Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: Legacy and Britishness

‘And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things in them said years ago and everyone’s historical shit all over the place’

– White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is hands down one of the best – most influential – writers of the 21st century. The fact that I study her at university – picking up books that were only published 9 years ago –  is testament to the way she is changing literature. There seems to be a sense of restless rapidity in both my personal and educational reading of her works. I love her. 

Studying a book you love is always a tricky game of wanting to preserve the mystic and enjoyable aloofness of a favourite book whilst also digging your teeth (pun intended) into the meat on the pages. Last term I got the pleasure to study Smith’s White Teeth, and learn very quickly that all 500 pages could be dissected and pondered over for hours. Which is almost exactly what I did. 

White Teeth is a difficult book to describe for many reasons. It follows a multitude of characters, spanning decades of memories and trauma, as they seem propelled together. However, in essence, it follows two families – the Iqbals and the Jones – who become interconnected due to their fathers fighting alongside each other in war. 

And it is precisely this connection that I want to expand on today. 

White Teeth is preoccupied with the legacy of war. How it bleeds into our society, how it shapes who we are today. The war in question is World War Two; however, the figures of Samad and Archie aren’t exactly your prototypical veterans. In fact, it is stated early their involvement ‘hardly counted’. These two men appear frozen in time while the rest of Britain is dodging round them. 

Smith explores how this notion of legacy is seen in our society today. ‘People looked away’. Archie’s narrative section notices this whenever he speaks about war. It is uncomfortable to speak about. The sheer magnitude of death and destruction is something that us Brits find it easy to sweep away under the carpet, adding to the already growing pile of atrocities we dare not speak of. 

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After the 2020 BLM protests of last summer, the issue of statues in the UK glorifying slave owners and colonial figures was raised as a point of conversation. For me, it raised issues of Britishness and history alongside these more immediate debates about removing them. Smith delved into this notion in 2000, seen towards the end of White Teeth – ‘they look to the future to forget their past’. 

‘They look to the future to forget their past’.

A statue is built. We move on. We do not question why it is there. 

Thinking back to my own education about Britain, I could tell you all about the Tudors, medieval castles, the war effort. I simply never learnt about British imperialism in any context other than the slave trade. 

This is why Zadie Smith’s novels matter. The contextualise colonialism. They explain why our population and our history look the way they do today. White Teeth is focused entirely on the legacy of not only the war but the breakdown of colonialism. Of how race and this legacy are deeply interconnected. 

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Ultimately, there is an unremitting sense that things must change but we cannot radically alter the fabric of our society too fast. It will lead to genetically-engineered mice and families torn apart by radical ideologies (literally). But we must face our involvement in our history as more than something commemorative. There is a real human side when speaking about these moments of history which are forgotten. 

White Teeth is a novel that cannot escape the past despite its many attempts to. And neither can we. 

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