the survival of apparently very strong forms of stratification,
both the reading and readerships of fiction have become more complex,
hybrid and mobile in the postwar period than previously. [...] Also
significant has been the increasing permeability of British and
American markets, such that it is now hard to be sure of what 'the
British novel' may be said to consist. (27)
- Steven Connor, The English Novel in History, 1950-1995
Steven Connor is not alone in observing an "increasing permeability
of British and American markets." Just two months ago in the
New York Times Book Review (13 Oct 2002), John Sutherland, a critic
who has kept his finger on the pulse of the US and UK publishing
industries for several decades, opened his review of Rohinton Mistry's
Family Matters (2002) by announcing: "Globalization is not
just a big business phenomenon. Fiction too is now a project sans
frontieres...." (7). Sutherland's review concentrates on the
subcontinent's contribution to "this literary free market,"
as he calls it, but his metaphor of borders easily crossed echoes
Connor's vision of the Atlantic as a permeable membrane through
which British and American novels pass with "increasing"
ease. This membrane, however, is better seen as semi-permeable.
To exchange metaphors of medicine for the language of political
intrigue, successful border-crossings require the subterfuge of
a new identity. When British novels go abroad in America, they must
often travel undercover: under the cover of a new dust-jacket, under
the cover of a new title, under the cover of a new language.
My paper will explore the literary and cultural implications of
a recent trans-Atlantic crossing: Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which
appeared first in the United Kingdom and later in the United States
in 2000. In analyzing both process and product, we witness, on the
one hand, an attenuation of British identity, due to the United
States' trans-national dominance in the global literary marketplace,
but we also experience, on the other hand, Smith's authorial and
narrative resistance to this metamorphosis. The novel's dual image
of "white teeth" - both the lettering on the U.K. dust
jacket and the metaphor threaded throughout the novel - embodies
this tension, which Smith develops across the pages of her novel:
the dangers of deracination and the equally perilous pursuit of
origins at the expense of the present. From these two options emerges
a central theme of Smith's novel: the need for complex root growth
of a new British identity for the 21st century, one born from the
present, local British culture.
Before looking at the U.K. dust-jacket itself, we'll need to some
background on these literary trans-Atlantic crossings. Most readers
and book buyers in the United States are probably not aware how
many British books receive make-overs for their trans-Atlantic sales
debut. The advent of Internet sales through amazon.co.uk and other
new and used international book sites has certainly increased consumer
knowledge about a U.K. and a U.S. edition of a British novel. It
was the success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series in the States,
though, which made many readers - including this one - realize the
ubiquity of this practice. In title, cover, and text, Harry Potter
and the Sorcerer's Stone is not Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone, the latter's British identity exchanged for a more "American"
one to guarantee sales. Yet Scholastic's editorial practice for
the first Harry Potter - and their assumption that a British story
must be "translated" for an American audience - is unusual
only in its publicity: As Jane Whitehead describes in her two-part
essay "'This is NOT what I wrote!': the Americanization of
British Children's Books" (1996), the "titles, setting,
character names, [...] cultural specific allusions, [...] spelling,
punctuation, vocabulary, and idiom" of British children's books
are regularly altered in order to be marketed to an American readership.
Indeed, the practice is so regular and necessary in order to procure
American as well as U.K. publication, that British picture book
illustrators will have a car driving down the center of the street
in order to ease the picture-book's trans-Atlantic crossing (687+).
The Business and Marketing pages of major national and international
newspapers tell a similar tale for the adult market, while comparison
shopping for your favorite British novels at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
provides the color illustrations. In these columns and on those
web sites we experience an industry which has overwhelming faith
in the power of the nationally appropriate cover image to prompt
purchase of the international word. Since its debut in the 1890s,
the dust-jacket's function has evolved to be more than a protective
sheath. Like the cover design on a paperback, it sets the aesthetic
tone for the author, the literary work, and the house which publishes
the book (Powers). While no publisher believes that a brilliant
cover will sell a shoddy product, designers such as Alexandra Snellgrove
readily describe how "publishers will continue to agonize over
cover designs," seeking assistance not from the authors or
designers themselves, but from the distributors and national booksellers
who will purchase the volumes for public sale. International editions
prompt further debate: as designer Jenny Grigg notes, the same book
will have different cover designs for each country of publication
(Hall). The goal, as summarized by James Hall, is for the publisher
to "match the visual appeal to the local culture."
