White Teeth and the Making of the Multiethnic Subject *
- Author: Kwon Younghee
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 58, Issue6, p1215~1233, Dec 2012
This essay is an attempt to critique the notion of hybridity that has so far facilitated a liberal multiculturalist reading of
White Teeth. For an alternative framework, it posits the multiethnic subject-making to examine in what ways the novel questions the premises of liberal multiculturalism. In this vein, this study suggests that Smith throws some significant light on the underside of holding multiple racial/ethnic identities while not bypassing its utopian possibilities. In case of the first-generation male characters, their crossracial/homosocial friendship becomes a platform for a mode of egalitarian belonging across the racial divide. It further implies a symbolic union between working-class white and nonwhite immigrant. The younger generation, in contrast, undergoes problems of racial, ethnic, cultural affiliations in far more complicated ways than the older one. Above all, White Teethdemonstrates the subtle workings of liberal multiculturalism, within which the younger characters are constructed to be a multiethnic subject in varied modes. It delineates the formation mainly by exploring the persisting legacies of Britain’s imperial history that partake in their subject-making. The novel, in doing so, obliquely suggests that the younger generation is to confront the past that is a seminal part of their present life rather than have the freedom to throw it away to be a carefree member of a multicultural society.
Zadie Smith , White Teeth , multiethnic subject , egalitarian belonging , multiculturalism
Zadie Smith’s highly-acclaimed first novel
White Teeth(2000) weaves a variety of characters with different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. As critics have agreed, its main achievement is to capture the everyday reality of multiethnic Britain on the rich web of intersecting narratives. Smith’s London in White Teethallows for seemingly unproblematic daily contact and shoulder-to-shoulder jostle between the white and non-white populace. Not simply a matter of demographical increase and visibility of non-white immigrants, however, the historical shift illustrated in White Teethis a qualitative one, as it has been set forth by new parameters of subject-formation in a multiethnic society. Critics of this novel have figured them out mostly in terms of hybridity. Laura Moss, for instance, underlines “everyday hybridity” in the sense that although the novel is not an outright celebration of it, Smith embodies hybridity as “part of the practice of everyday life” (11). In a similar vein, Dominic Head contends that the novel “self-consciously promotes a utopian hybridity,” as it enacts “haphazard but vibrant multiculturalism” (187).
Despite the usefulness of hybridity for
White Teeth, I would argue that it gravitates toward the standard liberal multiculturalist frame of reading even when one recognizes Smith’s concerns and reservations that deter one from fully relishing the comically-rendered ethnic mingling of characters without worrying too much about harsh realities of racism.1 Indeed, the critical potential of White Teethhas been compromised by the system of global literary prize culture and book-marketing that favors representation of ethnic differences, turning them into an enjoyable commodity. For instance, the introductory comment on the blurb of the Vintage edition invites us to read it as a story about “friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle.” Avoiding polemic words like race and colonialism, it renders racial/ethnic differences to be a matter of “culture” and detonates history into “the past.” These all suggest how today’s publishing industry can package and publicize a novel like White Teethin the way one may pleasurably consume it while paring off its thorny critique of colonial legacies.2
The notion of the hybrid subject has sparked off a host of criticisms mainly for its tendency to collude with the premises of liberal multiculturalism (Shohat 1992, Puri 1999, Ahmad 2001). Certainly, Homi Bhabha, who has developed the concept into one of the key theoretical tools of postcolonial studies, clarifies that what he terms “the hybrid cosmopolitanism of contemporary metropolitan life” is not “a celebration of multicultural or minority arts” (38). It rather impinges on a redefinition of culture as a fundamentally heterogeneous one, moving beyond “a view of culture as an evaluative activity concerned primarily with the attribution of identity (individual or collective) and the conferral of authenticity (custom, tradition, ritual)” (Bhabha 38). Nonetheless, the hybrid subject easily lends to the kind of superficially particular, yet ultimately universal subjectivity that has been celebrated by those whose interests lie in global capitalist pursuits of ethnic otherness. From this perspective, Ali Nobil Ahmad persuasively claims, hybridity becomes “just another way of ignoring the internal class, regional and other means of differentiation within immigrant groups” (75), as it is provided “special powers to transcend problems like racism through subversion of mundane norms of human experience” (81).
