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The Paradox of Nationality in White Teeth
11.26.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

I stayed up all night on Sunday writing an essay for my Contemporary Novel class. The thing about not-sleeping in order to write is that you get diminishing returns in both quality and quantity. In a well-rested frame of mind I can write a lucid, logical and eloquent 2000 word essay in a few hours. But at 5:00am forming even the simplest sentence requires vast concentration. The longer I stayed up the longer it was going to take to complete the essay. It’s like that paradox where you can never walk all the way across a room because you first have to walk half the distance.

It took much greater effort to write this essay than it should have, so I’m going to get as much extra mileage out of it as I can by using it as my column this week. It’s about a book that I’ve already reviewed for Tangmonkey: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, so you can read my review if you want an idea of what the book is about.

Here’s my essay:

The Paradox of Nationality in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

The Britain of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is one of diversity and multiculturalism. What it means to be British, or any other nationality for that matter, is hazy and ill-defined. The novel explores possible criteria for defining nationality—official status, genetics, race, culture—but undercuts each of these criteria by demonstrating its insufficiencies. Smith offers two responses to this loss of national identity, one radically inclusive, the other radically exclusive, but undercuts each of these too. Ultimately, she espouses a view of nationhood that falls between the two approaches—one that recognizes the problems inherent in defining nationality without resorting to hopeless relativism.

When Archie marries Clara they must each state their nationality. Archie writes “English” and Clara writes “Jamaican”. And yet the seemingly clear-cut distinction is undercut by the very act itself. In signing the document Clara becomes a Jones and she also becomes British. The distinction is thus blurred even as it is made. The inadequacy of this distinction is further emphasized by the ease with which Clara’s nationality changes. The wedding ceremony itself is quick, simple and trivial. The passage begins: “This and little more constituted the ceremony” (50) before going on to describe the forms the bride and groom have to fill out.

The twins Millat and Magid demonstrate a further rejection of official status as definitive of nationality. We learn that Millat “stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden … He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin after all)” (219).

Smith offers genetics as an alternative for defining nationality. Irie is described as having “ledges genetically designed with another country in mind, another climate” (266). This could be seen as evidence that Irie’s genes distinguish her as Jamaican, but then her own Jamaican-born mother has “European proportions” (265).

The twins further challenge the validity of genetic factors as definitive of nationality. Magid and Millat have identical genes, but, as Samad puts it: “The one I send home comes out a pukka Englishman, white suited, silly wig lawyer. The one I keep here is fully paid-up green bow-tie-wearing fundamentalist terrorist” (407). Or as Marcus Chalfen, expert in genetics, points out: “Never in my life have I come across a couple of twins who prove more decidedly against genetic determinism” (367). Genetic make-up, then, is not sufficient for defining nationality.

Race is another possible distinguishing factor, but it too is unhelpful when it comes to defining nationality. When Joyce Chalfen first meets Irie and Millat she remarks that they look “exotic” and asks them where they are from. They reply that they are from Willesden (a part of London). When Joyce persists, Millat reveals that “originally” he is from Whitechapel (another part of London) (319). His answer is completely accurate, but, of course, it is not what Joyce had hoped for.

What Joyce really wants to know is where Millat and Irie’s ancestors are from, but this line of inquiry also proves unhelpful when used to define nationality: “the question is how far back do you want?” (83). Irie considers the Chalfens definitively and purely English and yet “it didn’t occur to her that the Chalfens were, after a fashion, immigrants too (third generation, by way of Germany and Poland…)” (328). Likewise, Archie knows that he is of “good honest English stock” (99), and yet he cannot trace his ancestry back beyond his own father.

The most versatile and all-encompassing factor Smith puts forward as definitive of nationality is that of culture: “To Samad … tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles,” but Samad is forced to qualify these assertions: “That didn’t mean he could live by them, abide by them or grow in the manner they demanded” (193). Music, views on sex, and food are all proposed as constitutive of culture, and therefore nationality, but none of these factors prove sufficient.

When Poppy Burt-Jones asks Millat what kind of music he listens to at home, expecting him to name some traditional Bengali music, he answers “Michael Jackson” (156). Then, when Samad visits Poppy after rehearsal, she says: “I just have so much admiration for the sense your people have of abstinence, or self-restraint’” (160), but this stereotype is immediately undercut as Samad falls into her arms. Similarly, Archie informs Clara that Samad and Alsana do not want traditional curry to eat: “They’re not those kind of Indians” (54).

More significantly, the constituents of culture are revealed to be arbitrary and conventional, and it is implied that cultural lines are drawn and redrawn at will using ever-changing criteria. Millat’s “raggastani” gang, for instance, is described as “a kind of cultural mongrel of … three categories, [and] their ethos was an equally hybrid thing” (231).

The society at Glenard Oak school further demonstrates this point. When Irie intrudes upon Joshua Chalfen’s game of “Goblins and Gorgons” (296), Joshua describes Irie’s relationship to nerdiness in terms of nationality:

She was a nerd-immigrant who had fled the land of the fat, facially challenged and disarmingly clever. She had scaled the mountains of Caldor, swum the River Leviathrax, and braved the chasm Duilwen, in the mad dash away from her true countrymen to another land. (297)

The passage implies that nerdiness is as important a cultural determinant as other factors, more commonly associated with nationality.

