Julie Boutwell-Peterson is a third-year PhD student at the University of South Dakota. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from Wake Forest University and a M.A. in English from Auburn University. Studying, teaching, and/or doing development work, Julie has lived and worked in England, France, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, and Senegal. Now a TA at USD, she has also taught composition and/or literature at Auburn University, the College of Coastal Georgia, and the University of Sioux Falls as well as English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Before and in between teaching jobs, Julie worked as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina and Alabama and as a freelance feature writer in Florida. Her research interests include immigrant and refugee literature as well as postcolonial and transnational theory. In November 2019, Julie presented “‘Brains Full of Unawakened Power’: Immigrants and the Ethics of a Nation in Life in the Iron Mills” at the PAMLA Conference in San Diego, California.
Like her Antiguan-American counterpart Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith tackles the themes of identity and assimilation within the confines of the British Empire. Yet unlike Kincaid, who writes from the West Indies’ outpost of the Empire in mid-20th century, Smith writes from 21st century England–from inside an Empire that has completely fallen by the time of her birth and now endures merely in memories, attitudes, and nostalgia, and, pointedly, still in the minds of immigrants from former British colonies (and their children) now living in England. While Kincaid writes with the intent to undermine, mock, and show the absurdity of the fixed negative stereotypes associated with colonized peoples, Smith, taking the baton from Kincaid and still addressing the same issues, moves the struggle for equality and respect into a new literary realm to match the new world order of mass migration and globalization.
In particular, in White Teeth, Smith takes the tropes of 19th century British colonial literature as outlined by Patrick Brantlinger (i.e., the heroic English gentleman, an adventure into the exotic, the religious/economic/“moral” conversion of the native, originalism and essentialism in identity, and the English woman’s duty to propagate the race) and turns each of them on their head, playing with them, ridiculing them, so in the end, every trope is made anew with new players, new actions, new narratives, and new outcomes. Instead of directly attacking the colonial viewpoint from the outside in order to challenge its morality and validity, Smith takes the approach of rewriting (and thus redefining) the country’s narrative from within its own borders. Ultimately, Smith’s hero, Irie Jones, upsets and re-envisions the male English hero of 19th century British colonial texts, acting as the moral (and optimistic) voice of the novel as she exemplifies Homi Bhabha’s terms “hybridity” and “third space.”
“Who are these people?”:
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth Flips the Colonial Script
In her often-anthologized essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Jamaica Kincaid describes a memory from her childhood in Antigua prior to the country’s 1981 independence from Great Britain. Her teacher, Kincaid writes, pinned a map of England on the blackboard and announced, “This is England,” with such “authority, seriousness, and adoration” that all the students looked up, riveted (508). “It was as if she had said, ‘This is Jerusalem, the place you will go to when you die but only if you have been good’” (508). Kincaid continues, tongue in cheek, “England was a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people. They wore it well and they wore it everywhere: in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains, on all the oceans, on all the seas, in places where they were not welcome, in places they should not have been” (508). The essay describes how Kincaid, her classmates, and all of the inhabitants of her island were inculcated to admire England, but when she finally visited the country as an adult, she felt only disappointed by the bland food, miserable weather, and rude people. She also felt herself becoming newly enraged by the country’s violent and oppressive colonial history. During her visit, her thoughts returned continually to one simple question: “Who are these people who forced me to think of them all the time, who forced me to think that the world I knew was incomplete, or without substance, or did not measure up because it was not England; that I was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up because I was not English. Who were these people?” (508). It is an essential question, and the crux of it lands directly in the crosshairs of two postcolonial theorists: Patrick Brantlinger and Homi Bhabha. First, Kincaid’s question highlights an ongoing and specific anxiety of the colonized (and former colonized) peoples, which as Brantlinger points out, is succinctly summarized in J.A. Roebuck’s 1849 imperialist propaganda, The Colonies of England: “When the European comes in contact with any other type of man, that other type disappears” (qtd. in Brantlinger 858). Secondly, the question—especially in light of the vast variety of people who now call themselves “English”—takes on a different meaning when considered in light of Bhabha’s definition and analysis of the terms “hybridity” and “third space” where “hybridity” refers to the inevitable, post-colonial intermixing of cultures, languages, and races and “third space” as that location (physical or non-physical) where hybridity occurs, a place inside and/or alongside the dominant white imperialistic culture (Location of Culture 37). Kincaid’s essay (like much of her other writings) examines her desire to shake off the shackles of her childhood indoctrination of the superiority of the White Colonial English along with the false and degrading sense of self that was forced upon her by such an ideology.
