by pico | 11/06/2007 07:37:00 PM

Greetings, literature-loving Historians! I apologize for my hiatus from the series, but the demands of real life took me away from the computer longer than I expected. And what better way to celebrate a re-start than by picking up with a writer whose work is so recent, the ink is practically still drying on the page...

How do we form our identities? Do we rely on our parents, our neighborhoods, or our religion? What happens when those sources are compounded by immigration, or by mixed families, or by social circumstances that don't align in ways that suggest convenient ways of defining ourselves?

At least one author is diving headlong into this mess... And she's doing it with style. Join me below for a conversation with one of England's most talked-about young authors.

Zadie Smith, who just turned 31 this past week, is likely to be the youngest person I profile in this series. She was 25 when her first novel hit the shelves, and in less than a decade she has amassed an impressive collection of awards for her her three novels, short stories, and stream of essays.

Smith is a London native: her father was working class Brit and her mother a Jamaican immigrant - this is a familial pattern we'll see in her work below. Her literature is especially concerned with the implications of multiculturalism in modern culture, and the identity issues that face the younger generation who have to negotiate a much more complex set of values than their parents.

On the publication of White Teeth, a novel so highly anticipated that it led to a bidding war between publishing companies, the critic James Wood used it as a prime example of what he termed "hysterical realism", or the type of novel that is immensely cerebral without providing any insight about human beings as such (in his mind). Other examples included DeLillo, Pynchon, and Foster Wallace. Smith's full response appeared in the Guardian, and I highly, highly recommend it (especially for those of you participating in NaNoWriMo). In this brief essay, she discusses the fiction of the last quarter century, the ability to write in a post 9/11 world, and the nature of the novel as artifice:

It's all laughter in the dark - the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.

Let's discuss two of her novels:

White Teeth

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made. (193)

Smith's first novel debuted in 2000, appropriately channeling the fears of a new century which had not yet dealt with the mistakes of the previous one. With an intricate plot that moves from back and forth from 1857 to 2000 (and many points in between), Smith tackles the lovely confusion of modern London, a boiling stew of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age that threatens to boil over at any point.

For the older generation, the barriers of interaction are too great and too tied to weight of history. Smith's immigrants find themselves lost in behavioral loops, clinging to aspects of culture that they may not even sincerely believe - but the experience of refashioning an existence in a foreign country has trapped them in these cultural repetitions:

There's no proper term for it - original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better. (161)

The younger generation has a shot at escaping this, but they're faced with their own unique challenge: what does it mean to be young and multi-ethnic in the modern world? From what stray pieces do modern youth forge their identities? The older generations have created a heritage of tradition, religion, and ideology that the younger generation no longer finds appropriate for their context, and in the confusion they cling to cultural detritus to create a new identity. Writing about one group of teenagers of (at least partial) mid-Asian decent, Smith writes:

[They] spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patios, Bengali, Gujarati and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; Kung Fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Black Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy); but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. (231-2)

The winding plot concerns three families:

1. The Joneses, an interracial family with a white father, a Jamaican (mixed white and black) mother, and their awkward daughter Irie.
2. The Iqbals, a Benglali family whose two sons are being sucked into opposite poles of middle-class respectability and Muslim fundamentalism (though as always, this isn't so clear-cut as it seems)
3. The Chalfens, a Jewish family that prides itself on being hip, socially progressive, and smarter than the average familial unit.

In the third we have one of the strongest threads in Smith's work: the skewering of pseudo-progressive values that manifest themselves in petty hypocrisies and half-baked ideologies - this thread will reach its most direct form in her third novel, On Beauty.

In the meantime, the parents of the three families interact, the children discover their sexuality, and the mish-mash of London culture zooms by in hilarious set-pieces. This isn't to say that there isn't considerable racial tension, but that the tension is muted by powerlessness:

'Liberal? Hosh-kosh nonsense!' No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was only that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while the windows were smashed. (63)

Those thoughts belong to Alsani Iqbar, the Bengali mother who expresses her own petty prejudices in the way she treats her niece (actually calling her "Niece-of-Shame"), who is in a relationship with another woman. But like most characters in the novel, Alsani is not a cold ball of prejudices: beneath the harsh words, she loves her niece deeply and sincerely. Ideology is often blurred by family.

The quote is also a good example of Smith's style: an indirect prose that leaves the reader unsure if the author is merely reporting a character's thoughts or giving us her own (we discussed this as a marker of Carson McCullers' style, too: third-person limited omniscient). Because the novel is so character-oriented, there are no comments we can definitively call "the author's" alone, leaving us on unstable ideological ground. As far as ideology is concerned, the world of Smith's novels is subjective.