In connection with Ahmad’s critique, Ella Shohat’s widely-cited comment on hybridity is also worth noting. Against the universalizing tendency of the hybrid subject, she suggests that we take into account its diverse modalities; it can take varied forms of “forced assimilation, internalized self-rejection, political cooptation, social conformism, cultural mimicry, and creative transcendence” (110). Above-mentioned critic Laura Moss references this suggestion in her reading of
White Teeth, concluding that the novel tends to present “an eclectic mixture of race, language, and culture, rather than sorts out the diverse forms of hybridity” (12). In her view, Smith renders the “possibility of hybridity as stemming from a conscious choice” instead of regarding it “as necessarilya problem. . . even as the problems of such choice need to be recognized” (13). This interpretation, however, is inadequate because hybridity is hardly a matter of choice in the novel; one finds a case of consciously chosen hybridity only once in it as an effect of Archie and Clara’s marriage on the couple. Even for Clara, her ethnicity as a second-generation Jamaican immigrant does not let her volunteerfor hybridity; neither is the case with Irie. As I shall contend in this paper, White Teethrather questions the idea that the hybrid subject is a sort of panacea for racial conflicts, penetrating the deep, wide-reaching connections between the colonial past and the postcolonial present of Britain. In focusing on this historical dimension, I would also foreground the inevitable pitfalls of the multiethnic subject as the seminal narrative concern of the novel. In her insightful essay, Molly Thompson emphasizes the alienating effects of what she names “excess of belonging,” which renders the “multicultural world of the novel” to be an “anxious setting” (137). She rightly concludes in this regard that White Teethis a “critique of multiculturalism” by “interrogating the effects of assimilation and syncretism, rather than depicting a utopian, integrated society” (137). Following her lead, I want to offer a more nuanced reading of the novel on the assumption that it highlights the crucial role of desire in the multiethnic subject as it is always in the process of being made, not so much existing in a completed form. My arguments from this perspective will proceed in two parts. The first will focus on what implications the crossracial solidarity of Archie and Samad may have, the second on the problematic formations of younger generation’s multiethnic subjectivity.
1Thompson (2005), Dawson (2007), and Jakubiak (2008) offer an alternative perspective from which to critically examine the discursive workings of hybridity and multiculturalism in White Teeth. As to the collusion between liberalism and racial exploitation, Melamed offers an insightful discussion, expounding the recent development of neoliberal multiculturalism. For other important critiques of liberal multiculturalism, one may reference ?i?ek(1997) and Brown (2006). 22Race, one of the missing denominators, is intriguingly encoded on the stylized facial features of the author in the way they appear exotic but attuned to Caucasian standards of beauty.
Alsana’s complaint here illumines two related points: first, Archie’s Jamaican immigrant wife Clara
isa black while as a Bengali immigrant she herself is not; second, irrespective of what kind of people they are, money will be a matter of life and death to a person like her. The entire narrative of White Teethtends toward a modification of this view. It comically and gently exhorts us to revise the clear-cut binary between whites and blacks, forming multiple ethnic relations among the characters. More subtly, the novel implies that desire, love, friendship, and other emotional fulfillments are, in the last instance, essential needs for Samad and Alsana rather than material goods.
In this light, although the novel posits Archie Jones as its main axis in narration, we may focus on Samad Iqbal, reading from the perspective of his long, painful quest of ‘home’ and belonging. When Samad claims that immigrants like him “belong nowhere,” trapped in a “place where [they] are never welcomed, just tolerated,” he suggests that emotional and affective dimensions have become far more prominent in the interracial dynamics of the present day than in the earlier decades (336). Certainly, it is not that political, economic, cultural disenfranchisement of non-white immigrants has lapsed in importance. Samad himself makes a good example in this matter; though an intellectual with a college degree, he works as a waiter at an Indian restaurant, his wife working on a sewing machine to pay the mortgage money that they need, making the “momentous move from a wrong side of Whitechapel to the wrong side of Willesden” (46). Nonetheless, Samad’s dejection does not really originate in his financial state. Its deeper, rather existential ground becomes clearer in the penultimate scene in which he confronts Hortense to stop her and other Jehovah’s Witness ladies from disturbing Marcus’s presentation of the FutureMouse project. He comes to an intuitive understanding of the profound ‘need’ reflected in their act of protest, as he feels: “[h]e knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land— horrible, persistent—the thirst that lasts your whole life” (439). Samad’s “thirst” in this passage demonstrates that his life-long friendship with Archie is not sufficient to satisfy his emotional and spiritual need. The limit of their relationship is further accentuated, though in an overtly comical, theatrical mode, when the secret that has sustained their friendship gets divulged by the presence of Dr. Perret, the Nazi collaborator, whom Archie was to shoot to death, but saved in the end, lying to Samad.