Like Kincaid, Zadie Smith, also of West Indies descent, tackles the themes of identity and assimilation, yet Smith’s way of dealing with these issues is altogether different. Kincaid, born in the West Indies in 1949 under British rule, writes from the outside, from the Caribbean outpost of the British Empire, with the intent to undermine, mock, and show the falsities of the fixed negative stereotypes associated with colonized peoples; Smith, born in London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father, writes from the inside, from the Capital of the Empire—an Empire that has completely fallen by the time of her birth, an Empire that endures chiefly in memories, attitudes, and nostalgia, and, pointedly, in the minds of immigrants from former British colonies (and their children) now living in England. Smith takes the baton from Kincaid, with whom she shares a similar heritage, and, while still addressing the same issues, moves the struggle for equality and respect into a new literary realm to match the new world order of mass migration and globalization. In other words, she fights the same fight but with different techniques, thus extending the reach, power, and insight of the former colonized. While Kincaid’s tone is bitter and angry, Smith uses irony, effacing jokes, and exaggerated mockery to explore the traditional postcolonial issues of identity, self-worth, stereotypes, and power struggles. In particular, in White Teeth, Smith takes the tropes of 19th century British colonial literature as outlined by Brantlinger (i.e., the heroic English gentleman, an adventure into the exotic, the religious/economic/”moral” conversion of the native, originalism and essentialism in identity, and the English woman’s duty to propagate the race) and turns each of them on their head by exaggerating and ridiculing them, so in the end, every trope is made anew with revised players, actions, narratives, and outcomes. In short, Smith’s novel follows the proposal of Bhabha in Nation and Narration, as described by Jeremy Scott: “The ‘minority’ will…interrogate, or at the very least problematise, the narrative of the nation, supplementing, fragmenting and subsequently renegotiating it. In the process, the very conception of the nation space will be redefined” (209). Instead of directly attacking the colonial viewpoint from the outside in order to challenge its morality and validity, Smith chooses to rewrite the country’s narrative from within its own borders. In this way, she is able to redefine both the country’s history and its potential future, laying bare the past colonial injustices while simultaneously making way for a future that embraces cultural “hybridity”—a future where Bhabha’s “third space” is both normalized and respected.
White Teeth follows the stories of three families—the Jones, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens—who all live in London in the late 1990s. The families’ lives intertwine through the relationships of their children and through their own pasts, especially those of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal who served together in World War II for the British Army. Despite all living in England, each family contains members who have come to the country by way of another; Archie’s wife is Jamaican, Samad and Alsana both immigrated from Bangladesh, and Marcus Chalfen’s Jewish family comes from Poland. The narrative jumps between generations, focusing first on the parents and later on the children. Irie Jones, the daughter of Archie and Clara, grows up with Magid and Millat, the Iqbal twins; during her early teen years, Irie falls in love with Millat only to realize he is obsessed with white “English” girls. In the end, Irie marries Joshua Chalfen, the vegan, animal-rights activist son of Marcus and Joyce.
The best way to see how Smith’s novel overturns the tropes of colonial British literature is to examine Irie Jones’s narrative, and specifically, how her heroism upsets and re-envisions the male English hero of 19th century British colonial texts. Ultimately, Smith portrays Irie as the moral (and optimistic) voice of the novel; she is a living example of concepts that were willfully unknown in colonial times— “hybridity” and “third space.” In considering the subversive quality of Irie as hero, it is necessary to look briefly at the making of the hero type embedded in traditional colonial English literature, a hero that is, without discussion, always a “he.” Bhabha writes that in English colonial writings, both fiction and nonfiction, the English novel itself acts as a “myth of origin;” it works “as an insignia of colonial authority and a signifier of colonial desire and discipline” (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1117). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak offers this understanding of the topic: “It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English” (1086). In short, colonial literature worked to constantly reify the domination of the English in general and the English man in particular.
