Smith, Zadie: White Teeth

The discussion of  “Small Island” by Andrea Levy and  “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith had been suggested to us by academic researchers as part of their study of the reception of migrant literature. This research was using Book Groups as a way of discovering how different readers approach such texts (see We chose to focus on “Small Island” by Andrea Levy (2004) as the main text, with “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith (2000) as the optional extra.

Such was the enthusiasm for this unusual discussion that one member arrived twenty- four hours early, unable to contain his excitement. However, the great evening finally arrived, a charming young lady put the electronic gizmos in place, and the host introduced the discussion to the silent roll of the cameras and sound recorder (plus the scratching of your correspondent’s outmoded pen).

Andrea Levy was the daughter of one of the original Jamaican immigrants to arrive in Britain on the “Empire Windrush” in 1948. So she had close family links to the “Small Island” story, if not first hand experience.

He could see that the novel had deserved so many awards. Initially he had found the structure disconcerting, with its switches of narrator and timeframe. However, after a the point emerged of focussing on the four very distinct characters, telling the story from their perspectives, and dealing with the periods before, during and after the Second World War. The characterisation was good, with none of the characters drawn in simplistic good/bad terms. Even the racist Bernard changed with time.

The host had found it easy to identify with the issues raised by these books. Although only just born when the Empire Windrush arrived, he had relations who lived in North London, amongst whom some of the older generation were racist. He had spent some 30 years working in London, for an organisation 30% of whose staff were from ethnic minorities.

One member, however, felt that the book reinforced stereotypes. It was hardly a revelation that there was much racism at that time. He could remember his mother’s shock the first time he brought home a black friend, and could remember a relation saying as late as 1968 that he had to understand she was racist. He preferred a book with more mystery and intrigue, a book that made you reflect more.

But not all the characters were racist ? What about Queenie – she was not racist? No, but she was a stereotype too!

For another the characters were not stereotypes. They were fully developed in three dimensions. The book had an exclusive focus on character and event, rather than intellectualising. (This made it an interesting contrast to George Orwell’s “Coming Up for Air”, which he had just read, which had plenty of character and incident, but also plenty of judgements and moralising). It was a good read, and he liked the dialogue particularly.

However, he was not sure he agreed that all the characters had a mix of good and bad. Wasn’t Gilbert a saintly figure? No – he took Hortense’s money, without intending to honour the agreement. Yes, but he did stick with her.

Perhaps the lack of judgments reflected the use of first person narrators: it might be different with a third person narrator.

Another member drew a contrast with “White Teeth”. In that book the author breathed life on to the characters and they then almost wrote the book: it had tremendous vivacity. “Small Island” by contrast was more stylised and less instinctive with its separate sections on each character. It was also rather episodic. Some of it felt rather contrived – for example it seemed that the main reason for Queenie taking Arthur into the countryside was to place him at the scene of the GI’s fight which was to cost him his life. The military sections – for someone with a specialist interest in the subject – contained several mistakes. For example, the Indian Army was a volunteer Army not a conscript army, and Imphal essentially the name of a battlefield. Perhaps she had used too limited a range of sources, but, once the reader had doubts about her reliability and authority, it affected the reader’s perception of the rest of the book, making it seem more contrived.

But the book’s great strength was its description of the racial discrimination suffered by Gilbert in the army and in seeking employment. This was both powerful and sad, and very well-written.

Another felt that the best aspects of the book were the portrayal of life in Jamaica, the corrosive racial discrimination suffered, and the way in which Empire – and its associated narrative and myths – impacted on the lives and motivations of the characters. The sustaining myth of all races being equal in the Empire jarred hideously with the experience of the Jamaicans coming to Britain. It was no coincidence that the book opened with the British Empire Exhibition, and a character called Queenie. These were the elements which seemed really to engage the creative imagination of the author, and were of great quality. What was particularly attractive was the warm empathy and non-judgemental style with which she presented her characters.

The other elements – the war-time exploits of Bernard, and Queenie’s grim upbringing – were well-written and engaging, but written with less emotional pressure. It was as if the novelist had been encouraged by her publisher to tap into the fashion for stories of World War 2 and grim childhoods. There was nothing wrong with a writer trying to write a more popular book, but it made the novel uneven as a work of the imagination.