White Teeth's trans-Atlantic crossing therefore provides an opportunity
for cross-cultural analysis: in comparing the U.K. and U.S. dust-jackets,
we have a glimpse into the cultural imaginary for the UK and the
US, as the publishing house for each country's edition selects what
they perceive to be a visual analogue for the novel's intended national
audience. What is changed is what would make the novel appear distinctly
"British." If the "British novel" is losing
its "Britishness," as both Connor and Sutherland claim,
then the loss is more likely the result of the Marketing division
rather than an author's pen or keyboard.
many prospective literary immigrants to the United States, Zadie
Smith's novel must appear to assimilate, if it is to succeed. However,
Smith's interventions into the literary marketplace disrupt this
process, encouraging the novel's themes to be heard despite its
commodification, and the narrative within her book's dust-jacket
remains committed to decidedly British concerns. Smith's debut novel
offers a mimetic representation of a multi-ethnic London at the
turn of the 21st century - a representation which might, at first
glance, encourage the novel's free circulation in the global market
place. However, the novel's realism and its thematic critique of
cultural "fundamentalism" tether Smith's characters to
a particularly British present. Together, the novel's realism and
its embrace of the local resist the dispersion of her text and its
cast of characters across a trans-national marketplace. Further,
Smith's continual re-insertion of herself and the novel into a British
context emphasizes the novel's connection to a national, rather
than international, identity. Keeping it local - in Cricklewood,
in Willesden, in London, in England - allows Smith to keep it real.
White Teeth is nearly Dickensian in its panoramic portrait of contemporary
British society, sharing also Joyce's and Rushdie's preference for
setting satiric character types alongside emotionally engaging,
rounded individuals from a range of social worlds. In the novel's
nearly 500 pages, for instance, we meet not only Archie Jones -
white, middle-aged, and working-class - but a range of Britons across
the London scene: Archie's young second wife, Clara Bowden, a first
generation Jamaican by way of Lambeth; his contemporary and friend
Samad Iqbal, a Bengali who fought, like Archie, for the British
during WWII and whose degree in science works against employment
in England, leaving him waiting tables in a relative's Indian restaurant;
the owner of a local caf, Abdul-Mickey, who runs O'Connell's Pool
Hall, where Archie and Samad retreat to find security amid the cultural
flux of contemporary London life during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Thanks to the next generation of Irie (daughter of Archie and Clara)
and the twins Magid and Millat (sons of Samad and his Benagli wife
Alsana), we also meet the Chalfen family, the only characters apart
from Archie whose white skin identifies them, without question,
Such cultural perceptions about the "British" identity
are precisely what Smith asks her readers to consider as they consume
her narrative. As an historical reminder of the challenges of immigration
during the second half of the 20th century, Smith's story insists
upon initiating a conversation that British culture has avoided
for centuries but one which has become increasingly necessary, ever
since the landing of the Empire Windrush in June, 1948 (Paul 117).
The novel's call for this national conversation - a conversation
which British culture must have with itself - has been muted by
the novel's publication outside the UK and the requisite media blitz
of Smith's obligatory international book tours. The trans-Atlantic
marketing of the novel and its Black British author, alongside the
assignation of the all-purpose adjective "multi-cultural"
to Smith's narrative, conjoin to create a first impression that
nearly silences the narrative's dialogic aims.
Significantly, Smith, as author, is least likely to have control
over her novel's American wrappings. Although consulted about prospective
changes to words, U.K. authors are not usually involved in cover
art, which falls into the hands of "Marketing" (Powers).
And yet the most obvious preparation for White Teeth's trans-Atlantic
debut is, of course, its dust-jacket: while the U.K. dust jackets
feature a rich, textured mosaic of pink, turquoise, green, and gold
colors, portions of which are reminiscent of a sari, readers in
the United States received a creamy white dust jacket for the mosaic
within. The two-toned U.S. cover - gold on cream - is unadorned,
save for an image of flowers and crown which blooms from the bottom
right hand corner. Offering no clear symbolic representation for
the story it contains, this dust-jacket erases the conflicting cultural
hybridity of the U.K. jacket, where we see textured traces of Britain's
diverse culture residing alongside the small emblem of English imperial
control. The bright whiteness of the novel's title sits in stark
contrast to its background: the combination creates dissonance on
the U.K. dust jacket, whereas the gold lettering on the U.S. jacket
complements the creamy white setting. Erasing visual tension, the
U.S. dust-jacket thus erases the ethnicity and cultural tensions
visible within the U.K. design, offering a U.S. market an image
of homogeneity to match the United States' understanding of race
in Britain - that is, the understanding that to be British means
to be white.