Nevertheless, domination abroad could not keep the country from facing internal struggles at home. In response, Brantlinger explains during the latter part of the 19th century, colonialism took an interesting and disturbing turn: “Imperialism grew particularly racist and aggressive” as “the social class domination of both the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy” began to decline (862). A longing for an epic hero of old, a hero like King Arthur, pervaded British society and culture; “imperialism functioned as an ideological safety valve” so that growing “working-class radicalism and middle-class reformism” could essentially be ignored (862). The issues at home were deflected to a new enemy (862). John MacKenzie writes, “[I]mperial subjects offered a perfect opportunity to externalise the villain…Thus imperialism was depicted as a great struggle with dark and evil forces, in which white heroes…could triumph over black barbarism” (154). The heroes in popular literature of the time, especially in the adventure novels by G. A. Henty, H. Rider Haggard, and R. M. Ballantyne, travel to the exotic lands of the “savages” and participate in “charismatic quests and voyages that disrupt and rejuvenate” (Youngs par. 2, Brantlinger 863). This hero plays out imperialist fantasies for those at home in England while he also works to uphold the world order where the English man is always on top. In the writing of White Teeth, Smith is certainly well aware of this history of British literature. Indeed, it is this history she engages, challenges, and problematizes. It is this trope of the dashing, daring, English male hero confronting the “uncivilized” and “immoral” native Smith inverts in two ways: 1) through the establishment of Irie, a timid, but highly intelligent English-Jamaican teenager, as a hero of the novel and 2) through the stories of the white male English characters in the novel, all of whom either subvert or mock the trope of the colonial hero.
Bhabha writes the purpose of colonial discourse is “to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest” (“The Other Question” 101). If we consider White Teeth as Smith’s response to this definition of colonial discourse, then we can name Irie as the instrument of a new postcolonial (perhaps post-postcolonial), globalized discourse. In Irie, Smith creates a character who—unlike the colonized women depicted in colonial literature who were rarely shown to have independent thoughts—not only speaks for herself, but ultimately identifies herself within her mother’s lineage, and simultaneously, desires an existence outside of cultural expectations and outside of history itself (1067). Irie’s story is one of growth, but not at the expense of others; she simply seeks to find her own happiness and self-worth. Unlike the popular 19th century British colonial hero, Irie finds validation within herself, not in who or what, she can conquer. Her adventure is inward, not outward. Her final success, which she does achieve, is a slow process that starts in the subjugated identity of the colonized—a desire to look like the colonizer, but ends in the acceptance of her unique appearance as a woman of English/Jamaican descent, as well as, a new life in Jamaica where in the end her identity can begin anew. She can write her own narrative, living, acting, and being in Bhabha’s “third space” where a fixed identity is non-existent.
To see Irie’s heroism unfold, it is important to start with her insecurities. Even though Irie’s father is English, Irie carries the physical traits of her maternal grandmother’s “substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes, and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth” (221). Irie desperately desires to be thin, to look more “white,” more “English,” but, ironically—and this is exactly the type of observation of modern British life that Smith enjoys ridiculing—not to attract a white English man, but rather her childhood friend and crush, Millat Iqbal, who much to the distaste of his Bangladeshi immigrant parents, is only attracted to blonde, slender, and straight-haired “English” girls. In this, Irie is already upsetting the traditional colonial role of English women to propagate the white English race; her desire, after all, is to appear English merely to attract a dark-skinned Muslim. The continuation (or non-continuation) of the white English race is irrelevant to Irie’s desires. Toward her ultimate goal of attracting Millat, Irie waits “for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy with the sands that gather round Dunns River Falls [a popular tourist spot in Jamaica], to English Rose—oh, you know her—she’s a slender, delicate thing not made for the hot sun” (222). For the love of Millat, Irie is willing not only to reject her cultural heritage—and her genetics—but also to disregard her natural strength. She is, in essence, willing to become frail in order to be perceived as beautiful. Irie has a nightmare in which she sells her flesh, packed into Coke bottles, at a shop where Millat is the cashier. “A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change,” Smith writes. The reference to the British Empire’s colonial past is evident, and Irie, only 15 years old, is clearly already immersed in the degrading experience of her foremothers and fathers who, still living out the indoctrination from their colonial past, have, unwittingly or not, passed these feelings of inferiority on to Irie. In the dream, like that of the colonial past, in which the English furthered and participated in the slave trade, the value of a Caribbean woman is worth pences – and Irie both fears and buys into this belief. She knows that in order to be “English,” she must change who she is and how she looks. She cannot, in any case, be herself.
