be interesting to see if the fastest growing branch of literary
studies in Britain over the past decade - post-colonialism
- decides that Zadie Smith belongs to its terra nova or not.
Out in the universities, where academics may happily use vocabularies
intelligible only to initiates, "post-colonialism"
is the heading for a large number of courses and accompanying
primers of dense literary theory. It is under this heading
that literature and ethnicity are invariably discussed, often
with a special critical terminology: "hybridity",
"subaltern", "the Other".
White Teeth is certainly about ethnic identity (or
confusion) and the latterday consequences of colonialism.
It is colonialism that has brought almost all the characters
to London, and they are sometimes conscious of their post-colonial
identities. Samad Iqbal, the waiter with higher aspirations,
is proud of his descent from Mangal Pande, executed by the
British in the first phases of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Hortense Bowden, Jamaican stalwart of the Lambeth Jehovah's
Witnesses, was fathered by an English officer, posted to the
West Indies, on his landlady's daughter.
ethnic and cultural identities of the characters are so various
that Smith seems to be taking and enjoying new liberties rather
than plotting the consequences of empire. Much of the book
is devoted to a Bangladeshi family and Smith (daughter of
a Jamaican mother and an English father) has no hesitation
about taking us into the inner world of its would-be patriarch,
musing on his failed attempts to pass on his culture. The
son he keeps in England turns into a "fully paid-up green
bow-tie- wearing" Muslim fundamentalist. The son he sends
back to Bangladesh to imbibe the wisdom of the old country
"comes out a pukka Englishman, white suited, silly wig
has allowed herself a certain imaginative freedom. "All
the mixing up" of cultures and races allows her to mix
customs and vocabularies at will. Parents lie awake at night
foreseeing their "unrecognisable great-grandchildren...
genotype hidden by phenotype". But the odd mixes go on.
They come alive in Smith's dialogue, where we hear the English
language comically accommodating every new pressure and habit.
way, this is characteristic of "post-colonialism"
as a type of literature: fiction and poetry in English written
by citizens of former colonies, or by British citizens who
are immigrants or the children of immigrants from those colonies.
The label has replaced "Commonwealth literature",
with its implication of grateful subjects creatively repaying
their debts to British civilisation.
Teeth is full of jokes about odd couplings of cultures.
Thus its cameos of what we might call "post-colonial
cuisine". Once, Archie told Samad what he fought for
in the war: "Democracy and Sunday dinners, and... promenades
and piers, and bangers and mash - and the things that are
ours". But eating becomes something much stranger in
modern England, the land, as Samad reflects, of "terrible
is the surreal anecdote about Australian cooking in Willesden.
"After a complaint of a terrible smell above Sister Mary's
Palm Readers on the high road", health officers found
"sixteen squatting Aussies who had dug a huge hole in
the floor and roasted a pig in there, apparently trying to
recreate the effect of a South Seas underground kiln".
You might indeed read it in your local paper.
differences, yet Irie, denizen of a multi-ethnic suburb, where
children are called Isaac Leung and Quang O'Rourke, is free
to moan: "Everyone's the same here". She wants to
take a year off before university so that she can go to "the
subcontinent and Africa (Malaria! Poverty! Tapeworm!)".
She wants "some experiences". Suburbia is just suburbia,
after all. Is this post-post-colonialism?
Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College,
London. This article was first published in The Guardian.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004