“How far will do?”: The Role of the Past in the Formation of Identity in a Multicultural Landscape
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth could be said to be as much a portrait of a city as of the people who inhabit it. In it, Smith paints a picture of a newly multicultural London with no one identity, but rather a fluid, ever-shifting patchwork of them. This is a London engaged in the constant process of creating its own, hybrid synthesis not in which subcultures are assimilated or marginalized, but in which they are simply amalgamated, layered one on top of the other into one, great fluid identity. This is a London where “you can get fourteen different types of dal, but you can’t get a bloody cigar in the Euston Road for love nor money” (58), where “O’Connell’s is an Irish poolroom run by Arabs with no pool tables” (154), and where one can “watch the many colors [of people] shade off into the bright white lights of town” (137) as one rides the No. 52 bus. The London of White Teeth is disparate, as varied as its inhabitants, and, like they, as tied to its past. Living in this patchwork London, Smith’s characters are constantly forced to interrogate their own identities and attempt to forge their own space in the city’s landscape. It is through these characters and their places in the inescapable fact of a multicultural reality that Smith is able to construct a view of identity as a constant work in progress, tied inescapably to both cultural and personal history, which should never be mandated or controlled by an outside force.
In the novel, there are many characters who attempt to repress their pasts and their histories in order to forge a new identity for themselves in accordance with who they want to be, rather than who they are. These characters, eliminating their pasts, are entirely future-oriented and struggle to stay tied to their presents, the temporality in which identity is played out. Perhaps the most interesting case of this is that of the Chalfen clan, who, when first introduced, operate as a unit whose entire identity is based around the idea of their “Chalfenishness” to the extent that they use their last name as a part of speech (261, 273). Upon first meeting them, Irie is struck with the image of the perfect, white, middle class English family which they strive to project; she describes them as being “unblocked by history, free” (265). However the very name by which they define themselves, upon which Irie hangs their “Englishness” is a lie. They, like she, like Samad, Alsana, Hortense, and virtually every other character in the novel, are immigrants after a fashion. Their true history is disposed of in a single parenthetical, accorded as much importance as they give it themselves: “(third generation, by way of Germany and Poland, né Chalfenovsky) (273).
And yet it is the simple fact that they have changed their last name in order to assimilate completely into English society—to the point of epitomizing it—that gives away the inescapable hold history has on them. They are not, as Irie imagines, free from history, but are perhaps even more badly blocked by it than her family is, since they attempt to deny and cover up the block. When Clara goes to visit the Chalfens, Joyce takes great pride in showing her “a line of dead white men in starched collars” (293) in daguerrotypes on the mantel, making a show of the Chalfen “history” as if to rub its existence in the face of someone whom Joyce imagines to have little of her own history, let alone one similar to that of the Chalfens. The reader, though, knows the truth behind Joyce’s performance: Dr. Solomon Chalfen, the great-grandfather of Marcus, would have been Dr. Solomon Chalfenovsky in reality. Joyce’s Chalfen identity is predicated on a lie designed to set the family up as the pinnacle of Englishness and create a clean break with history, but which only serves to tighten its hold on the family. Ironically, too, it is not the Chalfens, but Clara who has an honest-to-goodness, full-blood English ancestor, despite appearances. Joyce’s statement that “it is the genes” (294) in speaking about the Chalfen intellect is betrayed to be another Chalfen lie: as the Chalfens are living their lives in an attempt to prove, it is not the genes that matter, but (as they hope) the appearance, artificial as it may be. If genes were all it took, then Irie and Clara, possessing more “English” genes than the Chalfens, would be more English than they and Irie would not be fetishizing the Englishness of the Chalfens.
