Globalization and the Image II: The Global Image
Kansas State University
"Anatomy of a Dust Jacket: Deracination and and British Identity in Zadie Smith's White Teeth"
Do not cite without permission of the author.
Despite 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.
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, as "British."
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 British.
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.
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---. White Teeth. New York: Random House, 2000.
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