On the other hand, suggested another (himself a novelist) it was inevitable that the section about Bernard would be the most difficult for the author, as he was neither black nor female, and was a racist. But it was essential for the structure to present Bernard in the first person. She had worked very hard to get it right, even if, inevitably, it seemed a little artificial compared with the authentic Jamaican voice of Gilbert. Novelists were aiming to convince 99.9% of their readers that what they presented was accurate – there would always be experts who could spot flaws. He had found the Burmese section very well-researched and well-written. Her depiction of Jamaican dialect was of course excellent; he wondered, however, if having Queenie take elocution lessons was not a device to escape having to write Queenie’s dialogue in a less familiar dialect?

Having tip-toed delicately around issues of race, the Group then plunged recklessly into issues of sex. Did you not detect a lot of sexual tension between members of different races? Some did; some didn’t. There was also a lot about sexual tensions between members of the same race – between Hortense and Gilbert, and between Queenie and Bernard – so perhaps the novel was reflecting general sexual tensions in a more inhibited age. And there was a clear suggestion that Bernard – fascinated by Maxi – had homosexual leanings, even if unconscious.

But perhaps the theme was really that of miscegenation? This emerged often – in the hint that Hortense’s father was white, in Gilbert’s part Jewish background, and in the mixed parentage of Queenie’s baby. At one level this reflected the reality of the background of many “black” – and “white” – people (and indeed, we understood, of the author herself); at another level it revealed the superficiality of our racial constructs.

And there were some intriguing puzzles in the book. Was Arthur meant to be aware of – and condoning – his daughter-in-law’s fling with Michael? On balance we thought he was. Was either Gilbert or Hortense meant to know it was Michael’s child they were adopting? We felt on balance Gilbert was, but not Hortense. And what about the relationship between Celia and Hortense? It started with an erotic charge, and ended with Hortense usurping Celia’s place with Gilbert by means of “innocently” drawing attention to Celia’s insane mother. Hortense was surely being disingenuous in her description of this episode – an example of an “unreliable narrator”?

Most felt the ending was rather weak (and less satisfactory than “White Teeth”) but then an ending for a novel of social history is always difficult. And perhaps Andrea Levy has a sequel in mind involving the baby Michael in later years?

In this book the author made no attempt to describe what happened after 1948, or to draw any explicit lessons for modern Britain (and it was refreshing that she did not write with a didactic agenda, but focussed solely on understanding what had happened and why).

So it was appropriate also to read “White Teeth” (another winner of many awards) which dealt with the very different period of the eighties and nineties, alongside “Small Island”.

The host noted that it dealt with the later lives of two wartime friends – one English and one a Bangladeshi – and their families in London. Smith herself, however, was the child of a Jamaican mother and an English father. The reviews of the book had been very mixed, with some thinking it of very fine quality, while others disliked it, finding the plotting loose and random, and the characterisation unconvincing.

Not all members had been able to read the book, but there was a fair spread of opinion amongst those who had. One could relate personally to the descriptions of London and eccentric religious sects. He enjoyed the book. It was funny and over-exuberant, slapdash and wandering all over the place – but that was perhaps to be expected of a first novel by a young writer. It dealt with the different strands of immigration in London– not just the older West Indian immigrants, but Muslims (with one brother being a businessman and the other a fundamentalist) – and caught well the feel of London life at the time.

Another thought it was absolutely marvellous, and loved it from start to finish. There was so much life and vivacity in the book, and so many amusing – and perceptive – passages. For example, Samad, chatting up Poppy, being interrupted by Mad Mary:

“Mad Mary slapped him around the ankles with her stick. ‘WHAT’S DE SOLUTION, BLACK MAN?’

“Mad Mary was a beautiful, a striking woman: a noble forehead, a prominent nose, ageless midnight skin and a long neck that only Queens can dream about. But it was her alarming eyes, which shot out an anger on the brink of total collapse, that Samad was concentrated on, because he saw that they were speaking to him and him alone…Mad Mary was looking at him with recognition. Poppy had nothing to do with this. Mad Mary had spotted a fellow traveller. She had spotted the madman in him (which is to say the prophet). He felt sure she had spotted the angry man, the masturbating man….