It is not only the Chalfens’ rechristening of themselves which complicates their relation with their past and future, but Marcus’ project of Futuremouse©, whose very name proclaims the Chalfen obsession with the future, to the exclusion of their past. Through the allegory of genetic engineering, Smith is able to comment on the doomed nature of artificial constructions of identity. In creating Futuremouse© according to certain specifications, Marcus eliminates the random as well as the mouse’s ties to history, going “to the edges of his God’s imagination” (259). Marcus’ search to achieve “the perfectibility of all life” (260) mirrors the Chalfens’ quest to achieve the perfectibility of their English identity through changing the family’s name and fashioning themselves according to certain specifications. Futuremouse© is created essentially from nothing, a mouse without a past, without parents, without history, without genes that tie him to anything else. His identity has been ascribed to him and it is, itself, static, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Marcus has taken the mouse’s life and erased all possibility of selfhood and agency to become through interplay between its present and past anything but Marcus’ idea of a “perfect,” history-less identity.
The Chalfens, too, are a closed loop; because they interact with no one but their own they are isolated, apart. For the Chalfens, Futuremouse© represents a sure future for their kind: a method of creating perfect identities which eliminates the messy necessity of cross-breeding with non-Chalfens to keep the line going. If Marcus’ experiment had been successful, it would have meant the triumph of artificial identity creation and a future in which Marcus would never again face the threat of “falling victim to Darwinism” (265) as he jokes about Joyce’s attraction to Millat. However in the end, it is not Marcus’ work that wins out, but, funnily enough, Joyce’s, as Futuremouse© escapes, forcing humanity to continue on in the process of “cross-pollination” and cultural hybridization, leaving Marcus and his “simpler and more certain” self-pollination by the wayside in favor of a future of “more varied offspring” (257-58).
Living thus unmoored from history is not without consequences as Smith demonstrates time and time again. In the Chalfen household, Marcus and Joyce’s hypocrisy eventually alienates Joshua, driving him to fall in with the animal rights organization FATE and to seek to destroy the contrived identity his father and mother have created through the symbolic destruction of his father’s creation Futuremouse® and the idea that “perfect” identity can be artificially constructed. It is not only Joshua, though, who is driven away from the family because of its attempt to construct an identity unconnected to the past. Irie, too, suffers the same fate, when living with her history-less mother and father drives her to seek the solace of her Jamaican grandmother in a quest for her roots. When Irie discovers the truth about her mother’s teeth after 16 years of living with her, she decides she has had enough: “these parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth. … She was sick of never getting the whole truth” (314). Clara, having suffered her own crisis of identity in her late teens, attempted a clean break with her past through her marriage to Archie, which allowed her to move away from both her mother’s flat and her own history and to construct a new self, unburdened by the past.
Archie, too, lives a curiously history-less life. Archie “could give no longer record of his family than his father’s own haphazard appearance on the planet in the back- room of a Bromley public house circa 1895 or 1896 or quite possibly 1897,” which Irie sees in stark contrast to the way in which the Chalfens apparently “actually knew who they were in 1675” (280). To make matters worse, Archie underwent a similar transformation to Clara’s after he was saved from suicide and, in his resultant euphoria, decided to “unhook [his] old life” and walk “into unknown territory” (21). Archie, too, evidences a lack of inertia which prevent him from ever forming much of an identity on his own. Though he is often at the center of the narrative, his presence is more of a non-presence, a vacuum. Smith emphasizes Archie’s inability to get anywhere in making the sole thing of interest about him be that he had once been in the Olympics for track cycling, which he liked because “you went round and round. Round and round” (13), the repetition highlighting the fact of the never getting anywhere.
As if that weren’t enough, not only did Archie cycle round and round, he never got any better at it; he was completely stuck. Archie Jones, for a large part of his life, was a man in stasis and as such, he was a man identity-less. It is only after having met Samad and then again years later after having met Clara, that Archie is able to—if only temporarily—shake himself free of his stasis and engage in the process of identity formation.With parents so completely disengaged from their respective histories, Irie cannot help but fetishize known past. Seeking a history of her own, she runs to the only root she knows of, the only connection to a past she’s never been told of: a grandmother whose promise of a future connected to her past through a trip to Jamaica to unearth her roots is the only thing which can reconcile Irie to her parents. Thus, Smith makes it clear how cutting one’s self off from one’s past as Archie and Clara do only ends up alienating them from the physical manifestation of their future, their daughter.
