Last year the NBCC President John Freeman invited me to write a first-person retrospective on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth for Critical Mass. I accepted, planning to write it very soon, and in the end, as writing done out of joy is often waylaid so one can write for money, I ended up at least a month past our original six month deadline.
Here’s mine, below.
In Retrospect: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
By Christine Thomas
Critical Mass, 3/4/08
In the fall of 2000, I joyfully began my master’s studies in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in England, the first, and still considered leading creative writing MA in the country. I had worked hard to get there—not only crafting my prose admission samples but also flying halfway around the world from my home in Hawai`i.
Flushed with the high of living abroad and finally being able to devote concentrated time to my fiction, I was soaking up everything, from new food and customs, like adjusting my Hawai`i openness to British reserve and social politeness, and new authors. And in 2000, the new literary sensation was Zadie Smith and her debut novel White Teeth.
So, like the good students and envious contemporaries we were, everyone in my program promptly set about reading it. Looking back I’m glad I was able to do so before I began my book critic career, writing reviews for the TLS. But it wasn’t long before rumors and critical comments about the book began flying around our tea breaks and post-critique evenings in the graduate pub.
One of my classmates bragged that he’d gone to uni with her, and insisted the jacket photo was pure fabrication because her hair had been relaxed specifically for the shoot. The emergence of her purported biggest fan Salman Rushdie was likewise debated: Was it only because she’d alluded to the post-Satanic Verses melee? Some thought the novel’s end dragged on (upon my recent re-read, I did find my attention waning during the Irie section). Others were tickled by the story because, as Donna said, it really captured London now—an intriguing endorsement for someone who was currently experiencing London “now” for the first time.
Most of all, we wondered if we should like her or hate her, support the book or disdain it. After all, when you are casting after your own two-book deal, it’s difficult not to swallow a gulp of envy when someone your age (Smith is a year younger than me) has attained it with such acclaim and seeming ease.
The novel’s opening easily brought me into the fold of those who praised it. Who couldn’t love poor Archie the professional paper folder, who on January 1, 1975, just as he makes every life decision, decides to commit suicide by flipping a coin:
“He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year’s resolution.”
And who could resist the seductive comedy and Smith’s talent for dialogue when a halal butcher, outside whose shop Archie is parked, saves him:
“’No one gasses himself on my property,’ Mo snapped as he marched downstairs. ‘We are not licensed.’” … “’If you’re going to die around here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.’”
Beyond this winning set-up, Smith’s obvious talent, precociously confident writing, rich characterization, brilliant metaphorical description, sonorous dialogue, and not to mention ambitious exploration of the British immigrant experience—it was the book’s window into London that I most enjoyed. White Teeth is written like an inside joke, and though the narrator often acts as a guide, little is explained or translated (this actually forces all readers into the immigrant experience, as a new arrival to the book’s world). And so in some ways reading it was a barometer of how in-the-know I had become.
For instance, I realized I had indeed progressed enough to comprehend politics of tea and British politeness, and so could decipher the malicious subtext when, hilariously to the reader, Alsana (Archie’s best friend’s wife) makes known her displeasure with Joyce (a parent who has been meddling in the lives of Alsana’s sons) by denying her request for fruit tea:
“’Fruit not possible. Not even Earl Grey is possible. I come from the land of tea to this godawful country and then I can’t afford a proper cup of it. P. G. Tips is possible and nothing else.’
“Joyce winced. ‘P. G. Tips, please, then.’”
Had I still been living in Hawai`i, and had I not had English friends apologize for only having P.G. Tips during an impromptu visit, I would not have known the low status of P.G. Tips in the English tea world, and thus its insult potential for guests. To Alsana, that was the point, and one that Joyce, and I, immediately understood.
And given that I was now accustomed to the lime caked on the coil of my housemate’s electric tea kettle, which occasionally flaked off into my own cup of tea, I had a particularly satisfying chuckle when Alsana furthered the insult to Joyce’s tea:
“The mug of tea plonked in front of Joyce a few minutes later was grey with a rim of scum and thousands of little microbes flitting through it, less micro than one would have hoped. Alsana gave Joyce a moment to consider it.”
It’s such small yet careful details that are most alluring: Archie’s affinity for Quality Street (chocolates, somewhat like Whitman’s, which I never quite liked); shopping at Marks ‘n’ Sparks (Marks & Spencer department store); the “[f]our familiar beeps, the beeps that follow the English into whatever land they conquer, rang round the kitchen,” that Alsana waits for and which had become part of my television background; and of course Archie’s affinity for DIY (do-it-yourself), all the rage in England, and America as well, though no one called it DIY.
And then there’s Smith’s knack for transcribing British, Jamaican, and Indian accents, which if not heard before would be impossible for an American to understand, whether whole sentences such as “’Sall in ‘ere mate. Best four ninety-five I ever spent. Talking of moolah, you ‘aving a flutter today?’” (British) and “’No man! ‘Im ‘ave a pussy for a face. How you expec’ ‘im to see any little ting?’” (Jamaican, about Archie), or singularly British terms littered throughout, including innit, sommfinck, chuffed, poncey, Lino, nick, nuffink, and what’s he on about?
Yet more deeply than dialects and cultural icons, White Teeth’s witty cultural pastiche and relentless exposure of the misconceptions about race—whether the halal butcher, British people with “blank pancake English faces,” the Indian waiter, or black women braving the pains of relaxing their hair—resonated with my own upbringing oceans and continents away. In Hawai`i, a multi-cultural society where there is no ethnic majority, differences and stereotypes are acknowledged with humor, while at the same time distinct cultural traditions are accepted, celebrated, and absorbed by all. Similarly, the struggles and prejudices Smith illuminates aren’t mocked so much as candidly admitted. They stand as inescapable facets of three-dimensional characters, supported by extensive histories and genealogies that give White Teeth an epic silhouette.
In the end, I and most of my course-mates decided this is a book to be liked, a spectacular ride rendered in writing that demands to be admired. But then I quickly went back to my life, which was all about my own fictional, written worlds until I graduated from UEA at the end of 2001. World events and finances eventually brought me back to the United States, but even now, White Teeth powerfully recalls a time in my life when I had somehow managed to become part of another world, if only for a short while.
See it live here.