The Multicultural Self as the Palimpsest of Native & Foreign Identities in Zadie Smith's White Teeth

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18th May 2020 Literature Reference this

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The tussle over the consciousness and a sense of self as it manifests through native and foreign culture is nowhere more apparent than in the diasporic populations. As Zadie Smith herself notes in White Teeth,

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Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – it’s something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it – original sin seems too harsh’ maybe original trauma would better.

White Teeth traces the lives of two families, the Jones’ and Iqbal’s who manifest not just the migrant experience in England but also the existential dilemmas one undergoes when one actually lives the uprootedness whilst finding new ground for the roots which they can reestablish in a totally new context. The characters while revealing their individuality and their own particular histories also reveal the impurity of a racial or ethnic reality in a migrant nation. Zadie Smith puts this thought across effectively through Alsana, Samad’s wife, when she answers him back about not being well-acquainted with her ethnic roots. She exclaims, “you go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy tale!” (pp 227 – 229).

Multiculturalism is usually a phenomenon associated with a collective society. However, it is also a concept that proves that cultural identity as a measure of diasporic identity is an authentic and an effective way to address the existential palimpsest of a person; man or woman. Much like Alice Walker’s concept of Womanism[1], of which feminism is a subset (as per Walker), cultural identity is an umbrella term that is both inclusive of gender, racial, and ethnic identities as well as dynamic enough to make room for constant transformations that an individual undergoes in a different location. Neither the ontological experience nor the social realities are lost when we bring in the concept of cultural identity when addressing the identity enigma experienced by the diaspora. This highlights the fact that in the case of diasporic populations, the self becomes a palimpsest rather than a conglomerate of memories, narratives, and social impositions. On the contrary, it becomes a playground for different cultures to integrate and assimilate with each other. In order to understand multiculturalism better and also how it affects one’s individuality, let’s talk about Walker’s definition of Womanism. She explains, the intersectionality of race and gender has made it imperative that the colored women constantly interrogate feminism and its silence on the problems of racism. Minority voices are hushed due to a dearth of equitable representation. According to the women of color, the feminist movement addresses primarily the concerns of the white, and the middle class women. The feminist movements have trivialized and dismissed the experiences of minority groups. The emphasis in feminism remains on an exclusive socio-economic class despite all efforts to homogenize a wide spectrum of female oppression. The deliberate exemption has deterred numerous women worldwide to align with the respective movements. Being both colored and female, the diasporic woman finds herself in a strange predicament. She is unable to identify herself with her own community where patriarchy does not warrant a life of fulfillment. Alignment with a particular feminist perspective does not help her case either as it is markedly white or caters only to the problems faced by the white woman. The feminist approaches blatantly ignore racism, which is a key source of oppression for the colored woman in addition to sexism. As a result, the black and the colored woman feel marginalized. Hence, when observed from the perspective of a non-white woman, there is a need for a movement “which addresses a wide variety of issues of Black life (mothering, black masculinity, the relationship between gender and homicide, poverty, the crisis of Black womanhood ….)…[ a movement ] that could have a transformative impact on our future” (hooks 56).

Many women, sharing marginalized positions, have generated alternate platforms to counter the inadvertently narrow world view of feminism. Alice Walker’s concern for black women’s rights has made her a strong advocate of black feminism and has led to the advancement of the very term womanism to describe an appreciation for all aspects of womanhood. The concept of womanism addresses the largely uncared for standpoint of black and other minority feminists. As a pulpit for the black woman to voice her differences from the white woman, the word womanism first appeared in Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Womanism seeks to fill the void left by feminism. At the very outset of her collection, Walker provides a four-point definition of a womanist. To begin with, she defines the etymology of the word Womanist:  From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish”, i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.(Walker xi-xii)”. Moreover, womanism as per Alice Walker’s definition gives space to beth heterosexual as well as homosexual women aas she claims that a womanist “loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually (Walker xi-xii).” Alice Walker’s Womanist is also a person who “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” (Walker xi-xii)

The above all-encompassing definitions demonstrate that womanism means many things at any given time. This palimpsest nature of the term makes it perplexing to comprehend as the precise meaning of the term evades. However, the open-endedness of the term is its strength as it bestows womanism with an edge over feminism. By eluding fixity, the term is potent to encompass the experiences of the women of all colors.

We can see here that the term intersectionality is not actually enough to explain the vastness of experiences and consciousness that an event such as migration entails. This is because migration abounds not only a race-specific, gender-particular, or ethnicity-specific experience but also a class-struggle, a struggle for educational opportunities, economic inequality, and the elusiveness of citizenship. Migration to a host nation implies that adaptation is a consequence of both cultural conformity as well as an ethnic and cultural bias that ensures that the past is not dead and geographical distance does not also mean a spiritual distance from the traditions, mores, and conventions of one’s homeland. Thus, while comprehending identity, it is imperative to understand that the site of collective, personal, and the spiritual consciousness is the being herself and her position at the time. AminMaalouf in the book, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the need to Belong, also supports this line of thought when he emphatically appeals to redefine the concept of identity in the wake of compartmentalizing categories, divisive politics, and global civilization. He suggests that in this new age, identity should not be mutually exclusive but a phenomenon that is able to include in what one regards as his own identity, a new ingredient, which provides the individual, “a sense of belonging to the human adventure as well as his own” (164). This is evident in the diasporic sense of selfhood as the migrant is neither fully imbibed into the foreign zeitgeist and neither is an anomaly or an alienated presence to be legally ousted from the host nation. The ideal diasporic figure is an independent figure with a vantage point that is able to cradle the present as well as at the past with a keen and a unique sense of balance.

