White Teeth (Smith)

White Teeth 
Zadie Smith, 2000
Knopf Doubleday
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375703867


Summary 
Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation.

A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”).

Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith.

Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 27, 1975
Where—Hampstead, England, UK
Education—B.A., Cambridge University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, and London, England


Early Life
Zadie Smith was born as Sadie Smith in the northwest London borough of Brent—a largely working-class area—to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and a British father, Harvey Smith. Her mother had grown up in Jamaica and emigrated to Britain in 1969. Zadie has a half-sister, a half-brother, and two younger brothers, one of whom is the rapper and stand-up comedian Doc Brown and the other is rapper Luc Skyz. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager.

As a child Smith was fond of tap dancing and as a teenager considered a musical theater career. When she was 14, she changed her name to "Zadie."

Education
Smith attended Cambridge University where she earned money as a jazz singer and, at first, wanted to become a journalist. Despite those earlier ambitions, literature emerged as her principal interest. While an undergrad, she published a number of short stories in a collection of new student writing called The Mays Anthology. These attracted the attention of a publisher, who offered her a contract for her first novel. Smith decided to contact a literary agent and was taken on by A.P. Watt.

Career
White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997—long before completion. The partial manuscript fueled an auction among different houses for the publishing rights, but it wasn't until her final year at Cambridge that she finished the novel. When published in 2000, White Teeth became an immediate bestseller, praised internationally and pocketing a number of awards. In 2002, Channel 4 adapted the novel for television.

In interviews Smith reported that the hype surrounding her first novel had caused her to suffer a short spell of writer's block. Nevertheless, her second novel, The Autograph Man, came out in 2002. It, too, achieved commercial success although the critical response was not as positive as it had been to White Teeth.

Following publication of The Autograph Man, Smith visited the United States as a 2002–2003 a Fellow at Harvard University. While there, she started work on a book of essays, some portions of which are included in a later essay collection titled Changing My Mind, published in 2009.

Her third novel, On Beauty came out in 2005. Set largely in and around Greater Boston, it attracted acclaim and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It won the 2006 Orange Prize.

Following a brief spell teaching fiction at Columbia University, Smith joined New York University as a tenured professor of fiction in 2010. That same year, The UK's Guardian newspaper asked Smith for her "10 rules for writing fiction." Among them, she offered up this:

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

During 2011, Smith served as the New Books editor at Harper's magazine, and in 2012, she published NW, her fourth novel, this one set in the Kilburn area of north-west London (the title refers to the area's postal code, NW6). NW was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Swing Time, Smith's fifth novel, was released in 2016, again to solid acclaim. The novel, a coming-of-age story, follows the fate of two girls of color who became fast friends through their mutual love of dance.

Personal Life
Smith met Nick Laird at Cambridge University, and the couple married in 2004. They have two children, Kathrine and Harvey, and are based between New York City and Queen's Park, London.

Awards and recognition
White Teeth (2000): Whitbread First Novel Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award.
The Autograph Man (2002): Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize
On Beauty (2005): Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award, Orange Prize
NW (2012): shortlisted for Ondaatje Prize and Women's Prize for Fiction
♦ General: Granta′s Best of Young British Novelists, 2003, 2013; Welt-Literaturpreis, 2016.

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/31/2016.)



Book Reviews 
It's a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. This, White Teeth announces, is someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio...In what will surely rank as one of her generation's most precocious debuts, Ms. Smith announces herself as a writer of remarkable powers, a writer whose talents prove commensurate with her ambitions.
Michiko Kakutani - The New York Times


Smith has much to say about threats to ethnic identity in the modern world, but her book's real strength lies in the way she says it. Her characters drawn with a commanding sense of detail, her writing style wonderfully sly and often downright funny, and her plot both rollicking and heartfelt, Smith makes a smashing debut on the literary scene. White Teeth just may be the first great novel of the new century.
David Wiegand - San Francisco Chronicle