Realizing that losing weight does not happen quickly, Irie decides that her path to Millat’s love will have to be through her hair. She arrives at the salon “intent upon transformation, intent upon fighting her genes” (227). When asked by the hair stylist what she wants, Smith’s narrator answers for Irie: “Straight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakable touchable finger-through-able wind-blowable hair. With bangs” (228). In short, Irie wants “English” hair, that is to say, “white” hair. Waiting for her turn, Irie hears a woman customer ask the hairdresser whether her hair is straight yet. In a nod to Irie’s eventual understanding of identity as something that cannot be forced from the outside, Irie notes, “There was little to say. They all came out straight or straight enough. But they also came out dead. Dry. Splintered. Stiff. All the spring gone. Like the hair of a cadaver as the moisture seeps away” (230). Even before her own attempt to change her hair, Irie seems aware of the danger of complete cultural assimilation. She seems to intrinsically know such an act can only lead to a type of death, a loss of self. For the immigrant, becoming “straight or straight enough,” i.e. becoming “more English,” is an exercise in participating in one’s death. Still, the force of even the remnants of the British Empire is strong, and Irie goes through with her plan.
At the salon, where patrons are not considered customers, but rather “desperate wretched patients” who participate in “competition[s] of agony,” Irie’s scalp reacts poorly to the ammonia; she begins to bleed, and then blacks out. Smith writes, “She came to with her head over the sink, watching her hair, which was coming out in clumps, shimmy down the plughole” (231). Irie’s hair is ruined; her once long hair is reduced to a few inches in length. The hair stylist offers to give Irie free hair extensions and she runs down the road to another shop to pick them up. What she finds is a room where hair is hanging on display “like a collection of sacrificial scalps or hunting trophies,” a phrase clearly alluding to British colonial acts upon the colonized (233). At the counter is an Indian girl, “whose hair had been shorn haphazardly,” reluctantly selling her long hair for 25 pounds (233). It is this young woman’s hair that Irie buys. The economy surrounding the immigrant desire to “become English” thrives in unexpected places—at the expense of the poor immigrant herself. The Indian girl must cut her hair for much-needed cash to supply it to the Jamaican-English girl who wants to appear more English, and who can do so, ironically, by adding Indian hair to her head. Smith needs no commentary on the ridiculous nature of the situation.
Upon leaving the shop with the Indian girl’s hair in a bag, Irie encounters a black woman who had come to the store for hairpins. This woman remarks to Irie, “I hate that place. But I need hairpins.” Irie responds, “I need hair.” The woman answers, “You’ve got hair” (235). Irie offers no response, but Smith’s point here is lucid: Irie already has an identity. She does not need to look like anything other than herself. The woman’s comment, “You’ve got hair,” begins Irie’s change as a character. It is also here where Irie begins to move into her role as a hero, a new hero for a new British age, where the definition of being English is increasingly broad and non-essentialist. The ironic legacy of colonialism is that instead of creating a long-lasting Empire of and for the white English, it ultimately created a home country of immense diversity; colonialism literally changed the face and hair of the English (as more white English married those of former colonial descent) to create what Bhabha calls “hybridity,” not only in appearance, but also in identity, power, and influence. (It is worth noting here—among many possible examples of this change in English society—the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a practicing Muslim who was born in London to Pakistani immigrants.) Hybridity, Bhabha is careful to point out, is not mere “cultural relativism,” but rather “a problematic of colonial representation…that reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so other ‘denied’ knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority,” and it is exactly the role Irie lives out as the new hero (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1126). Irie’s character eventually works to “estrange” and challenge the authority of the discourse (and dominance) of the 19th century British colonial narrative as well as modern-day immigrants to England who feel pressure to change their appearance to match “white” standards of beauty.