White Teeth presents the new multicultural reality as a fact of life, which in its unravelling of old identities and fashioning of them into something new can be both positive and negative, but throughout, Smith emphasizes the importance of history to identity and the unfeasibility of living a life unmoored from the past. Without history, there can be no present, for “what is past is prologue” (epigraph). In a world without history, everyone becomes an identity-less Futuremouse©, with nowhere to go and no reason to be. A world unhooked from its past would be one in which interpretation could not exist; there could be no debates about Mangal Pande because there would be “no second-guessing, no what-ifs, no might-have-beens, just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form” (405). There would be no agency, no decision-making, no ability to self-create. But as Smith points out, in the multicultural reality of the world, there can be no Futuremouse© because the force of history is too great. Futuremouse© will always escape or be helped to escape, whether by FATE or anyone else, and he will be free to go off and begin the process of creating his roots and setting off on the process of identity formation. Irie can protest against “everybody’s old historical shit” (426) and yearn for a time when roots no longer matter all she likes; she, like Smith, recognizes the importance of history to identity as she acknowledged when she went running to Hortense.
It is not for nothing that Smith’s vision of the future is “Irie, Joshua, and Hortense sitting by a Caribbean sea” (448), for the future is rooted in the past. The future lies with the next generation, but only if they can connect with their roots and acknowledge their histories. The future is Irie and it is Irie’s daughter, whose uncertain parentage is as much a part of her identity as anything else as she writes letters indiscriminately to both her potential fathers, while sitting with her adoptive one. In this scene of the future, it is Irie’s daughter who is the future and not Futuremouse© himself, for history cannot be repressed and identity cannot be controlled or unmoored and experiments attempting to do so will disappear, escaping the grasping fingers of the people desperate to catch them.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.
- The past, though, is not something static, but something which must work together with the present in order to be interpreted towards the creation of an identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Samad’s obsession with the story of his great-grandfather Mangal Pandé, a story from both his personal and cultural history which forms the lynch-pin of Samad’s identity. This piece of the past is constantly under debate in the novel; Samad remains convinced that his great-grandfather was a hero who stood up for what he believed in, while Archie is not so sure, at first light-heartedly suggesting that he could have been a drunk who fired by accident and then, more seriously, that he might have been the type of man who “just couldn’t do it” (216).
- Archie, though he may be history-less, is not ignorant of the importance of history. Indeed, history is exactly what attracts Archie to O’Connell’s where “everything was remembered, nothing was lost. History was never revised or reinterpreted, adapted or whitewashed. It was as solid and as simple as the encrusted egg on the clock” (160-161).
- “How far back do you want?” Zadie Smith asks in her novel White Teeth, “How far will do?” (71). … whispered asides; lost conversations; medals and photographs; lists and certificates, yellowing paper bearing the faint imprint of brown dates. Back, back, back,”
- The structure of the novel and Smith’s attention to history. “Root Canals”
- second generation fluidity
- moving away from their hybridized childhood identities and towards fixed identities constructed largely on one overarching concept. endeavors denote the sense of need each boy feels in declaring his commitment to something, anything, that will help him define to others who he is
- play on root/route? identity as a process with a root but also a route. without a route one is like archie going round and round and round. identity needs a journey, a process.
- History is not a simple fact, history is constantly constructed, as Samad demonstrates both in forcing Archie to assume the role of the hero and kill Dr. Perret and in assuming the role of their dead captain himself. History can be created and facts can be interpreted. Mangal Pande.
