Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Streets and Transformation in Zadie Smith's White Teeth and "Stuart"

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Streets and Transformation in Zadie Smith's White Teeth and "Stuart"

Article excerpt

FEW FIRST NOVELS HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED TO THE ACCLAIM that accompanied Zadie Smith's White Teeth in early 2000. Smith was only twenty-four years old; the first publicity photos showed a pensive writer with short hair and funky glasses. She had just completed her undergraduate studies at Cambridge University, and, as the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican-born mother, she was heralded as a voice of the new multicultural, multiracial Britain that White Teeth chronicles. The novel circles around the lives of three families: Samad and Alsana Iqbal, Bangladeshi immigrants with twin sons, and Archie and Clara Jones, an EnglishWest Indian family with one daughter, who are linked in a friendship forged when the two fathers served together in the Second World War; the third family, the Chalfens, are white Londoners, intellectuals and writers, whose eldest son attends the same state school as the others' children. Through the conjunctures and contradictions generated by these character groupings, White Teeth explores such wide-ranging issues as history, racism, imperialism, generations, legacies of Empire, genetic manipulation, and contemporary urban spaces. Writing in the Observer shortly after the novel was published, Stephanie Merritt describes it as "a broad, teeming, comic novel of multiracial Britain."1 Her fellow novelist Caryl Phillips commends White Teeth for the pressing significance of the issues Smith tackled. "The plot is rich," he writes, "at times dizzyingly so, but White Teeth squares up to the two questions which gnaw at the very roots of our modern condition: Who are we? Why are we here?"2 In North America the novel was received with equal enthusiasm. The New York Times reviewer Anthony Quinn praises Smith's ability "to inhabit characters of different generations, races and mind-sets" and sums up White Teeth as "an eloquent, wit-struck book."3 Later commentaries offered similar assessments; in 2006, Jonathan P.A. Sell notes:

In tune with the Zeitgeist, the novel's fusion of 'dirty realist' aesthetics and the social politics of multiculturalism was laced with a savvy, at times rollicking humour.4

Writing an early retrospective assessment in 2004, Bruce King calls White Teeth "the publishing sensation of 2000."5 Summing up the reception of the novel, Tracey L. Walters writes:

critics applauded Smith's ability to address a multiplicity of themes - religious fundamentalism, postcolonialism, hybridity aesthetics, and multiculturalism - in a single novel, complemented by a touch of humor.6

In anticipation of the novel's North American publication, Smith was invited by the New Yorker magazine, perhaps the most prestigious periodical venue for a writer in the USA, to contribute a short story to their December fiction issue. The result was "Stuart," a story that revisits the fluid, multicultural, multiracial, intergenerational streets and squares of public spaces in contemporary Britain, but represents the subtle and overt potential for violence lurking within these familiar sites. In Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (2004) John McLeod situates "the exuberance and wit" of Zadie Smith's White Teeth in a set of emergent writings in which London is "confident, cognizant of its transcultural past, optimistic, full of creative energies nurtured from the conjunction of different times and places in both city and self."7 In a similar way, John Clement Ball draws on the urban theorists Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett to highlight the potential in the city streets for "productive disorder and intermixture, and for stimulating the imagination to roam in both familiar and 'previously unthought' directions."8 In "Stuart," Smith depicts a different London, one that is still "full of creative energies," but with a telling difference - these energies bristle with the potential to set off contingent and unexpected violence. "Stuart" begins with a detailed description of daily activities on a crowded urban street, in ways that are sometimes evocative of the dazzling opening pages of Virginia Woolf s Mrs. …

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