This is a strikingly clever and funny book with a passion for ideas, for language, and for the rich tragicomedy of life.... [Smith's] characters always ring true; it is her ebullient, simple prose and her generous understanding of human nature that make Zadie Smith's novel outstanding. It is not only great fun to read, but full of hope.
Sunday Telegraph


The scrambled, heterogeneous sprawl of mixed-race and immigrant family life in gritty London nearly overflows the bounds of this stunning, polymathic debut novel by 23-year-old British writer Smith. Traversing a broad swath of cultural territory with a perfect ear for the nuances of identity and social class, Smith harnesses provocative themes of science, technology, history and religion to her narrative. Hapless Archibald Jones fights alongside Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal in the English army during WWII, and the two develop an unlikely bond that intensifies when Samad relocates to Archie's native London. Smith traces the trajectory of their friendship through marriage, parenthood and the shared disappointments of poverty and deflated dreams, widening the scope of her novel to include a cast of vibrant characters: Archie's beautiful Jamaican bride, Clara; Archie and Clara's introspective daughter, Irie; Samad's embittered wife, Alsana; and Alsana and Samad's twin sons, Millat and Magid. Torn between the pressures of his new country and the old religious traditions of his homeland, Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh while keeping Millat in England. But Millat falls into delinquency and then religious extremism, as earnest Magid becomes an Anglophile with an interest in genetic engineering, a science that Samad and Millat repudiate. Smith contrasts Samad's faith in providence with Magid's desire to seize control of the future, involving all of her characters in a debate concerning past and present, determinism and accident. The tooth—half root, half protrusion—makes a perfect trope for the two families at the center of the narrative. A remarkable examination of the immigrant's experience in a postcolonial world, Smith's novel recalls the hyper-contemporary yet history-infused work of Rushdie, sharp-edged, fluorescent and many-faceted.
Publishers Weekly


Smith has written an epic tale of two interconnected families. It begins with the suicide attempt of hapless, coin-flipping Archibald Jones on New Year's Day, 1975, and ends, after a 100-year ramble back and forth through time, on New Year's Eve, 1992, with his accidental (or preordained?) release of a poor mutant mouse programmed to do away with the randomness of creation. Smith evokes images of teeth throughout the novel. Do they symbolize some characteristic shared by all of humanity in this novel about ethnicity, class, belonging, homeland, family, adolescence, identity, blindness, and ignorance? Or are they meant to distract the reader from the all-encompassing theme of fate? Smith's characters are tossed about by decisions made deliberately, rashly, or by the flip of a coin. As Smith pieces together this story with bits of fabric from different times and places, the reader must contemplate whether our choices determine our future or whether fate leads us to an inevitable destiny. This fine first novel from Smith is most highly recommended for all libraries. —Rebecca A. Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
1. White Teeth generated enormous interest within the publishing world, in part because it is an unusually assured first novel, produced by a writer who is still very young. What aspects of White Teeth—in terms of either style or content—strike you as most unusual in a debut novel? How is White Teeth different from other first novels you have read?

2. A few days before Archie tries to kill himself because his first wife has left him, Samad tries to console him: "You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it...there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life" [p. 11]. Does Archie's marriage to Clara constitute a second chance that improves greatly upon the life he had before he met her? Why does the chapter title call the marriage "peculiar" [p. 3]?

3. Why does Archie like to flip a coin in moments of indecision? What does it say about him as a person? How does the opening epigraph, from E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread [p. 1], relate to Archie and his approach to life? Does chance play a more powerful role than will or desire in determining events for other characters in the novel too?

4. Archie "was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack" [p. 10]. Does the fact that Archie is so humble, so lacking in ambition or egotism, make him a more comical character than the serious and frustrated Samad? Is Samad's character ultimately funny as well?

5. Samad imagines a sign that he would like to wear at his restaurantjob, a sign that proclaims "I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier..." [p. 49]. Why, in all the years that pass during the novel, does Samad not pursue another job? Is it surprising that Samad doesn't seek to change his life in more active ways? Does Islam play a part in this issue?