Despite the limitations, however, I would argue that Samad and Archie’s friendship amounts to a subversion of white supremacy at least on the inter-subjective plane. This is to say that as individuals Samad and Archie may not be free from racial hierarchy; yet their solidarity produces radically egalitarian possibilities between them. Smith creates such an intersubjective space by recasting Forster’s Fielding and Aziz in postcolonial Britain. The following narratorial comment on the burgeoning friendship between Archie and Samad as sole survivors of their unit during the last days of the Second World War implies the intertextual dimension of a crossracial, homosocial desire3:
Unaware yet that they will be each other’s life-long pal in England, their friendship begins with the “physical proximity” that is expected to terminate in a near future. The wry irony of the passage, of course, is the omniscient narrator’s view that despite temporary exceptions, Englishmen will remain within the pales of their life in relationship, hardly moving beyond their race and class.
Not Archie but Dickinson-Smith, the Captain of their unit, however, is drawn to Samad for his exotic good looks. The narrator underlines that the Captain’s ancestors represent quintessentially imperial Englishness while “this Dickinson-Smith” had a “different kind of lust for exotic ground,” explaining to us his interracial and homosexual desire (77). Archie embodies another type of erratic Englishness as a lower-class, dull, but harmless and vaguely unprejudiced man. It is worth remembering in this regard that Englishness is always already predicated on upperclass supremacy as much as on the assumed superiority of the English. In many respects, Archie as a character is meant to disrupt the parameters of Englishness to the point that he ceases to be white Englishman at least on the narrative’s symbolic plane. In stark contrast with the stereotyped image of the stern, determined Englishman, he flips a coin whenever he has to make an important decision. His interracial marriage and Irie’s biracial identity further betoken Archie’s eccentric/ex-centric Englishness. Smith also portrays him to be surprisingly blind to the omnipresent aversion toward non-white people. This blindness makes him accept Samad as his best friend and marry Clara without much trouble in his mind; certainly, his is not the kind of educated open-mindedness that Poppy Jones- Burt and the Chalfens practice but a certain innate goodness of soul. This may indicate that Archie’s personality tends to function as a rather easy vantage point from which Smith can build up the characters’ interracial friendship.
More importantly, however, Archie’s lower social status is an indispensable condition for his more or less egalitarian relationship with Samad. In terms of interpersonal power dynamics, Samad is rather above Archie; the latter respects him as his superior in intellect, education, and even familial heritage. Archie abbreviates Samad into Sam, thereby Anglicizing him at face value; yet he in fact considers the man as his mentor. Moreover, Samad’s handsome physique forms a meaningful contrast with Archie’s flabby, featureless, pinkish body. To people close to them, it even appears that Samad sometimes bullies Archie.4 Whereas Archie has no family history to be proud of, he willingly takes the role of a keen listener to Samad’s obsessive ravings about his great, great grandfather Mangal Pande, whose role in the Indian Uprising of 1857 is seriously misrepresented, to his mind, in the official history. We may say that Archie’s friendship with Samad, in this way, suggests possibilities of interracial solidarity between working-class whites and non-white immigrants. As to the liberal, upper-class characters, they tend either to assimilate the other (in case of Marcus and Magid) or to take pleasure in the other’s exotic sexual appeal (in case of Poppy Jones/Samad, Joyce/Millat).
As to the erotic undercurrent repressed in the friendship, it is not meant to say that Archie and Samad are in fact closet homosexuals. Rather, their
latentlyhomoerotic bonding helps us reach a deeper understanding of how their relationship affects their subjectivity. In a sense, Samad and Archie belong to each other to the extent that their marriage functions as a screen of heterosexual normalcy. Seen from this angle, it is not strange that Archie’s post-marital relationship with Clara occupies minimal pages in the narrative even though it is not as much vitiated as that of Samad and Alsana, whose domestic life is constantly hampered by the first’s patriarchal beliefs and the latter’s egoism and resentment.