‘Believe me. I understand your concerns’ said Samad, taking his inspiration from that other great North London street-preacher, Ken Livingstone… Samad took Poppy by the hand and walked on, while Mad Mary stood dumbstruck only briefly before rushing to the church door and spraying saliva upon the congregation…”

Or this passage:

“To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not colour. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins. The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

(a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?

(b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?

(c) Is there a chance…that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?”

And this:

“He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual indentity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all jobs to his relatives…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 recognised him, and grabbed it with both hands….”.

There was a lot about the alienation of people like Millat – although the book was published before 9/11 – and to some extent the book was making fun of them and to some extent was serious.

The structure reflected the multi-ethnic community, right from the opening scene with its clash of cultures: Archie’s attempt to gas himself in his car is cut short by a Halal butcher objecting to his parking place being taken, which leads directly to Archie meeting the Jamaican bombshell Clara. In addition to the Jones family and the Iqbal family, the third ingredient is a Jewish family. There were a lot of valuable insights into the experiences of first and second-generation immigrants.

However, “White Teeth” was very much about London, and its citizens’ experience of living and working alongside a kaleidoscope of different races. The narrative of “multi-cultural Britain” was one that politicians had evolved because of their experience of living in London. As so often, London life – and the political concepts it engendered – was different to experience elsewhere in Britain. A “White Teeth” set in Bradford might have been a very different book.

For another member the book was reminiscent in some ways of Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers”: an exuberant comic first novel recording the quirks of contemporary London, but episodic and lacking a strong structure. The book was also too long (although the same could be said of “Small Island”). And, like Dickens, her characters – other than Millat – do not really develop (Dickens being the only one of the great novelists whose characters do not develop).

The book had been described as celebrating multi-cultural Britain, but was that really right? It seemed more ironic in tone, laughing at rather than laughing with the succession of oddities to be found in the streets of London. This was a difference in tone from the warm empathy of Andrea Levy. And Zadie Smith had said specifically that she had not intended to write about racial issues – although one had to be mindful of the “Intentional Fallacy” (i.e. that a book is not necessarily about what the writer consciously intended).

Perhaps that was commonly the case with literature about migrants. The author was not writing with the intention of spreading understanding of the experience of migrants: the author was writing to get published, and was using the material to hand. Andrea Levy was an exception in writing “un roman à these” about Jamaican migration. But given that so few writers from immigrant communities reached the attention of the host community, it did make it very important what these voices had to say.

Often literature about migration presented the immigrants as funny, and perhaps that made migrants less threatening and more human. A clear recent example of this was “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, another first novel, which was very funny about immigrants. In this case again the novelist’s real concerns did not seem to be migration as such, but the history of the Ukraine and its families.

Walter Scott – a writer who like Levy had some very conscious objectives for his writing – was at one level aiming to reconcile the English to the Scots who had joined the Union, and he did so by making them seem comic as well as by romanticising them. He was also trying to reconcile Lowland and Highland Scots. In so doing he had created such a powerful myth that it had shaped perceptions of Scotland throughout the world right up to the present day.

That set us off on in digression mode, with some reflections on Scotland and race, encouraged by the fact the Andrea Levy has some Scottish blood, and Zadie Smith’s mother has a Scottish name. Was racism worse in England than in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, suggested one (English) member? Nobody was confident about signing up for that one – was it not a question of experiencing less immigration recently? What about the vehement reactions to Irish immigration into Scotland? It had been heartening that the recent “Fresh Talent” initiative to promote immigration into Scotland had been so widely welcomed, and that it had been recognised at Scottish political level that economic migrants were go-getters and entrepreneurial. But was it not unreasonable to place asylum seekers in Glasgow’s toughest estates? And it was easier to welcome immigrants in times of skill shortage than it had been at the end of the Second World War, when there was a great pressure on available jobs as the Army was demobilised.

And what about the differing experiences of the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in Britain?

At which point – perhaps as well – the charming young lady re-appeared, switched off the electronic gizmos, and advised against Zadie Smith’s second novel. Your correspondent closed his non-electronic notebook. And that was it.