In the novel, White Teeth, we see an active participation of the protagonist to partake in their human adventures irrespective of their second-class citizenship, prejudices against race, and their immigrant status. Whether it is Samad struggling to make his sons steeped in Bangladeshi traditions or Clara’s endeavor to break away from hers in White Teeth, we can see that both are symbolic representations on the spectrum of identity that derives its relevance from culture. As White Teeth explores modernity and juxtaposes it with traditionalist perspectives we come to a conclusion that the world is actually big enough for both and both impact the self in a way that transforms and distorts the personal stories and narratives that one begins with. Hence,  it is fitting when Samad tells Archie in the novel that humans must live with the understanding that their actions will continue to exist forever in the form of consequences they leave behind. (pp. 103) 

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We can see that identity is not really a matter of a linear association with an experience, movement, or even a discontinuity. In fact, it is everything and anything that transforms an individual and expresses his potential as an individual. Such a complex creation of identity can also be witnessed through Monica Ali’s protagonist in The Brick Lane. Chanu’s melancholic monologue arises from the ignorance of the fact that his idea or definition of identity is limited to the idea of his elusive homeland and all that it means for him, not realizing that the second generation, in his case, his daughters have not been privy to the culture and are in fact, geographically, historically, and spiritually distant from it. Thus, it is shows us that identity is not simply a connection with a past and culture but the reliving of the past and the culture while incorporating it in one’s everyday existence. Thus, cultural identity reminds us that identity is also a manifestation of a subjectivity that enables us to locate identity even when we are uprooted from our strongest connections and heralded into a future or another history. The alienation and being a victim of prejudice are also part of the process that help us define our own position vis-a-vis our context and opens up new avenues in our consciousness about the self. Considering her self-consciousness and knowledge, Nazneen, another protagonist from Brick Lane, proves Zadie Smith wrong when the latter in White Teeth talks about the men being able to shed history and culture through symbolic acts of shaving off the beard.  Nazneen admits to changing her identity by changing clothes. In fact, Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth is itself showcases a failure of those who get hooked to the past and are unable to adapt to the cultural and social diverseness that the host culture offers.

Both Archie and Samad represent the generation who are one with their past and history and who are compelled to remain insular to the present. Samad fails to imbibe Islam and Bangladeshi values in his son, Magid, even though he sends him to Bangladesh at the age of ten whereas his other son, Millat, turns into a Muslim fundamentalist even after having lived in England all his life. Thus through an inter-generational interaction and a multicultural presence, both the novels depict how migration creates and produces (multi)cultural identities which can be positioned in the past, in the resistance toward the host culture, in the host culture itself and is dependent on the individual’s sense of her own history, culture, present, and future. Cultural identity is not merely a representative aspect of an individual but also her existential make up that enables her to create history, partake in a context and derive a sense of self that was hitherto not known to her whether this aspect progressive or regressive is beyond the scope of cultural identity as it is what it is. The idea of the cultural identity is to present a wide spectrum for the past, present, and the future to manifest themselves for the span of one’s lifetime. It is a convergence of many positions, roles, as well as selves that are engaged through the act of migration, living away from the homeland, and the recognition of prejudice, racial antagonism, ethnic biases, and the concept of nationalism. Stuart Hall quotes Benedict Anderson to explain how cultural identity is a construct that allows us to see all these aspects in an individual and in a diasporic society. Anderson says, “A national culture is not a folk-lore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover people’s true nature. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.”(pp. 237)

And in case of the immigrants, their presence, their efforts, and their personal histories are as important as those of the natives in creating national history and in keeping the existence of both populations sustained. In a hyper-multicultural, migration-resultant, and globalized world, one cannot untangle the histories of native from that of the migrant and hence cannot claim identity to be a simple linearity traceable to one’s (in)glorious racial or ethnic piety. It is an evolutionary, dynamic, and continuous transformation resulting from an active interaction with one’s culture irrespective of where it is stationed; in the past, present or in one’s homeland or in a host nation.

Such an understanding of identity will not only offer an effective resistance to the racial and ethnic bigotry that is on the rise in the US or the UK and parts of Europe but will also help in expanding the view of human consciousness as both a creator and subject of his or her context.

Works Cited

  • Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Black Swan, 2004.
  • Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”. <> and Paul Du Gay. “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?”. Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage, 2011.
  • Maalouf, Amin. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Trans. Barbara May. Arcade Publishing, 2012.
  • Moya, Paula, Michael R. Hames Garcia. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory. Oriental Blackswan, 2011.
  • Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Penguin Books, 2001.
  • Saunders, James Robert. “Womanism as the Key to Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” The Hollins Critic, vol.25, no.4, 1988. pp. 1-11.
  • Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1984
  • Walker, Alice. “The Black Woman’s Story.ˮ New York Times Sunday Magazine, Feb. 12, 1984. pp. 94.

[1] Womanism – Alice Walker coins this term to include the experiences of women of color as well as marginalized populations of homosexuals and differentiates it from feminism.

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