By the same token, we may see Samad’s affair with Poppy Burt-Jones as an act of unconscious makeup for the friendship with Archie that lacks manifest sexual fulfillment.5 Samad’s displaced desire bursts out when he falls in love with Poppy, his sons’ music teacher. Yet it soon fizzles away overtly because of his sense of guilt, but more significantly because Poppy is not the kind of person with whom Samad may form a fundamentally egalitarian relationship. Poppy’s liberal openness toward “other” cultures initially puts her in opposition to the people with explicit racial prejudices. A vivid example is the episode regarding an old man named J. P. Hamilton. Irie and the twin visit him to deliver some presents as part of a school assignment, but owing to his deeply engrained prejudices against people of color in general, he takes them to be beggars, and after he is corrected, tells them a story that he was able to identify black men in Congo in complete darkness due to their white teeth.6 As the narrator comments on him as “a man from a different class, a different era” (141), Poppy’s multiculturalist stance is indeed a prevailing position rather than Hamilton’s stubborn yet outdated belief in white supremacy.7 Simultaneously, however, Smith makes it clear that Poppy’s “respect” for ethnic difference is located in the same discursive structure with Hamilton’s downright ignoring of the racial other in that it still impinges on the binary of us and them. In a word, her liberal belief in multiethnic society is demarcated by the persistent mechanism of othering and recognition of the other on the grounds of their racial/ethnic differences.
In contrast with the limitations of Samad’s relationship with Poppy, O’Connell’s Pool Room offers him an indispensable route of his yearning for genuine belonging. The place is Irish in name but owned by an Arab émigré. Samad and Archie haunt the pub, hanging around with Micky-Abdul the proprietor and other life-long clients. Although it caters to people from varied places on earth such as the Middle-East, the Carribean, and Bangladeshi, the place is, in a sense, extremely exclusive; new-comers cannot easily blend in with the old customers. In addition, its male-only policy signals that the pub builds up and solidifies homosocial bonding across racial, ethnic divides in accordance with its implicit, but persistent cultural codes. Smith implies, however, that the pub is destined to undergo significant changes. With Magid’s appearance in the place, the law as to the set menu is broken; he insists to have a hamburger with bacon to his father’s chagrin, and despite his protest Micky- Abdul decides to serve it by getting the bacon from a nearby grocery. Among other reasons, Micky-Abdul becomes fascinated by the upperclass Englishness Magid enacts body and soul. He claims that he feels honoured by Magid’s visit, which further indicates that O’Connell’s is fundamentally a working-class space of homosocial solidarity beneath its multiethnic surface. Its staunch maleness is also broken at the end of the novel; the narrator presents Jones and Iqbal couples dining and gambling at O’Connell’s as it has lifted its ban of female customers.
Those modifications in O’Connell’s signify that the first-generation male immigrants’ way of addressing physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of multiethnic Britain have not been viable to their female counterparts and descendants. On the one hand, Alsana and Clara fail to form a communal mode of living
betweenthem in contrast with Samad and Archie in the sense that their relationship is contingent on their husbands’ friendship.8 On the other hand, Smith presents them to undergo a keen sense of existential fear that someday in a near future their genes shall be extinct as intermarriages with whites drastically increase. In comparison with such fundamental fear of “dissolution” on the part of immigrants, the narrator notes that English nationalist fear of racial contamination is trifling (272). Smith, nonetheless, does not elaborate on the subtle, deep-seated fear of extinction in the minds of Alsana and Clara, primarily because she concentrates more on the male characters than on the female as far as the first generation is concerned. In case of the younger generation, she delves into characters of both sexes more or less evenly by focalizing Irie and Millat and showing the complex effects of gender, class, and ethnic background in the process of multiethnic subject-making.
