Wednesday, October 03, 2001

I might as well get England out of my system and get to Zadie Smith. There are White Teeth spoilers in here, so if you haven't read it yet, you might want to read another entry. (Unless, of course, you don't plan to read White Teeth, but why would you say such a thing?)

image from Random House

I am so tired of hearing people talk about how smart Zadie Smith is. Ok. So she is smart. She is brilliant. I know because she is hilarious. She keeps me laughing in the way only those brilliant people with that cool, wry humor do. She has that kind of intelligence that spans across registers, the kind that makes you adore her mostly, but sometimes hate her a little for knowing your funny bone inside and out like that. (Refer to your feelings about Paul Beatty as you read White Boy Shuffle, here. I wonder if this has something to do with naming your book White something. Do smart Black people put "white" in their titles?)

Zadie Smith is smart. OK. But don't you get the sense that many of these people are just writing about her intelligence because they don't expect a Black woman to be so smart? I imagine hearing people praise her brain is much more satisfying than hearing them praise her 'athletic build' or something, but can we get beyond the surprise for once?

Here are some things I love about White Teeth. I love all the complexity in these cross-cultural relationships. I love how, in the midst of all the love and understanding, is misunderstanding and distrust of and sometimes even disgust with difference. Why do people ever think they should cover that up? And by difference, I don't just mean racial difference, I mean class difference, gender difference, etc. Think, for a moment, about the way Alsana Iqbal is alone. Even with her terse ways (and maybe this is part of why I love this book so much, the terseness of Smith's writing), I have a soft spot for Alsana. And I love the way she gets revenge.

I love the letters from the cheerful, ever-absent, and somehow omniscient Horst Ibelgaufts.

I love the way Zadie Smith writes Samad Iqbal. While he is often doing the wrong thing, Smith gets straight to his desire for the good life. And this is something I've been wanting to get to: the way faith is so often ridiculed in secular texts. It is important to critique religion, to think through life and the obstacles it presents through another lens. However, the way artists and many academics treat religion only allows them (us) to preach to the choir.

Zadie Smith treats Samad Iqbal's religiosity with delicate hands. Although, like Chinua Achebe's Okonkwo, Iqbal seems doomed to make the wrong choices in the name of tradition, his struggle with honor is beautifully and respectfully written. He attempts to hold on to his faith and to the good name of his ancestors, but in England, both are under constant attack. I love the way Samad's aculturation comes in the form of a Christianized relationship with Allah. (Are you beginning to understand why I call this site SWEAT?) And the way Millat's Hollywood bad boy aesthetic gets mapped onto his father's faith. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the father's faith gets mapped onto the son's bad boy aesthetic. In any case, Smith has done what I've never seen anyone do with faith in Islam in the Western media. That is, I have never seen anyone write about Muslims and real struggles with faith.

Islam is always characterized as a religion about war. Muslims are always characterized as fanatics. This isn't to say Samad Iqbal isn't a little fanatic. And Millat certainly doesn't have all his marbles. And I do have questions about the turn of events at the end of this novel, especially since September 11. But somewhere in the middle of it, there is this moment when Islam gets to be a faith like any other. Believers get to be believers.

I'm not sure how I feel about the Christian fundamentalists.

And when I first thought to write this piece, I had been thinking about them stem cell research and terrorism. I had just finished reading White Teeth. It was the end of August. I thought, Wow, this stem cell thing is still current. I also thought it was, perhaps, irresponsible, or at least, too easy to take Millat to the position of terrorist. Easy in terms of narrative. Like, What would a misguided Muslim do? Hmmm. Let's make him a terrorist.

Now that we have seen the fall of the Twin Towers and the destruction of the Pentagon, I am particularly concerned with the way such an easy turn in narrative might affect the real lives of actual Muslims. I am wondering, though, whether the turn of events might have less to do with the easy way out of a story that has developed in the way White Teeth has and more to do with the starting point of the story. Maybe it has to do with the way another story gets mapped onto the London terrain.

Reading White Teeth, I kept thinking about Song of Solomon. Was it just me? Maybe I'm too Morri-centric, but can't you see White Teeth as a sort of British Song of Solomon? Where Irie is Hagar, the rejected black girl in love with her cousin (in Irie's place, play cousin) and Millat is the desperate and misguided Guitar? Who is Milkman, then? Magid? Marcus? If you figure this one out, let me know.

Mendi Lewis Obadike

PS. I loved seeing Zadie Smith all smug on the Today Show when the book first came out. Watching at her look down her nose at Katie Couric, I knew I was going to adore the book.

If you really want to see how witty Zadie Smith is, check out this piece on ON THE ROAD: AMERICAN WRITERS AND THEIR HAIR. It's quite long, but I found myself unable to stop reading it until I reached the end.

Oh, and this is a nice little interview, too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2001

copyright Mendi Lewis
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