- Zadie Smith refuses to accept the easy binaries
- colonialism fetishizes the other. makes chalfen’s colonization of millat alienate their own son.
- the book establishes the marginality of all Londoners not just by reversing the positioning of the ex-colonial other but by revealing how Archie is as split in his inner sense of identity as all the immigrants turn out to be.
- Samad as being too stuck in his past, too stuck on Pande, too stuck in a childhood in Bangladesh
- Poppy Burt Jones and the binaries all the older generation fall prey to. must define. either english or bangladeshi. no hyphenation, no hybridization. all about the other. the chalfenist view is identified with the views of samad and Alsana as well, even of Clara. They cannot help but see identity as either-or. Even poppy burton jones, who wants to celebrate other cultures in order to respect them, highlighting their otherness. Children are either Bengali or English. THey have a label, must be identifiable according to one formula. Even for Joyve’s hybrodity she needs to be able to identify two different elements.
- identity does not come down to a simple matter of race as Magid and Millat make clear. Though they may be genetically, ethnically uniform, their identities are multiple and diverse. They share the same genes but one is “good,” one “bad,” one is “English” one is “Bengali” and then another sort of “English” while the other one becomes an Islamist Extremist.
- the language of the children as being completely emblematic of this multicultural london. mixture of words from all over.
- the story of Glenard Oak as being an important piece of history to Hortense, Clara, Irie. parallel between headmaster’s experiment and what Glenard did. “guinea pigs” science. parallels between principal and glenard. [multicultural present is] they are both a product of and repeating jamaica’s past. brings in comparison btw cultural and scientific hybridity: guinea pigs. (teacher 256)
- genetics—alsana using genetics to illustrate her fear that her sons will lose their past and marry and her great great grand children will not be bangladeshi. they will have lost touch with their history. ironically alsana expresses her fear that she will lose her sons in the terms of the Chalfens: genes. even while the Chalfens fetishize their own clan and yet seek preservation through cross-breeding, Alsana does the exact same thing: fetishizing the genes of her people and fearing that they will disappear through the exact process of crossbreeding the Chalfens advocate. For the Chalfens know that, in England, their genes will always be the dominant ones and immigrant genes (as Alsana recognizes) will be the recessive ones. The Chalfens (and the English) have only to fear “infection, penetration, miscegenation” (272, emphasis my own) while the immigrants have the ultimate fear of “dissolution, disappearance” (272). It is not simply that these other cultures have been grafted onto the English bones of London, but that London itself is now becoming defined by the very mix itself.
- white teeth not a blind celebration of multiculturalism but rather a reminder of the roots behind what is too often dehistoricized.
- Identity, though, cannot be constructed solely upon the past. Rather, identity is an ongoing process of becoming to which there is no end, no final achievable goal. if we regard identity as a form of constant becoming (rather than a fixed point of origin or an end product. Darcus thus becomes Smith’s representation of the necessity of roots/routes in the construction of identity. It thus seems that in order for the male characters to be able to formulate their own identities throughout White Teeth, there must be a beginning (a root) and a process (a route). The past, then, cannot be the sole component of an identity to the exclusion of the present, as Smith demonstrates through Samad. History as being a thing constantly in the process of being constructed. Samat in WW2. Mangal Pande interpretation. History is not a simple fact, history is constantly constructed, as Samad demonstrates both in forcing Archie to assume the role of the hero and kill Dr. Perret and in assuming the role of their dead captain himself. History can be created and facts can be interpreted. Mangal Pande. so the past is important and one cannot ignore, cannot cut oneself off from it completely or attempt to change it, however the past, also is a fluid thing. the past is prologue, yes, but what that prologue means is only ever defined in the present. see samad and archie’s differing interpretations of mangal pande’s story 216/17.
- history is interpretive, contrary to what Marcus thinks 260 (pande)
- Millat reaching like pande 442. repetition. history defining present.
- “The brothers will race towards the future only to find the more and more eloquently express their past”