3I am here drawing on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls male homosocial desire. Locating it in the continuum of manifest homosexuality and non-sexual male bonding, Sedgwick adapts René Girard’s notion of triangular desire to reveal the workings of the repressed and sublimated erotic foundation of male homosociality. 4Neena points this out during the bus trip to the FutureMouse conference (424). 5It cannot be a sheer coincidence that the second part of the hyphenated family name is that of Archie. 6As critics have accentuated, tooth has multiple symbolic meanings in the novel, not to mention of its title. Thompson clarifies some of the subtle ways Smith touches upon the stereotypical notions of Blackness regarding tooth in such scenes as the one about Mr. Hamilton. For instance, she notes the ironical reversal that Mr. Hero, Archie’s white boss, possesses a perfectly white row of teeth, which a person like Mr. Hamilton will believe only blacks have, yet turns out to be owing to expensive dentistry, while Clara the black girl loses her upper set of teeth and many years later her daughter tricks on her prosthetic one. See Thompson 124-25. 7Smith critiques the facileness of liberal minded characters in many episodes of the novel. In case of Poppy, she all too easily assumes that Millat’s favorite music will be traditional Pakistani only to find that the child is deeply into rock n’ roll in fact. Regarding this, Dawson persuasively notes that Smith targets “more subtle bias of bourgeois white Britons” rather than the “explicit racism” of characters like J. P. Hamilton (166). 8Along with this imbalance, we may note that Smith posits stereotypical dimensions of the Black female figure on older female characters such as Hortense (Walters 133). It also demands our attention that Clara and Alsana sometimes “receive sexist or patronizing comments from their husbands” (Jakubiak 204).
Most critics of this novel have interpreted Irie’s child as a symbolic figure for the vision of the future in which irretrievable and complete fusion of racial, ethnic, and cultural differences shall take place.9 The narrator reinforces this reading by commenting that “Irie’s child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty” (437). Irie is said to look forward to “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 tortuous and they’re just buried too damn deep” (437).
Despite Irie’s wish, the single most important truth that emerges from the narrative of
White Teethis that roots domatter.10 The novel exemplifies that “roots” are crucial in understanding aspects of a person and his/her relationship with others. In a parallel way that it evokes the deepreaching imperial masculinity of Captain Dickinson-Smith’s family, it draws our attention to Joyce Chalfen’s female ancestors who roved the wild corners of the world as undaunted adventuresses. The narrator underlines that Joyce was “cut of the same cloth as the frontier ladies” (290), as we see her persistently demanding an answer to her politically incorrect, overtly rude question to the lesbian couple, Neena and Maxine. The apparently trifling episode regarding the Chalfens’ deep-rooted ethnocentrism and racial prejudices indeed further illumines the enormous but subtle legacy of the past on the mentality of those who believe in liberal ideas. Irie is the one who articulates how much frustration one may undergo, weighed down under the burden of history. During their bus trip to the FutureMouse convention, she bursts out her anger with the overwhelming presence of the past in immigrants’ life. Her enraged accusation is caused by embarrassment and shame she feels when the Jones and the Iqbals quarrel on the bus, disregarding other passengers. More importantly, Irie reveals a certain desire or wish to be rid of “everybody’s old historical shit” that lies “all over the place” and live as peacefully and simply in the present as she assumes other people, presumably white English, do (426). This resonates with the above-quoted wish to live in a world where roots no longer matter.
There are at least two important reasons to attend to this desire of getting off the burden of the past. First, Irie is misguided in assuming that history is what one can easily dump. In addition, she does not see that it is the power and privilege of “other families” (the white, middle-class English) that allow them to get rid of the burden of history (426). To Samad, a handicapped waiter at an Indian restaurant catering to the English, his great, great-grandfather means the unflinching spirit of rebellion; what makes him survive in the present despite his shame and frustration is indeed his neurotic obsession with the past. In this regard, one needs to see his desperate pursuit of alternative records as to Pande’s act that he believes successfully triggered the Uprising of 1857 as an attempt to rewrite the history from the perspective of the defeated. The day he finds the long-wanted documents through the help of his nephew at Oxford becomes a climactic moment of his life. Further, and perhaps this is what angers Irie most, Samad’s obsession reveals a certain pathological dimension of psyche that may beset any rootless immigrant in a strange land. He writes his sir name Iqbal on the pavement under a bench on Trafalgar Square with his bleeding thumb, the top cut off by a waiter at the Indian restaurant he works. He tells this to his sons, regretting that he acted in the same way the Englishmen who “named streets in Kerala” against Allah’s teaching (418-19). The narrator presents this episode in the penultimate chapter when Millat, on his way to the FutureMouse convention, goes to the bench on Trafalgar Square to see the name. Just as he felt contempt when he first heard the story from his father, Millat again feels that his father is nothing but a pathetic loser. To him, Samad is “a faulty, broken, stupid, one-handed waiter of a man who had spent eighteen years in a strange land and made no more mark than this” (419). At issue here, again, is the second generation’s discontent as to the past of their family. Millat’s dejected recognition of the “long history of us and them” (419) forms a parallel with Irie’s rage against “the old historical shit.” At the same time, the latter resonates with the discourses of liberal multiculturalism that exhort immigrants to be free from their past and to happily immerse themselves in the melting pot. By contrast, the first has a distinct bearing on the fundamentalist simplifying and falsification of history, beset by the absolute divide of us and them, on the one hand, and the false, puerile endorsement of the stronger and the triumphant, on the other.
