Tuesday, November 13, 2007

East Meets West Meets South



White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

I could see this book being made into a movie - something along the lines of the one that got a lot of critical acclaim a few years ago called East is East, or that awesome girl-power flick Bend It Like Beckham. Zadie Smith has won a bunch of awards over the last few years and several people have recommended her work, so thought it was time to see what she is all about.

White Teeth is really funny and wrenchingly sad at the same time. There are two World War II veterans who are friends, one British (Archie) and one from Bangladesh (Samad), living in London. The Bangladeshi has strong feelings about British colonialism in India and Bangladesh and fights hard to maintain his cultural identity amid his people's former oppressors. Both men marry much younger women - Archie a Jamaican and Samad an Indian. As they have families of their own, the succeeding generations deal with typical adolescent angst as well as trying to fit into a culture that does not affirm them or their heritage.

No one escapes Zadie Smith's observant wit. Jamaicans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Indians, Black Muslims, Indian Muslims, biracial teenagers, bikers, school administrators, and animal rights activists all get poked fun at in a sly yet good-humored way. The reader gets the feeling that Smith is not trying to wound so much as observe (that old saying about not laughing at but laughing with). A family of well-intentioned but clueless white middle class British intellectuals gets especially skewered. There are spots where her detail is so dead-on that the reader cannot help but laugh.

In the midst of all the satire, however, there is an undercurrent of sadness. In the midst of a rather absurd plot every now and then a sentence pops up that speaks to the longing of every heart to belong and feel accepted. Take this paragraph that describes Millat, an Indian teenager raised in Britain who is desperately trying to find his place in the world: "He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wideboys in the white jeans and the colored shirts he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids, he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere (White Teeth, p. 225)."

As our world grows ever smaller, more and more people leave countries of origin and start new lives in other countries. The county where I live is home (at least for now) to many immigrants from South America, Africa, and various parts of Asia. The tensions between first and second-generation immigrants that Smith depicts ring true to what I have observed in some of my neighbors here in the United States. I would imagine that the desire to maintain traditions and cultures from far away but at the same time fit in here must get very stressful.

By the time I finished White Teeth I wanted to cut everyone some slack. People do strange things that we do not understand. I'm sure I do strange things that others do not understand. At the end of the day, though, most of us want the same thing. We need to be loved. We need to be forgiven. We need to be accepted for who we are, even if who we are is a mixed bag of ethnicity, culture, and faith.

Reverent Reader

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