If unable to challenge this visual make-over, Zadie Smith has made
a point of fighting against a number of other global marketing maneuvers,
in order to secure the British identity of her art. Since the publication
of White Teeth, Smith and her novel have received a warm welcome
inside and outside her home country, fulfilling the wide-ranging
promise her editor, Simon Prosser of Hamish Hamiliton and Penguin
UK, was banking on: "What we saw was this work that appealed
to anyone, regardless of age, gender or political position"
(Russo), Prosser explains, when asked about Penguin's willingness
to purchase the rights to Smith's first book for an unheard of sum.
That the prestigious Andrew Wylie agency signed Smith to their ranks
alongside Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie signaled to the literary
press at home and abroad that Smith would be an international star.
The juggernaught force of the American publishing industry realized
this prediction. Going global, however, demanded losing some of
the complexities of British life for which the novel's narrative
is often praised. When the US edition was in the works, Smith's
novel nearly suffered from the same "translation" demands
which transformed the early Harry Potter novels from British to
American English: Smith tells interviewer John Mark Eberhart how
"Random House tried to change words like 'sweet shop' to 'candy
store' and 'rubbish' to 'garbage.'" Smith refused Random House
permission to make "sweets" into "candy," trusting,
as she told Eberhart, that "an American audience is perfectly
smart enough and sophisticated enough to understand the difference.
And even if they weren't," she concludes, "shouldn't they
be encouraged?" Admonishing American readers and publishers
for their blithe acceptance of this one-way cultural exchange -
"People, it's got to go both ways, yes?" - Smith establishes
her text as a resistant read with the US dominated market.
The successful trans-Atlantic crossings of her British peers within
the current climate of the U.S. marketplace also prompted Smith
to assert the Britishness of her work and thereby prevent easy assimilation.
In order separate her work from the successful British export Helen
Fielding, for example, Smith took pains to pre-empt inevitable comparisons
between her work and the "chick-lit" ("Face to Face")
of the best-selling Bridget Jones's Diary, a genre for which Smith
has little regard (O'Grady). To be a British woman writer marketed
abroad also cast Smith alongside what reviewer Kathleen O'Grady
calls "the infamous British 'lad lit' of Martin Amis, Irvine
Welsh, Will Self, Nick Hornby et al," making Smith a rare woman
- and a Black British woman at that - amidst this exported white
male club. Her own multi-ethnic heritage, then, coupled with her
novel's multi-ethnic cast of characters, left Smith to fight off
that most beloved adjective of American as well as British reviewers
and cultural critics: "multicultural." Claiming to a BBC
interviewer that she never intended the book to be "a multicultural
milestone," she asserts, "I was trying to write about
the country I live in" ("Willesden to Whitbread").
When approached by Hollywood execs for the film rights to her novel,
Smith declined their lucrative offers, granting permission for a
four-part miniseries (Peachey) to the BBC and the Independent Company
Television instead: she believes these British organizations will
retain "the integrity of her work" ("Willisden to
Whitbread") and will allow the adaptation to "reach a
real popular audience" ("Diary"), according to press
reports of the deal. Smith's novel may still be called "a tale
of multicultural life in London" by reporter Paul Peachey as
he announces the news of the four-part miniseries, but at least
the mini-series itself was filmed in the novel's setting of Cricklewood
and Willesden. Smith's unflagging resistance to the pressures of
the American marketplace suggests that the novel's and the author's
global circulation in America could easily undermine their artistic
aims rather than advancing them. In the face of such easy absorption
into existing catch-all categories like "chick lit" and
"multicultural," Smith has accentuated the distinctly
British character of her novel, and consequently encouraged readers
to hear the distinctly British argument her novel makes.
When we do look beneath the dust jacket (whatever its color), we
experience a narrative which resists untethered circulation within
the global marketplace through its close detail of London life.
The genealogies of people, places, and things in Smith's novel certainly
reveal a multi-ethnic legacy transmuted into a vibrant and often
contentious present; however, it is the characters' British present
which Smith emphasizes in her novel. When the narrative looks to
the past of 1945 or 1857, it does so not to encourage an unconditional
return to the characters' global homelands, but to critique a futile
search for past origins when that search occurs at the expense of
a present British identity. The cultural hegemony of a white British
identity which erases all but its whiteness is partly culpable for
these mis-directed pursuits of "roots" and origins, but
so, too, is the false belief that returning to and embracing one's
"roots" can solve current tensions in the contemporary
body politic. By the end of the novel, we learn that acceptance
of your neighbors' Britishness, not their racial or ethnic difference,
offers the best hope for the future.
Many of Smith's characters suffer from a cultural gap in their experience
of everyday British life, a negation of their presence in, contribution
to, and legal rights within British society. "[I]t makes an
immigrant laugh," the narrator remarks to the reader at one
point, "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" (282).