In this way,
White Teethsuggests that history is central in figuring out the pitfalls of the second generation characters when they cannot help becoming a multiethnic subject. The moment when the narrator makes this clearest is the little ending section of narratorial comments in Chapter Seventeen in which Irie makes love with Millat and Magid consecutively and the twins at last meet only to argue over Marcus’ genetic project and Magid’s collaboration with the geneticist. Drawing on the irreconcilable positions of the twin, the narrator begins her comments with the “legendary resourcefulness” and “footloosity” of immigrants to suggest that they are not applicable to the twin. Whereas immigrants usually set upon another way when their road leads to a dead end, she mentions, Magid and Millat cannot do so, weaving their way through the “Happy Multicultural Land”; rather, they were “unable to waver from their course or in any way change their separate, dangerous trajectories” (384). The narrator goes on to liken the twin to “two of Zeno’s headfuck arrows” in that they are “running at a standstill,” “occupying a space equal to themselves” and even “equal to Mangal Pande’s” and to “Samad Iqbal’s,” “trapped in the temporal instant” (384). From this point, the narrator shifts to a meditative mode, interpreting Zeno’s paradox in light of the philosopher’s denial of multiplicity as illusion. She then links this interpretation with her comment on the persistence of history that hampers the reality of multiplicity:
The seminal insight of this passage is that immigrants cannot and should not escape their history. The narrator here makes it clear that she turns the Zeno’s paradox into the past constantly remaining in the present, namely, the “temporal instant” from the perspective of immigrants’ life.
In case of Irie, history surfaces in the present, besetting her life, mostly in terms of body, desire, and sexuality. As I mentioned earlier, the ways it affects her life indicate the pitfalls and possibilities of her multiethnic subjectivity, as is the case with Millat. To begin with Irie, I want to highlight a significant parallel between her and her great-grandmother Ambroisa. The latter undergoes two cases of sexual exploitation from Englishmen. Charlie Durham romanticizes his relationship with Ambroisa while that of Glenard is unquestionably an attempt of rape, which is interrupted by the break of Ambroisa’s water and the outbreak of the Jamaican earthquake of 1907. Hortense Bowden is born at this moment, afterwards proselytized to be the Jehovah’s Witness Church by a missionary under whose guardianship Durham charged Ambroisa when he had to leave the island.
Putting Irie in juxtaposition with Ambroisa, we may see that her act of having a sex with the twin has the meaning of challenging the history, intervening in the past that persists in the present. More than anything, it is for her to regain the agency of whom to choose to love and of deciding whether to stay with or to leave in matters of sexual relationship. In a similar way that Ambroisa’s body is exploited by an Englishman, it is important to note that her mind and soul belong to any Englishman or woman determined to “educate” her. Seen from this angle, the chapter title “Irie’s Miseducation” is significant enough, inviting us to link what Irie undergoes in today’s Britain as a multiethnic subject to what her great-grandmother went through almost a century ago. Smith reinforces the connection by making the founder of the school Irie attends the same Sir Glenard who established it initially as a cigarette workshop for the specious reason that there on the English soil he could make some transported Jamaicans learn English work ethic.
