This essay is an attempt to critique the notion of hybridity that has so far facilitated a liberal multiculturalist reading of
Zadie Smith’s highly-acclaimed first novel
Despite the usefulness of hybridity for
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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,
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
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,