Following the new hair extensions, Irie goes to Millat’s house to show him her new look. He is not home, however, and she ends up visiting with his cousin, Neena, and his mother, Alsana. When Alsana first sees Irie’s hair, she remarks that she looks different. “You look like a newsreader. Very nice,” Alsana says (235). In other words, Irie’s choice to change her appearance is completely understandable and acceptable. For those of Alsana’s generation – those steeped in the “superiority” of the English, Irie’s change is necessary for any woman of color who wants to be successful in England. Neena’s response is different: “Bloody hell!…You look like a freak!” (236). Maxine, Neena’s girlfriend, is softer in tone: “What have you done? You had beautiful hair, man. All curly and wild. It was gorgeous” (236). Neena then adds, “The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours” (237). These words of shock and disappointment from the young progressives (unlike the expected praise of assimilation that she received from Alsana) slowly make their way into Irie’s consciousness. After she reads aloud a letter from Magid, Millat’s twin brother, in which he comments on the need for the Bangladeshi to be “more like the English,” Irie quietly leaves Millat’s home. On the way out, she stops in the hallway, looks at herself in the mirror, and then tears out “somebody else’s hair with her bare hands” (241). With this act, Irie rejects not only the desire to appear “English,” but all the self-loathing pushed on her from the Empire’s colonial past. She is now ready to start a search for her own identity, to discover her singular personhood that exists outside the prescribed understanding of what it means to be “English.”
Like the male heroes of 19th century British colonial literature, Irie goes on a grand adventure, but fitting for Smith’s overturning of tropes, Irie’s adventure consists not of a rugged jeep ride through an exotic jungle, but a late-night bus ride through London to her Jamaican grandmother’s house. While locked in an argument with her parents over her desire to take a one-year break between high school and university, Irie discovers one night that her mother’s straight, white teeth are false. Fed up with “hypocrisies and untruths” and her family’s “gift for secret histories, stories you never get told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumor you never unraveled,” Irie decides to leave home. Smith writes, “[Irie] knew where she had to go, deep into the heart of it, where only the No. 17 would take her at this time of night, sitting on the top deck, seats decorated with puke, rumbling through forty-seven bus stops before it reached its destination. But she got there in the end” (314). Smith’s words “deep into the heart of it” mock the colonial phrase “deep into the heart of Africa.” But unlike the 19th century colonial hero, the purpose of Irie’s voyage is not to discover resources and people to exploit or to convert the natives to Christianity; it is merely to rest. She tells her grandmother, “I haven’t come to find God. I just want to do some quiet study here and get my head together” (318). In fact, while her grandmother continually tries to convert Irie to become a Jehovah’s Witness throughout her stay, Irie resolutely refuses any attempts at conversion. Irie’s heroism begins to show itself in her resoluteness not to be changed, not to be converted in the same manner as her great-grandmother, who in the early 20th century became pregnant by a British army captain (her grandmother’s father) and was then converted to the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses by a female Scottish evangelist.