Alongside the “root canals” of characters, those of Hortense Bowden turn out to be essential in figuring out the multiethnic subjectivity of Irie as a product of complex histories of colonialism. In exploring them, Smith foregrounds the issue of education. The extent to which the education conditions the maternal lineage of the Bowdens becomes clearer when Hortense protests that she’s sick of getting educated and preached although she has been a devout follower of the Jehova’s Witness for her entire life. Hortense asserts that “the Witness church is where [her] roots are,” going on to tell Irie what she really wants to get from her church work:
This passage betokens the intriguing ways Hortense reconfigures a colonizing discourse of the fanatic version of Christian salvation to her own ends. Certainly, her desire to empower herself by making her “own laws” is impressive enough, while her impassioned speech lacks a recognition of the religion’s deep collusion with colonial rule and racial politics. By mentioning her mother, however, the above speech reminds one of more sinister instance of “English education” when it is to “teach you and steal from you at the same time” (295).
Irie’s “education” in contemporary multiethnic Britain takes a far more complicated shape, and when she encounters the Chalfens, its latent dynamics intriguingly emerge to the surface. The moment she meets the Chalfens, she finds herself falling in love with them, and realizes what her own family seriously lacks. In this subtle way, she comes to re-live the history of subjection that Ambroisa, Hortense, and even Clara partly underwent the moment she becomes fascinated by the Chalfens. The terms she employs in explaining her embarrassment and the instant fascination she experiences with them are worth noting. At first, it is a matter of class difference, as she feels that “she’[s] never been so close to this strange and beautiful thing,
the middle class” (267). Further, it is an issue of cultural difference as she feels “like the prude who walks through a nudist beach, examining the sand” (276). This cultural analogy is followed by another that involves “Columbus meeting the exposed Arawak,” not knowing where to look (267). Interestingly, Irie finds an analogy between herself and Columbus on the threshold of the “new” world, thus making the “white” middle-class Chalfens appear exotic like the “exposed Arawak.” The sly reversal here actually suggests a wider narrative strategy of White Teeth, namely that of reversing the center and the margin in terms of Characters’ race and ethnicity. The Chalfens appear in the narrative belatedly, mostly in regard with the younger characters; their family histories, though their genealogy is closely captured and preserved, are not narrativized, which contrasts with the ways Smith digs into those of the Iqbals and the Bowdens.
More importantly, the Chalfens appear as an object of transgressive desire to Irie. Her desire to “merge” with the Chalfens turns out to be a wish to appropriate their “Englishness” (273). Irie knows that they are immigrants in their own ways; nonetheless, she believes that their mode of being makes them “more English than the English” (273). In doing so, she assumes a certain “purity” of their Englishness, which forms a contrast with the messy heterogeneity that conditions her, depriving her of her national belonging to England. Smith later reveals that the “purity” of what Irie figures as Chalfenishness does not really bear on the family’s genealogy; it rather betokens their will to a complete management of their mode of living by precluding any unexpected, unwanted elements. Marcus’ genetic engineering ultimately impinges on such a will to an absolute control of life under the guise of benevolent humanitarian use of technology.
Further, Irie’s desire to “merge” with the Chalfens refers to a certain form of libidinal energies among which sexual desire is one prominent instance. Far more strongly than Irie, yet much less self-consciously, Magid embodies the desire to completely merge with the Chalfens in his adoption of their ideas and ways of living, body and soul. He is sent to Bangladeshi by Samad in his desperate attempt to keep at least one of his sons from the corrupting English culture. Ironically enough, Magid returns to London grown up more English than the English, mentored by a famed Anglo-Indian writer who is a staunch upholder of Western values. His twin brother Millat, by contrast, wants to throw away the uniform of Englishness imposed on him. Suffering from the sense of futility and the rootlessness of his existence, he joins the fundamentalist Islamic group KEVIN (Keepers of Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), and tries to take a stance of anti-Western, extremist Muslim.11 Smith, however, reveals that Millat cannot rely on such a stance to overcome the fundamental divide in his subjectivity for he is nothing but a product of Western cultures and value systems. In several moments of the narrative, Smith underscores that American popular culture— Hollywood action films and the pop music scene among others—is the primary producer of who Millat is.
