boundaries and barriers to entry,” [13] which implies that he had wrote slang in order for us not to understand and because of this we would have to read around the words to understand what is happening.

However, where Malkani states “slang wouldn’t create boundaries,” it could be criticised that in fact the boundaries have been broken due to the use of modern day “chav” language, which is defined as “an assortment of dialects made up from cockney rhyming slang and its derivatives, Latino phrases” and is spoken “regardless of gender or race.” [14] The media in society plays a big part of this as “ITV, BBC. How does dat make him any less poncey? Put him on MTV Base an I’ll listen to him,” (Malkani, 127) makes it evident that music has a massive impact on the younger generations’ life and is the way for them to interact and communicate in a community. Alongside this, the “chav” language used, shows they have conformed into the language music artists use such as Dizzee Rascal and therefore they have broken the nationality boundary of become more British and finding their own identity.

[1] Kopytoff, 1985, p.12
[2] Bhabha, 2004, p.54
[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/so-how-about-a-new-years-eve-kis...
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_British
[5] http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11405
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London
[7] Bhabha, 2004, p.54
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Homer_Knorr
[9] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0334877/usercomments
[10] http://www.gautammalkani.com/about_londonstani.htm
[11] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/a...
[12] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=nigga
[13] http://www.gautammalkani.com/about_londonstani.htm
[14] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chav%20language


Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Penguin Books, 2001
Malkani, Gautam. Londonstani. London, Harper Perennial, 2007
Evaristo, Bernardine. The Emperor’s Babe. Penguin Books, 2002
I, Kopytoff. The African Frontier. The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1985
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004