Although Irie cannot be converted, she can find peace. Ultimately, she finds it by uncovering her Jamaican heritage. She finds living in her grandmother’s home like “being cocooned, and she was as curious as everyone else to see what kind of Irie would emerge” (330). What intrigues her most is the discovery of the missing parts to her mother’s half-told secrets. The house, Smith writes, “wasn’t any kind of prison. That house was an adventure. In cupboards and neglected drawers and in grimy frames were the secrets that had been hoarded for so long” (330). The house – full of relics of the past, her past – becomes an adventure in itself. She finds pictures of her great grandmother and great grandfather in Jamaica, of her mother in a school uniform – with buck teeth, and late 19th century (real) colonial texts with titles such as In Sugar Cane Land and Dominica: Hints and Notes to Intending Settlers. She becomes enamored with the island of Jamaica, a place she comes to consider her “homeland.” Smith writes:
[Irie] laid claim to the past…aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright…X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and see right into her. (331)
It doesn’t really matter that Irie’s attraction to Jamaica is less about reality than her imagination. For Irie’s big discovery during her adventure is that a place exists where she can be free – free of the past, the colonial past of both of her parents, on both sides – the colonizer and the colonized, free of expectations, free of a need to be someone other than who she is. She begins to see Jamaica as a place “where things spring from the soil riotously and without supervision … a place where things simply were. No fictions, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs” (332). She imagines Jamaica as “the beginningest of beginnings. Like the first morning of Eden and the day after the apocalypse. A blank page” (332). In other words, it is her conception of a “third space,” a place where she inhabits both worlds – or, if she wants, neither; ultimately, it is a place where she names who she is, a human confident in her identity as a full member of the human race.
In a conversation between Millat’s father, Samad Iqbal, and Irie, Samad laments that in moving to England, he “made a devil’s pact” as it is now impossible for him to feel like he belongs anywhere. “I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident,” Samad tells Irie (336-337). For Irie, though, this idea seems like “paradise, like freedom” (337). Indeed, what she wants most is a “land of accidents” (337). Irie’s desire here seems to be Bhabha’s idea of “hybridity” in narrative form. After all, what Irie is essentially arguing for is a land where every cultural discourse is heard and respected—where the past is let go and the present global migration movement is embraced. Bhabha writes, “What is irremediably estranging in the presence of the hybrid—in the revaluation of the symbol of national authority as the sign of colonial difference—is that the difference of cultures can no longer be identified or evaluated as objects of epistemological or moral contemplation; they are not simply there to be seen or appropriated” (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1126). Hybridity ruptures the established hierarch, challenging the long-held colonial idea of essentialist ethnic and cultural identities and cultures. Hybridity turns a dominant white culture on its head as it creates a world where difference becomes moot precisely because essentialism is realized to be a lie (Meredith 2).
By the time Irie becomes pregnant with either Millat’s or Magid’s child—she (purposefully) is not sure which—she has emerged completely from the cocoon. Her “adventure” is achieved, her self-identity won. Usually overly polite, Irie blows up at her parents and the Iqbals for embarrassing her as they argue loudly on the bus through London. What she wants, she tells them, is simply “a peaceful existence” (426). She points out the difference between the lives of other people on the bus and the lives of immigrant families: “What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place” (426). Irie’s new heroism seems to be yet another nod at Bhabha’s conception of the “third space,” the liminal, in-between place that comes from hybridity. Paul Meredith writes, “The third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive, and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility” (3). Toward the end of the novel, Irie has a vision where she sees a “time not far from now, when roots won’t matter anymore because they can’t because they mustn’t because they’re too long and they’re too torturous and they’re just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it” (437). Finally, in the very end, on the last page of the book, Smith writes that Irie marries Joshua, the child of an English Catholic mother and an English father of Polish Jewish descent, and the two move to Jamaica to raise Irie’s daughter, whose father—either Millat or Magid—is forever unknown. The child “feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings” (448). In Jamaica, Irie hopes to establish a place for her daughter that is free of the confinements of her own London childhood. She can grow in this “third space” as a child of hybridity and self-proclaimed identity. At this point, Irie’s heroism is complete. She does, in fact, continue the English race as is her job as an English woman according to 19th century colonial literature, but, of course, Irie’s child is English, Jamaican, and Bangladeshi, a pointed jab at 19th (and 20th and 21st) century English purists.