In this way, Millat mirrors his father’s deeply split soul although Samad himself does not see this truth, believing that he can regain a certain wholeness of existence through his religion. The father and the son want to dogmatically follow the rules of Islam, the first in reaction to his aberrations (drug addiction and the affair with Poppy) and the second in his puerile spirit of rebellion as a member of KEVIN. What puts them opposed to the religion, however, also comprises their subjectivity; the overlapping between Samad and Millat becomes clearer with regard to Dr. Perret. Both indulge in a sense of familial honor and, in a drugged condition, try to get rid of the ex-Nazi collaborator; both end up failing because of Archie, with the same result of his getting a bullet on his leg. The crucial difference between them lies in the alternative home they seek. To Millat, KEVIN and its members cannot be an alternative home whereas O’Connell’s more or less securely anchors Samad’s damaged body and vulnerable soul. Despite the shift of an overtly ethnocentric society into a tolerant, multicultural one, the later generation turns out to be fraught with the legacies of colonialism in far more complicated and disorienting ways.
Smith thus implies that the issue of belonging has become far more problematic in younger generations in spite of the celebratory and complacent discourses of liberal multiculturalism. It is not merely due to the still pervading realities of racism. As the episode regarding Hamilton and the comments on anti-immigrant violence and hate crimes convincingly attest,
White Teethdoes not overlook the realities of racial discrimination that shadow the prospects of Irie and the Iqbal twin. More importantly, it reveals what lies beneath the cheerful interpellation of the younger generation into the multiethnic subject: conflicting desires and demands that hamper their attempt to successfully negotiate so as to establish a viable sense of the self and belonging.
9For instance, see Bentley although he qualifies his view by suggesting that there exist “more skeptical” prospects about the new model of “multicultural Englishness” and its possibilities (500). 10Of course, I am not the first to emphasize the importance of history in White Teeth. See Thompson and Dalleo. 11Mirze offers an adept analysis of the conflict between Muslim identity and national belonging in the novel.
Indeed, the entire narrative of
White Teethis replete with mini-stories of sexual attraction and longing; from the earlier pages of the novel where Archie meets Clara, to the last section where Irie desires Millat, Josh longs for Irie first and then covets Joely the extreme animal rights activist. In this regard, we may say that the homoerotic potential in Samad and Archie’s friendship lies in the innermost core of the narrative. This thematic predominance of intimacy and desire certainly contributes to the massive commercial success of White Teeth, facilitating a depoliticized reading. Yet at the same time, it explains not only the powerful narrative energy of the novel but also some of the radical implications of the narrative in embodying the multiethnic subject. Of course, the novel as a genre is grounded on love in varied forms. In rehashing the old theme, White Teethrelates it to the ethnic minorities’ desire and need to belong. On the manifest level, it is true that sexual longing, desire, and intimacy take the clichéd forms such as romantic falling-in-love, temporary extramarital affair, unrequited adolescent love, etc. in the novel.
As I have accentuated so far, however, sexual desire and corollary affective dimensions of the narrative have the potential to function as a powerful equalizer on its latent level in the sense that characters, through their desire, tend to leap over the barriers of racial, ethnic, class differences so that they may belong to each other as equals. To clarify, the multiethnic subject often results from interracial marriage or crossracial intimacy; yet, at the same time, it is the prominent discursive construct of a multiculturalist society grounded on racial liberalism. Everyone who lives in a multiculturalist metropolis cannot help becoming a multiethnic subject in the latter sense. The same discursive premise, however, may produce those individuals who can simultaneously harbor multiple racial/ethnic parameters of identity within themselves and therefore dismantle the binary of self and racial/ethnic other.
We may call this as emancipatory dimension of multiethnic subjectivity. It differs from the one endorsed and constructed by discourses of liberal multiculturalism, which presupposes coexistence of disparate racial/ethnic identities, yet with the political, economic, and cultural supremacy of a dominant group left intact. By contrast,
White Teethbetokens possibilities of multiethnic subjectivity subversive to white, middleclass dominance, without overlooking its varied pitfalls. It explores interracial dynamics, reaching deeper strata of today’s British cultural formation, and revealing repressed fear, subtle discontent, and interracial conflicts as inevitable undersides of the multiculturalist society that have emerged under the banner of racial, ethnic mixing, tolerance, and recognition of “cultural” differences. In this way, the novel questions the discourses of multiculturalism, playfully yet pungently touching upon the dark, disturbing dimensions of a multicultural society.