Shared and Told Tales: Multiculturalism and Participatory Narrative Identities in Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’

By Jeremy David Scott.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper proposes that Zadie Smith’s novel ‘White Teeth’ enacts an intriguing response to current debates surrounding multiculturalism and identity in contemporary England through its insistence on the value of shared and participatory narratives. This issue is very much of the moment, given current debates within these islands on globalisation, on the post-devolution climate of the UK and its modern place in the world, and on matters connected to migration and shared identity.

Firstly, Salman Rushdie’s views on multiculturalism will be explored; principally, his view of the concept as a ‘cop-out’ and his call for a ‘third way’ which lies somewhere in between laissez-faire multiculturalism and outright assimilation. A paradigm of this vision may be found in the portrayal of Delhi in Midnight’s Children, and there are parallels to be drawn between Rushdie’s Delhi and Smith’s London. Following this, Homi Bhabha’s theories on the relationship between identity and narrative form will be discussed and applied, i.e. of pedagogic (passively received) notions of national history versus performative (shared constructions) of it. ‘White Teeth’ illustrates both the potentialities and pitfalls of multiculturalism, and sees a resolution in a Bhabha-like sharing of stories. Samad’s and Archie’s lives criss-cross, part and reunite, until at the end Samad remarks: ‘This … will keep us two boys going for the next forty years. It’s the story to end all stories. It is the gift that keeps on giving.’ The two protagonists have completed a shared re-telling of their life stories, and thus a joint construction through narrative of shared history and, perhaps, shared identity.

Keywords: Narrative Theory, Narrative Technique, Free Indirect Discourse, Multiculturalism, Identity, The Novel, Homi Bhabha, Zadie Smith, Contemporary English Fiction

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 10, pp.207-214. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 510.646KB).

Dr. Jeremy David Scott

Lecturer in English, School of European Culture and Language Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, UK

I was awarded my PhD in 2005 and teach at the University of Kent in the areas of contemporary fiction, narratology, stylistics, discourse analysis, critical theory and general English literature. I also teach creative writing, and am a published fiction writer. My current research interests include fictional technique, literary representations of dialect, the relationship between narratives and identity, and fictional versions of Englishness. I have published on contemporary British and Irish fiction, on James Joyce. A new collection of short stories and a book on demotic narrative voices in contemporary fiction are both forthcoming in 2008.

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