Brushing Up on Multiculturalism

White Teeth. By Zadie Smith. 448 pp. Random House, 2000. $24.95.

As we all know, multiculturalism is big business. Every ad with a cast of more than one is now what we used to call a Benetton ad, with happy faces of varying skin tones, eye colors, and hair consistencies attesting to the universal appeal of Coke, McDonald's, or Dow Chemical. Coming out of England in particular, the tourist industry as well as various gin manufacturers -- for a time icons of the old colonial power -- have adopted familiar sets of multicultural imagery that work to replace a stuffy, history-steeped, and exclusively Anglo national identity with one that is hip, young, and multicolored. The Tony Blair-endorsed "Cool Britannia" tourist campaign of the 1990's turned the new hybrid nation into a product for global consumption. Meanwhile, Tanqueray and Beefeater compete in the arena of multiculti marketing: last year Tanqueray filled magazines with photos of young models of color looking fresh and fabulous in front of old London establishments like Buckingham Palace; their rival soon countered with an even more heavy-handedly revisionist series featuring a similarly diverse group of beautiful people dressed up as Beefeaters. Both series deliberately and humorously disrupt their audience's held notion of Englishness, hoping thus to sell old wine with new bodies. In such ads, African, Caribbean, and Asian immigrants appear not as marginalized labor groups but rather as the central selling point of a reinvented nation -- now an especially ironic turn given the recent attacks on Asians in Oldham and Leeds.

The marketing of a hybrid England began in the arts (its birth could be dated at 1985 and the release of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette, which was almost as popular Stateside as gin and tonics), and makes its way back to the literary world with Zadie Smith's White Teeth. One year after its initial publication, with the paperback version now on prominent display, there is no way to read Smith's lively, engaging London novel without taking into account its phenomenal success. A month on the bestseller list brought the obligatory Time and Newsweek profiles, with the attractive author pitched as the new -- and, at 24, even younger, Arundhati Roy. Smith's novel could not have been better-timed: White Teeth presents a kind of literary Benetton -- or Beefeater -- ad. Her characters include Brits of Bengali, Jamaican, Polish, German, Saudi Arabian, Barbadan, and plain old English descent; Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and secular Jews; closeted gay men and out lesbians; adolescents, mid-lifers, and octogenarians who may be fat or skinny, drop-dead gorgeous or genetically cheated. Two families provide the main storyline. The novel opens in 1974 with Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, best friends who served together in World War II, recently or immanently wed to much younger women. Samad's fiesty wife Alsana enters the narrative through an arranged marriage settled long before her birth, while Archie meets the stunning though toothless Anglo-Jamaican Clara through a chance encounter at an urban commune six weeks before they marry. In their first days together, as Smith shows us through a wartime flashback, the two had already discovered the relativism of culture:

"A young lady has already been picked out for me. A Miss Begum...Unfortunately the Begum family do not yet have a female child of my generation."

"You mean your wife's not bloody born yet?"

"What of it?" asked Samad, pulling a cigarette from Archie's top pocket.

"Where I come from," said Archie, "a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her."

"Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean," said Samad tersely, "that it is a good idea."

The friendship continues; while tracking the Jones and Iqbal clans back and forth in time through a few generations, Smith introduces dozens of side characters who are, astonishingly, perhaps just as successful as the main players -- and who, together, form a unified picture of a diversified nation. During the war, we meet Samad and Archie's aristocratic "poncy-captain-queer-boy" Thomas Dickinson-Smith, about to lose his life as per absurd hereditary duty: "Killed by the Hun, the Wogs, the Chinks, the Kaffirs, the Frogs, the Scots, the Spics, the Zulus, the Indians (South, East, and Red), and accidentally mistaken for a darting okapi by a Swede on a big-game hunt in Nairobi, traditionally the Dickinson-Smiths were insatiable in their desire to see Dickinson-Smith blood spilled on foreign soil." Fifty years and 300 pages later, as Samad's son Millat explores newly invented versions of reactionary fundamentalism, we meet Millat's spiritual leader Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah, "born Monty Clyde Benjamin in Barbados," who after his conversion "came to England, locked himself in his aunt's Birmingham garage and spent five more years there, with only the Qur'an and the fascicles of Endless Bliss for company. He took his food in through the cat door, deposited his shit and piss in a Coronation biscuit tin and passed it back out the same way, and did a thorough routine of push-ups and sit-ups to prevent muscular atrophy," ultimately succeeding "in converting his aunt Carlene through the cat door, using nothing else but the pure truth as it was delivered by the final prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!)." Between the major and the minor characters, but even more so the latter, we view an ironic but celebratory rainbow of the new England.

But Smith does far more than simply pander to a taste for multiculturalism. White Teeth offers a meditation on the dynamics of fundamentalism and other forms of historiography. The novel shares a signal obsession with the best British fiction of the last few decades, including Graham Swift's Waterland, Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum: it is essentially about the kinds of stories people tell about themselves, and what impact those narratives of personal history have on the present. For most of the central characters, Smith digresses from her linear narrative to provide a "root canal," or an account of the primal event, one or two or even three generations back, that would later determine that individual's experience. Once having illustrated the messy work of history, Smith attempts to clean the mess by pulling all her plotlines into a single room. Lives whose roots she has already located in 1857 Bengal, 1907 Jamaica, or 1945 Hungary, all converge into a single conference pavilion for the pseudo-millennial finale. Despite the author's forcible intervention, though, we know that the stories will implode and scatter back out; for Smith has created characters too vibrant and independent to rein back in at the end.

As in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, fundamentalism and hybridity are presented, throughout, as the two great warring options for identity. Fundamentalist mindsets yearn for ideological and often biological purity, inventing such constructs when necessary. We are given glimmerings of the dangerous fictions against which hybridity is so often placed; but those fictions are fairly quickly abandoned, at least by the author. Smith allows her characters to flirt intermittently with the idea of a pure or originary identity but, as narrator, dismisses it entirely. Alsana predicts trouble for Archie and Clara's then unborn "blacky-white" children, but it is her own genetically 'pure' twin sons who take on far more absurd hybrid identities -- one a gangsta-style neo-Muslim, and the other a pukka Macauleyite rationalist. Importantly and responsibly, Smith presents modern religious fundamentalism as itself a hybrid form, as well as a highly historically determined development. Here, she describes Millat's "Raggastani" crew in 1989, on their way to burning copies of the (unnamed) Satanic Verses: "Raggastanis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujurati, and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; kung fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Black Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy); but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani." Above all else, this is a late-capitalist phenomenon: "everything, everything, everything was Nike™ wherever the five of them went the impression they left behind was of one gigantic swoosh, one huge mark of corporate approval."

A product of marketing herself, Smith mocks its hold on our imagination. To contextualize her success is certainly not to hold it against the author or her excellent novel. Even if it valorizes the Cool Britannia, its sharp and funny portraits, scenes, and observations make it more than worth reading.

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