If only the world of action were the same. On the history of one character's radicalization after the many beatings he'd received:

The culprits ranged from secondary school children coming in the cornership side to buy sweets... decrepit drunks, teenage thugs, the parents of teenage thugs, general fascists, specific neo-Nazis, the local snooker team, the darts team, the football team and huge posses of mouthy, white skirted secretaries in deadly heels. These various people had various objections to him... But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies, and petitions the world could offer. (472-3)

The many different plot threads come together neatly - maybe a bit too neatly - in a climax that is comic, violent, and practically fore-ordained. If it feels a little too schematic, it's no worry: the strength of White Teeth is not plot but character, and the gorgeous complexity of her characters carry the story over its (very minor) rough spots.

On Beauty

The unexamined life is not worth living. That had been Howard's callow teenage dictum. Nobody tells you, at seventeen, that examining it will be half the trouble. (297)

On Beauty is a slower and more difficult novel, but equally as rich and more direct in its complexity. Although London again features in this novel, now the action is moved to Ivy League America, where the politics surrounding a small college's faculty and their families become ugly (and often comically so).

Again the family unit is at the center of the novel. On Beauty is dominated by the Belseys: a white English father, a black mother raised in Florida, and their three very different children. The oldest is sensitive and may be adopting religion (to the horror of his parents), the middle is a precocious young woman with high academic aspirations, and the youngest wishes his street was the street - instead of a predominantly white neighborhood

Trouble arrives with the Kipps family. Paterfamilias Monty Kipps is Howard Belsey's academic rival and an unsettling phenomenon at the west-coast liberal arts college: a very conservative black professor. When Kipps challenges the college's affirmative action policy, the pieties of progressive ideology turn the administration into a pretzel of conflicting beliefs.

Ah, let's go back to that word "beliefs":

'Look, of course I know you and your family have "beliefs",' began Howard uneasily, as if 'beliefs' were a kind of condition, like oral herpes. 'You know...and I completely and utterly respect and tolerate that." (38)

Skewering academics for being out of touch is like shooting fish in a barrel. But Smith succeeds where others often fail, for two reasons: she's accurate in the specifics of her criticisms, and she's sympathetic to her targets even while pillorying them from all fronts.

But education level is a major factor in how we forge our identities, and Smith integrates education into the way the younger generation of On Beauty attempt to create unique identities for themselves. As in White Teeth, the young people of this novel find themselves pulled between the expectations of their parents and the modern world. What does it mean when the strong attractions of identity don't match up along socially expected lines? What does it mean to be a person of color raised in a predominantly white culture? The two youngest Belsey children take opposite tacks in defining themselves:

'No, no, but that don't make no difference. Any black lady who be white enough to live in Redwood thinks 'zackly the same way as any old white lady.'
'Who is white enough,' corrected Zora. 'It's the worst kind of pretention, you know, to fake the way you speak - to steal somebody else's grammar. People less fortunate than you. It's grotesque. You can decline a Latin noun, but apparently you can't even - ' (86)

As in White Teeth, sexuality also plays a major role: not as much sexuality as orientation (although it occasionally figures) as a simple fact of human biology. We are sensual beings, even if our "higher" nature rebels against it. When you place sexuality against the expectations of age and race, the issue becomes even more confused. A middle aged black woman living in white America, Kiki Belsey feels the sting of sexual expectations on multiple levels:

When you are no longer in the sexual universe - when you are supposedly too old, or too big, or simply no longer thought of in that way - apparently a whole new range of male reactions to you come into play. One of them is humour. They find you funny. But then, thought Kiki, they were brought up that way, these white American boys: I'm the Aunt Jemima on the cookie boxes of their childhoods, the pair of thick ankles Tom and Jerry played around. Of course they find me funny. And yet I could cross the river to Boston and barely be left alone for five minutes at a time. (51)

Though the universe of Smith's novels are more comfortably aligned with the expectations of liberal America - diversity is good, all people are worthy of compassion and understanding, truth is often a slippery subjective notion - she saves her most brutal barbs for the hypocrisy of a liberal culture that pays lip service to equality while engaging in petty discrimination: consciously or not.

This is an important lesson for us all. The danger of progressivism - of an ideology that claims moral law as its backbone - is a heightened sense of moral superiority where none is warranted. Smith's novels are like a correcting lens that show the complex interaction of race, generation, sexuality, and ideology as they are, not as we'd like them to be.

The slippery subjectivism of her novels is a constant reminder that human beings are never reducible to types, that we cannot make universal claims that deny the individual, and that we shouldn't be afraid of being wrong.

Citations from both novels are from the Penguin Books editions. Cross-posted at DocuDharma.