A Reflection on Zadie Smith, 15 Years in the Making

[Nota Bene: What I have attempted below is most likely better left to academics and others better suited to pontificate upon Zadie Smith and White Teeth, her critically-acclaimed debut novel, but oh well, here goes…]

In celebration of Zadie Smith’s  visit to Lawrence—thanks to our lovely friends at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities—I was asked to write a piece about Zadie Smith.

Why me, you may ask? Fantastic question. Anyone who has mentioned Zadie Smith within earshot of me will most likely have been told (by me!) a well-worn, old story of writing a grad school paper on White Teeth and then accosting Ms. Smith with said paper at an author event in Kansas City.

They will also see me beam with pride as I say that she wrote me back and commented that some of my points were pretty good. (I still have that old, old email.) So, that’s why: because I freak out about White Teeth anytime anyone brings up Zadie Smith. With this prologue and the above nota bene out of the way, here’s why I think White Teeth is so important, perhaps now more than ever.

First, for those who have not read the book, here is some attempted enticement. Then 24-year-old Zadie Smith’s debut novel was released to great acclaim in January 2000, that cultural moment when we were all taking solace that Y2K didn’t collapse the grid. Yet it was still a giddy, hopeful, perhaps blindly optimistic time, right before our late-90s economic boom collapsed along with the World Trade Center.

Entertainment Weekly hailed her as the “It Lit Debutante.” Salman Rushdie declared the novel, “an astonishingly assured debut.” It was in the window of every bookstore. It was An Important Book!

White Teeth is the sweeping, epic multicultural story of three families—the Joneses, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens, (one “mixed” family, one Indian, one *very* white, respectively). The central storylines concentrate on the parents and children of these families, but also extend backwards in time to grandparents and even a great-great-grandparent(!), stretching from the then-current times (1990s) back to the 1850s and here and there through the 1970s and 1980s. The central metaphors of the book, teeth and horticulture, concentrate on “roots,” and Smith plumbs the depths of these roots exhaustively throughout the book.

So that’s the context, the basic gist of the book, and my attempted enticement. Are you still with me?

Here is a bold declaration. White Teeth demonstrates that fiction writing is perhaps the best situated medium there is to help us understand the complexities of all our intersectionalities as human beings.

Why? A novel allows an author and its reader (and perhaps a community of readers discussing the author’s book during and after reading it) to engage in an extended meditation on how human beings behave, how they interact with one another, and how they respond to the things that happen in the world that surrounds them.

So what? Characters interacting and reacting to their fictive world (generally based on our own real world) allow us to see examples of behavior and ways of being that help us understand a world beyond our own, and this helps expand our consciousness and even our capacity for compassion. Seeing characters in fiction move through multiple examples of ways of acting in the world help illustrate in our minds how the world operates and more importantly, ways in which it could operate.

I am being too abstract. Time for an example— okay, deal with it. Let me quote myself, from my 2001 grad school paper: “Smith, who comes from the neighborhood she writes about in White Teeth, makes a strong argument for the importance of integrated neighborhoods in the development of cross-racial relationships and friendships. While Archie retains some of his inherent racism, he forges a true friendship with Bangladeshi Samad and he marries a Jamaican.”

Don’t worry if you don’t know who Archie and Samad are, or what Archie’s Jamaican wife’s name is (it’s Clara). I quote my former grad student self because it seems that many of the things that divide us as a nation, as racial and ethnic groups, across class and gender, come from physical and psychological distance, from not having to deal with each other in any meaningful way.

Somehow, two completely, wildly different men forge a dear friendship. How? Why? Because they were in the army together, and then, after several years of never seeing or communicating with each other, they randomly move to the same neighborhood and forge a friendship over endless drinks together at the local pub. I’m simplifying here a bit, I know, but again, that drives home my point. In a great novel, the creation of a world doesn’t have to simplify—it can exist in its complexity; it can resist didacticism and encourage us to think about how and why things are and how they came (and/or come) to be.

I could go on and on (I did back in 2001), but let me close by saying that I personally thank Zadie Smith for writing a novel that gave me so much to chew on, and my amazing professor at the University of Wisconsin, the late great Dr. Nellie McKay, for teaching the black women’s literature class wherein I thought and wrote about White Teeth for several weeks.

Zadie Smith is a gift to our world. Do yourself a solid and read her work. 

-Brad Allen is the Executive Director of Lawrence Public Library.