In 1945, Samad's status as a British subject is questioned by the
English men with whom he serves in an aptly named Churchill tank
(74), and even thirty years of residence in London makes little
difference to his experience of his British identity. Upon arrival
in England in 1973, he faces a situation many immigrants experienced
when they arrived in the United Kingdom after the war: curries may
be ubiquitous, from take-out meals to posh sit-down dinners, but
British subjects arriving from their Commonwealth homelands were
denied the civil rights of their British subjecthood, as scholar
Kathleen Paul expertly describes in her study Whitewashing Britain:
Race and Citizenship in Postwar England (1997). Lost between two
countries, unable to return to Bangladesh or feel welcome in England,
Samad has given up hope of ever claiming the full rights of citizenship
in England, "belong[ing] nowhere" (349). Samad responds
to this cultural indeterminacy by returning to his religion and
by returning one of his sons to Bangladesh, but his attempts to
return spiritually or vicariously to his cultural roots fail: he
cannot achieve an emotional or political resolution to his loss
of self by looking to the past alone.
Samad's sons and Archie and Clara's daughter, as first-generation
products of "the great immigrant experiment" (281), suffer
similar denials of their British identity during the 1980s and 1990s
and search for ways to reconcile their selves with British culture,
past and present. When the three children visit a World War II veteran
for a school project, Millat and Magid are informed by the elderly
Mr Hamilton that they must not lie about their father's military
service, that there were "no wogs" serving in the British
army during World War II (149). As Millat and Irie grow older in
London, after Magid is sent "home" to Bangladesh, this
younger generation's relationship to British culture becomes more
tendentious and dangerous. Both Irie and Millat attempt to locate
themselves within the mirror of their British culture and cannot:
Irie sees the straight, red-black hair and slim body of super-model
Nikki Taylor instead of the more typical, but not culturally valued,
curls and curves of the Jamaican female form she has inherited from
her mother and grandmother. Nearly finding "something like
a reflection" in her English class's discussion of the Dark
Lady in Shakespeare's Sonnet #127, the reflection disappears as
her teacher falsely informs the class that there were no "Afro-Carri-bee-yans"
(235) in England during the Renaissance.
Millat does not recognize himself and his anger within his British
culture until the Rushdie Affair in 1989: "he knew he had no
face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before
last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and
every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat
recognized that anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it
with both hands" (202). Turning to the violence of a militant
Muslim group, but only because it provides the security and surety
reminiscent of his beloved American mafia films featuring Pacino
and De Niro, Millat cannot locate his energy and his emotions within
the dominant view of "British" identity - he, like his
father, is lost between worlds: Asian, British, and American.
Smith's novel raises the spectres of Britain's colonial and imperial
past upon the world of her characters but does so to link those
spectres to their current lives as Britons - and here is where the
loss of the U.K. dust-jacket is felt most acutely, given its visual
representation of the book's "local culture" (Hall). With
its white lettering against a background of pinks, blues, and golds,
the U.K. dust-jacket emphasizes a jarring difference between foreground
and background, signaling the thematic tension embodied in the motif
of "white teeth" throughout the novel. Within the novel's
narrative, to have "white teeth" represents the middle-class,
integrated aspirations of the working-class, first-generation immigrant
Clara - "white teeth" which are false, fake, and unrealistically
white by British standards, but which are nevertheless necessary
and desired. While Clara's white teeth signal an ideal of British
beauty not incommensurate with Irie's own dreams of Nikki Taylor's
hair, the image of "white teeth" carries additional cultural
baggage, as the children's visit with Mr. Hamilton, the World War
II veteran, indicates. There, they not only learn that Samad could
not have fought in the war, but also how British soldiers like Mr.
Hamilton trained their rifles on their darker skinned enemies by
looking for a "flash" of white teeth (149). Aestheticizing
the color of their skin and teeth - "See a flash of white and
bang! as it were . . . . [...] All these beautiful boys lying dead
there, right in front of me, right at my feet. [...] Beautiful men,
enlisted by the Krauts, black as the ace of spades [....]"