As a final point of discussion in Smith’s dismissal (and rewriting) of the traditional hero in British literature, it is important to point out despite the long cast of characters in White Teeth, the novel contains only four main characters who are both “white” and male—Archie Jones, Marcus Chalfen, Joshua Chalfen, and Ryan Topps—and not one of them fits the profile of a typical English male hero in colonial British literature. While Brantlinger notes “[i]mperialist ideology…preserved and nurtured various conservative fantasies, chief among them the mythology of the English gentleman,” as we will see below, Smith’s main, white male characters are the exact opposite of this fantasy (861).
Readers first meet Archie in the opening chapter of the novel when he is attempting suicide after a 30-year failed marriage to an Italian woman. His suicide is thwarted, however, by a Muslim immigrant, the owner of a halal butcher shop. In addition, while readers believe Archie has acted heroically during World War II, the end of the novel reveals that Archie lied about his actions; his heroic action never took place. In terms of family lineage, Archie is no aristocrat. He tells Samad, “I’m a Jones, you see. ‘Slike a ‘Smith.’ We’re nobody…My father used to say: ‘We’re the chaff, boy, we’re the chaff.’ Not that I’ve ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock” (84). Finally, when Archie is saved from his suicide attempt and remarries, he chooses a woman of Jamaican heritage. Here, then, is the first white male of the book—the assumed hero—who is decidedly not rich, charming, and powerful, but rather a dejected, underachiever who instead of saving others must be saved by a Muslim immigrant; he is non-aristocratic, uneducated, and, perhaps most importantly, a failed war hero. His two marriages are to non- “English” women and his one offspring is a daughter of mixed race. As far as 19th century British colonial literature goes, Archie is a disaster.
A second “white” English male in the novel is Marcus Chalfen, an innovative, highly educated scientist. While Chalfen is well-off financially and married to a white English woman, with whom he has four children, he also is problematic as an archetype within British colonial literature. After all, Chalfen is the son of Polish, Jewish immigrants. Thus, despite fitting into every other category for colonial British heroes—tall, handsome, rich, intelligent, industrious—his heritage keeps him from fulfilling this role. Smith’s overturning of expected hero traits seems especially poignant in Chalfen’s character as she mocks the ludicrous act of categorizing a man as heroic simply by his ethnicity or country of birth.
In another provocative twist, Smith creates a third white male Englishman, Ryan Topps, who instead of converting the “natives” to Anglicized Christianity ends up being converted himself to the Church of Jehovah’s Witness by Irie’s Jamaican grandmother, Hortense Bowden. Ryan never marries, thus unfulfilling his duty to propagate the English race, and instead holes up in a basement apartment with Bowden waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus. Finally, of course, there is Joshua Chalfen, Marcus Chalfen’s son, who is white, but half-Jewish, and ends up marrying Irie and moving with her to Jamaica where the two of them raise Irie’s daughter, whose father is Bangladeshi. Joshua obviously fails in his job of multiplying the “pure” “English” race.Joshua not only marries Irie, but also rejects his own English heritage and homeland, embracing instead Irie’s daughter and, presumably, any future children he and Irie might have.
It is necessary to mention one additional white male character, who albeit very minor, is vital to Smith’s overturning of 19th century colonial heroes. Archie’s boss, aptly named Kelvin Hero, tells Archie his Jamaican wife is not welcome at the company Christmas party because she is black, the other women will be jealous of her beauty, and men “don’t like it ‘cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s…you know…they don’t know what to make of that at all” (61). Kelvin is the closest match in White Teeth to the male hero of colonial British literature. He is white, of English heritage, and a company director—the intimidating boss to whom everyone defers, the proud owner of “a double row of pearly whites that owed more to expensive dentistry than to regular brushing,” and the man who, despite repeatedly telling Archie that he is not a “racialist,” is obviously a racist (60). In Kelvin’s conversation with Archie, Kelvin invokes the real-life, anti-immigrant, conservative British politician, Enoch Powell: “I’d spit on that Enoch Powell … but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he? There comes a point, a saturation point … I mean it’s like Delhi in Euston every Monday morning” (61). Smith characterizes Kelvin as the modern, updated version of the colonial, racist hero—someone who is a racist, but claims not to be, someone who alleges only to be acting rationally and in the interests of others, to make sure no one is “uncomfortable” (61). Of course, Kelvin’s comment to Archie (“wanting a bit of the other”) immediately brings to mind Bell Hooks’ essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” which frames popular, mainstream multiculturalism as a (still racist) way for whites to enlarge their (sexual) experience to be “changed utterly” by encounters with people of different races (24). Yet there is an ambivalence in this relationship, a desire for the Other, and also a fear of this desire—a desire for control and a way of seeing the Other as still an object that exists for the good of the white European. Smith imagines Kelvin as the man who would be the hero of old, but is no longer that hero; instead he is a racist, an absurd and laughable idiot. This “hero” is literally—and merely—the office jerk, a man worthy of only a few pages in a 400-plus page novel.
In discussing White Teeth as well as Smith’s other writings, Noora Katisko writes, “It is possible to see Smith’s works as ‘State of the Nation’ novels” (3). If we categorize White Teeth as a national commentary, a national reckoning, a national narrative, we can see how it works to—as Bhabha suggests will happen when hybridity takes its place in the power structure of society—reshape, rewrite, and redefine the country’s narrative and its literature. Smith’s novel acts as Bhabha’s “counter-narrative” to English colonialism; it is her recipe for the way forward, through Irie—the hero–as Bhabha’s “liminal” figure who pushes back on her historical heritage, which is composed of both colonizer and colonized, to create her own future path. Bhabha writes, “Counter narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological maneuvers through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities” (“DissemiNation” 300). Smith’s creation of the hero, Irie, alongside her depictions of the non-hero white males subvert the colonial British literature tropes, challenging both essentialist understandings of a nation and an individual identity as either “English” or “non-English.”
In contrast to Jamaica Kincaid, who fled her homeland, the place that indoctrinated her with the purported superiority of the English, Irie flees to Jamaica, a place she does not connect with England, the former colonizer, but rather with herself—her own individuality and her own history. Irie escapes there to raise her daughter and to love the man who does not want (or need) her to look English—the Englishman who is both Jewish and Polish, Joshua Chalfen. We must note how the colonial British hero is now completely subverted. Toward the end of White Teeth, after the twins, Magid (who, despite having grown up in Bangladesh, is obsessed with the superior ways of the English) and Millat (who addresses his obsession with American movies and Western culture by becoming a West-hating conservative Muslim fundamentalist), the narrator in White Teeth comments, “This is the other thing about immigrants (‘fugees, emigrees, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow” (385). Like the imperialists of old and the current English nostalgia for the British Empire, the immigrants—and the children of immigrants—cannot avoid an obsession with the past, with their families’, and their nation’s place in history. This business of living in a hybrid, liminal third-space is difficult; Irie, the hero, shows it is not impossible. Ultimately, Smith’s White Teeth offers readers a glimpse into a possible future where identity is less cultural and more personal, created not from outside forces but from the internal integrity of self-worth. In other words, Smith offers readers a way forward, a path that leads certainly out of the old racist colonial tropes, but also out of postcolonial bitterness. She envisions a world that is post-postcolonial, a world where each person can create her own history—and her own identity.
Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322.
Bhabha, Homi. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1117-1131.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. 1994. Routledge Classics, 2004.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914. Cornell University Press, 1988.
hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks. Routledge, 1992, pp. 21-39.
Katisko, Noora. Englishness Revisited: The Construction of Hybrid National Identities in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. 2011. University of Tampere. Pro Gradu Thesis.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “On Seeing England for the First Time.” Literature: The Human Experience, 11th ed., edited by Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, and Samuel Cohen. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, pp. 508-515.
Meredith, Paul. “Hybridity in the Third Space: Rethinking Bi-cultural Politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Te Oru Rangahau Maori Research and Development Conference, 7 July 1998, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Conference Presentation.
Said, Edward. “Introduction to Orientalism.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1066-1079.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International, 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1087-1099.
Youngs, Tim. “Echoes of Empire.” British Library: Romantics and Victorians. 15 May 2014. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/echoes-of-empire