Likewise, there is often as much cultural difference between members of the older and younger generations as there is between members of two different nationalities. While Irie, Millat and Magid are culturally united by, for example, “the Jamaican accent that all kids, whatever their nationality, used to express scorn” (167), the gulf between the old and the young is portrayed as vast:

Now, how do the young prepare to meet the old? The same way the old prepare to meet the young: with a little condescension; with low expectation of the other’s rationality; with the knowledge that the other will find what they say hard to understand, that it will go beyond them… (162)

In the context of this chapter, when an old-age-pensioner says of the Jones and Iqbal children, “they should all go back to their own” (163), the comment suggests a categorization by age rather than race.

Differences in level of education are similarly depicted as culturally defining factors. Captain Durham teaches Ambrosia Bowden, “that her education had elevated her, that in her heart she was a lady, though her daily chores remained unchanged” (357). Durham later claims that because Ambrosia is an “educated Negress” she is “not like the others” (363). Thus her level of education is a more important cultural factor than the typical constituents of nationality.

Smith reveals cultural and national boundaries as conventional, arbitrary contrivances, rather than objective distinctions. Of all the characters in the novel Alsana understands this best. She challenges her husband to define a Bengali, rejecting the encyclopedia definition out of hand: “you go back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy-tale” (236). Her rejection of concrete distinctions is embodied in her choice of protest against Samad, after he sends Magid away to Bangladesh. Alsana refuses ever to give her husband a direct answer. Likewise, when Millat travels to Bradford to participate in a book-burning, Alsana responds by burning all of Millat’s possessions, declaring: “Either everything is sacred or nothing is” (237). In these ways she rejects distinctions.

Hortense Bowden and Ryan Topps represent the opposite extreme from Alsana. One of their main beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses is that, on Judgment Day, 144,000 of the faithful will be selected to ascend to heaven. Ryan Topps describes this process to Clara as “separating the sheep from the goats” (43). Their religion depends on the ability to make distinctions. Ambiguous situations are antithetical to their belief and this is illustrated in Hortense’s food preparation: everything is served either piping hot or freezing cold, never lukewarm. Also, Ryan’s favourite movie is Star Wars, because of the simple Good versus Evil dichotomy (509). Distinction and separation are their fundamental principles; their categories are clear and anything vague or unclassifiable is avoided. As a result, Hortense deliberately disregards weather forecasts and only pays for utilities on a day-by-day basis.

In this sense Hortense and Ryan are similar to Marcus and Magid. Through the FutureMouse, Marcus hopes to “eliminate the random” (341) and Magid dreams of a world with, “No second-guessing, no what-ifs, no might-have-beens. Just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form” (490). But such a world requires necessary and sufficient categorization and, as we have seen above, categories are often arbitrary. Such a world is only possible within closed, sterile, controlled environments.

The Chalfen family are one such environment, and they are bored: “Like clones of each other, their dinner table was an exercise in mirrored perfection, Chalfenism and all its principles reflecting itself … ad nauseum” (314). As a gardener, Joyce understands the necessity for cross-pollination, and this occurs in the Chalfen family with the arrival of Millat and Irie. Although their arrival causes chaos and strife, it is also exactly what the Chalfens need. Joyce is no longer bored, once Millat arrives, and Marcus is brought together with his protégé, Magid. It is only through this “extremely fortuitous” meeting that “for the first time in his life, Marcus was prepared to concede faults in himself … he had been too insular, perhaps, perhaps” (427).

Smith makes the analogy between the Chalfens and Britain as a nation clear:

This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It was only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course … Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. (327)

And indeed the narrator does not espouse Alsana’s view that no distinction can be made. She equates this view with Zeno’s paradox, in that both attempt to:

(a) first establish multiplicity, the Many, as an illusion, and
b) thus prove reality a seamless, flowing whole. A single, indivisible One.
But multiplicity is no illusion. Nor is the speed with which those-in-the-shimmering-melting-pot are dashing towards it. Paradoxes aside, they are running, just as Achilles was running. And they will lap those who are in denial just as surely as Achilles would have made that tortoise eat his dust. Yeah, Zeno had an angle. He wanted the One, but the world is Many. (466)

So Smith openly rejects a radically inclusive view, in which there are no real differences between people of different nationalities.

Irie Jones and her child are the happy medium between these two views. Irie is the one character who recognizes that nationhood is contrived and arbitrary, but who accepts it all the same, and celebrates its fictionality. When she smells frying plantain at Hortense’s house she “[fancies] it [sends] her back somewhere, somewhere quite fictional, for she’d never been there” (400). While recognizing that the Jamaica she imagines is ficitional, she accepts that fact and uses it to construct her identity, “because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into the language” (402).

Irie imagines her child in a similar way. She does not, and will never, know who the father is, and so she imagines the child as a fantastical creation: “A perfectly plotted thing with no real coordinates. A map to an imaginary fatherland” (516). And this is the view that the story promotes: a notion of nationhood as self-consciously contrived, but useful all the same.

White Teeth rejects the idea that there are necessary and sufficient criteria for defining nationality, and proposes two possible responses—Alsana’s inclusivism and the Chalfenist/Bowdenist exclusivism—before putting forward a third response: Irie’s. Irie represents the synthesis of the extreme views of the other characters, and we see hope for this new idea of nationhood in her child, who, on a beach in Jamaica at the end of the book “feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings” (541).

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