(149) - Mr Hamilton captures the imperial ideology which transforms
the darker, colonized other into an object fit for killing and an
object fit for art but not a subject fit for life. Mr Hamilton's
obsession for clean teeth and oral hygiene links the motif of "white
teeth" to physical and moral decay, as he tells the children
how "[f]ibs will rot your teeth" (149-50). That Mr Hamilton
himself has false teeth , thanks to "[y]ears and years of neglect"
while in the army (149-50), suggests that army life represents one
extended, corrosive lie. Coded as a sign of racilized difference
and imperial ideology through Mr Hamilton and as a sign of middle-class
integration through Clara, the novel's motif of "white teeth"
illustrates how both examples rely upon a culturally dominant view
of British identity: white and middle-class. However, that Mr Hamilton
and Clara both have "white teeth" suggests that having
"white teeth" is hardly an essential or natural definition
of racialized identity for white or black Britons. Instead, for
the better or worse of its ideological past, in the present moment
having "white teeth" becomes a defining quality of being
So what are we to do now that we have uncovered this ideological
root system of British identity? Smith's narrative and characters
wrestle with this question, as do Smith's readers when we encounter
near the end of her novel the following definition of "fundamental":
"of or pertaining to the basis or groundwork; going to the
root of the matter" (353). How far is too far to search? Even
if it were possible to get to "the root of the matter,"
how useful would that knowledge be for the present and the future?
For, even if Clara's teeth are false, they are also, in some way,
no longer false, given that they have become a part of who Clara
is, a part of her history, so much so that her teenaged daughter
is shocked to discover them in a glass one night instead of inside
Clara's mouth (325). Irie herself struggles with pursuit of the
past many times by the end of the novel. After attempting to "return
to sender" (325), Irie realizes that "homeland" is
a "fantasy" word representing a place which has existed
in the past but cannot be reclaimed for present-day life: to go
"back to the source of the river, to the start of the story,
to the homeland" was "as useless as chasing your own shadow"
(349). Irie decides that your cultural history, like your shadow,
will always be with you, but this history also exists in another
time and space, separate from your present self.
To go back to the "fundamental," in religion or in cultural
tradition (167-8) or in genealogy, is therefore a dangerous enterprise
for Smith's characters: such roots are "too long and they're
too tortuous and they're just buried too damn deep" to be helpful
for the present life the characters must lead, day in and day out,
in contemporary society (450). Instead, one must acknowledge and
"accept" (167) the English identity which has grown from
those root systems: "We're all English now, mate," as
Abdul-Mickey tells Archie, "Like it or lump it, as the rhubard
said to the custard" (167). The contemporary British author
Caryl Phillips, in his review of White Teeth, links Irie's realization
and Adbul-Mickey's assertion together in an eloquent summation of
the cultural experience and cultural challenge Smith's novel represents:
"The 'mongrel' nation that is Britain is still struggling to
find a way to stare in the mirror and accept the ebb and flow of
history," he writes, " which has produced this fortuitously
diverse condition, and its concomitant pain" (286).
According to Smith's artistic endeavor in White Teeth, one must
keep it local and in the present in order to live in - and perhaps
in time alter - the contemporary reality of British culture, in
order to "accept the ebb and flow of history," in Phillips's
words. When viewed from its local scene by the British reader, it
is the Britishness of Smith's novel which stands out: a Guardian
reviewer has declared White Teeth to be "perhaps the best novel
... we have ever read ... about contemporary London" (qtd in
"Willesden to Whitbread"), while a West Indian Muslim
who lives in London, NW10 posted to Amazon.co.uk that he sees the
novel as "a window into the life of the community where I have
made my home." Smith's representation of a multi-ethnic community
in London, then, serves to emphasize her investigation into contemporary
British identity and her call for a new perspective on British identity
in the 21st century - a focus that even the American dust-jacket
and publishing industry cannot white-wash away.
Yasmin. Imagining the New Britain. 2000. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History, 1950-1995. NY: Routledge,
By the Minx." The Daily Telegraph 29 Nov 2001: 22. 14 Feb 2002
John Mark. "'White Teeth' Author Has a Brush with Fame in America."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 8 July 2001: 07E. 14 Feb 2002. <http://www.lexis-nexis.com>
James. "Face Value: How the Look Sells the Book." The
Weekend Australian 6 April 2002: R 1.
to Be a Bestseller." The Guardian. 4 August 2001: 8. 14 Feb
Kathleen. "The Empire Strikes Back." The Women's Review
of Books Oct 2000.
Kathleen. Whitewashing Britian: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar
Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Paul. "Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth' to Be Four-Part TV Drama."
The Independent. 28 Nov 2001. 12 February 2002 <http://www.lexis-nexis.com>
Alan. Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design. London: Mitchell
Caryl. "White Teeth by Zadie Smith." A New World Order.
London: Secker and Warburg, 2001. 283-87.
Maria. "Girl Wonder." Salon.com 28 April 2000. 22 Oct
Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.
White Teeth. New York: Random House, 2000.
John. "King Lear in Bombay." Rev. of Family Matters, by
Rohinton Mistry. The New York Times Book Review 13 Oct 2002: 7.
Jane. "'This is NOT what I wrote!': The Americanization of
British Children's Books," Part I. Horn Book Nov-Dec 1996: