Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Literary fiction, Realism
I picked up White Teeth on a whim. When I haven’t come across an author or the title and cover look interesting, I’ll find myself eager to explore. I had only ever come across her books on Instagram. I have rated it 3/5 for it builds well and then unravels too quickly. You spend so much time reading and getting to know all the characters and spaces, and you’re caught in a blur of action towards the end, grasping at meaning and the end of the story.
The novel left me thinking, in addition to feeling a little confused about the overall message. It’s something I’ll chew on for the next few weeks. For now, I’ll break it down into the following aspects as I saw them.
Our identities are formed over time, as a result of our interactions, or lack thereof, with spaces and people. In Samad and Archie’s case, they are limited to their historical experiences to even open up to effects of the world changing around them. Their children are a better example of how immigrants approach their foreign identities. They are caught in the crossfire of their parents’ history and their future in the spaces that hold their shared present. Each generation feels entitled to their experience as immigrants.
I enjoyed Smith’s keen observation and representation of foreign spaces through the eyes of natives and immigrants, creating a stark contrast. In a clash of cultures, behaviours, and mindsets, we are exposed to how immigrants can feel at home in their chosen land and still feel misplaced. A standout moment in the novel was when Smith narrates how the convention space is being set up by a focus group of immigrant workers and eventually ‘owned’ by British natives; it simply showcases how spaces are forever in a flux between neutral and polarised. Our ownership of a space is momentary in the world and immortal in the mind.
The immigrant experience is a delicate balance between ‘what we brought in from the homeland’ and ‘what we have adopted and adapted to in the foreign land’. The folks who watch us leave believe that we are starting afresh in a land far off, whereas it’s simply a continuation of the path we have all set out on. As we acclimate to the new environment, we evolve just like the second-generation immigrants in the novel and we tip the balance in the favour of home. This may not hold true for Samad, Archie and their wives. They are still rooted in their ancestral experiences and are forever evading foreign influences.
The catch however is the fact that we don’t notice how much we have changed till we meet our folks again or leave the foreign land. The balance vanishes. You have grown into the space that you have chosen, wherever it may be. A change of place and atmosphere can change you for the better or for worse, and it’s up to you to decide how you choose to process your experience.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who has ever moved homes and travelled beyond their city. It’s brings forth so many questions and the answers are entirely subjective.
If you’ve read White Teeth, let’s talk in the comments!