6. Why is what happened to Samad and Archie during the war more meaningful to them than anything that will happen in their later lives? Why does Samad expect Archie to kill Dr. Sick for him? What exactly has happened in this village—what has the doctor been doing there? Why does Samad feel that the doctor must die? Would it have been out of character for Archie to execute this man?

7. The narrator notes that "it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance" [p. 272]. Magid and Millat both shirk their Asian roots, though in different ways. Magid begins to call himself Mark Smith while he is still a schoolboy, while Millat models himself on Robert De Niro's character Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver. Irie, on the other hand, is drawn to what she imagines is the "Englishness" of the Chalfens. Is the gradual loss—or active rejection—of one's family heritage an unavoidable consequence of life in a culturally mixed environment?

8. Samad and his wife, Alsana, had a traditional arranged marriage in Bangladesh. Is love irrelevant in a relationship such as theirs? Does the novel indicate that love is a simpler issue for those of the younger generation, who are sexually and emotionally more free to pursue their desires?

9. What is the effect of juxtaposing Alsana with Neena, her "Niece-of-Shame, " who is an outspoken feminist and lesbian? Why is Neena one of the novel's most pragmatic—and therefore contented—characters? Why does Alsana ask Neena to act as an intermediary with the Chalfens for Clara and herself?

10. What opportunities for self-expression and community does the sparsely attended but lively pub run by Abdul Mickey offer? Does Smith use the pub as a sort of stage for the everyday comedy and the various ironies of ethnic identity and assimilation in North London? What is funny about the timeline on page 204?

11. Fed up with her own family, Irie goes to stay with her grandmother Hortense, and begins to piece together the details of her ancestry. Does what she learns about her family's history make a difference in her sense of identity or in her ideas about the direction her life should take?

12. What effect does the introduction of the educated, middle-class Chalfen family have on the novel? Why is it significant that Marcus Chalfen comes from a Jewish background? Why are the Chalfens so patronizing toward the Iqbals and the Joneses? Considering Joyce's relationship to Irie and Millat, what is wrong with the liberal sentiments that the Chalfens represent?

13. Why does Smith include an episode in which Millat travels to Bradford with other members of KEVIN to burn copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses? Does the fact that none of the boys have actually read the book make their ideological zeal more comical, or more frightening?

14. Why does Smith set up the circumstances of Irie's pregnancy so that it will be impossible for her to know which of the twins is the child's father? How does what we learn about Irie and her daughter on the novel's final page relate to the genealogical chart that appears on page 281?

15. Various characters, from various families in the novel, collide in the novel's climactic scenes leading up to the FutureMouse convention. What are the motivations and beliefs that have put these characters in conflict? Do the issues of religion, science, and animal rights relate to the novel's interest in personal fate and family history?

16. In an interview, Smith says of White Teeth, "I wasn't trying to write about race.... Race is obviously a part of the book, but I didn't sit down to write a book about race. The "Rabbit" books by Updike.... I could say that [these are] books about race. [Those are] book[s] about white people. [They are] exactly book[s] about race as mine is. It doesn't frustrate me. I just think that it is a bizarre attitude. So is [it that] a book that doesn't have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don't understand that."* What are some of the indications in White Teeth that Smith is not as interested in race as she is the juxtaposition and interaction of people from different ethnic groups living their daily lives?

17. Do the children of Archie and Samad experience their ethnic or racial identities in different ways than their parents do? If so, why? Is Smith suggesting that there is a rising trend in intermarriage between members of different races and ethnicities, so that these issues become of less interest, or meaning, as time passes? Is Alsana right when she says, "you go back and 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" [p. 196]?

18. With White Teeth, Zadie Smith shows herself to be a brilliant mimic of the sounds of urban speech. In which parts of the novel does she display this skill to the greatest effect? How does her prose style work to convey the busy, noisy soundscape of a multicultural metropolis?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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