In keeping with my usual cutting-edge cultural awareness, I just started reading Zadie Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth,” a full 20 years after it actually debuted. This is my modus operandi these days. I wait until something has already had its moment, faded from view, enjoyed a brief renaissance, then faded from view again before I dive in. Don’t ask me why. I guess I’m just lazy.
I went into “White Teeth” with my eyes and mind half-open, meaning I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. For one thing, Zadie Smith is a British author, and while I am bedazzled by some British authors, others bore the bejesus out of me. For another, she specializes in literary fiction, which I’ve learned is just not my cup of tea after spending the last three-plus years diving into one literary classic after another in an attempt to broaden my horizons or some such thing.
Finally, Zadie Smith is a female author – and I just don’t have the best scorecard when it comes to female authors, and have nobody to blame but myself. The one I’ve always admired the most, Flannery O’Connor, wrote the kind of dark and vicious stories that I have a disturbing soft spot for. I’m sure there are plenty of other female authors equally dark and vicious, but I’ve been too lazy to seek them out. If you have any recommendations, feel free to share them here. On the plus side, I’ve read a few Japanese female writers over the past couple of years and find I enjoy their sparse prose, humor, and lack of fake emotion.
So: Zadie Smith. Born in London to a Jamaican mother and English father. Mixed-race. Edgy, hilarious, brutally honest, unsentimental, provocative, brilliant. “White Teeth” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It has the richest characters, the funniest lines, the best dialogue, the most engaging scenes. I’m not done with it yet. I’m about 330 pages in, and have a couple hundred more to go. I’ll not review it here. Maybe later. This is a shortish blog. It’s time for a shortish blog.
Let’s talk about her characters. They all live in London during the latter half of the 20th Century, with flashbacks dating to World War II, the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s.
There’s a working class Muslim Bengali family whose parents are the product of an arranged marriage. They have one twin son who is a star student and good lad, and has been sent back to Bengal to live a pure life, away from the secular temptations of white-ruled London. The other twin son, a more reckless lad, stays in London and spends much of his time getting into trouble, getting high and getting laid. Dad is much older than Mom, and they fight constantly, both verbally and physically. The sons make bets over who will win.
There’s another working class family with an English Dad, his much younger Jamaican wife, and their mixed-race daughter (maybe based on Zadie herself). The Dad is a simple sort who wants nothing much more than a pint at the pub. Mum grew up in a devout Christian Jamaican family, and her own Mum doesn’t much like her marrying a white man.
There’s a middle-class white liberal family full of achievers who are not given to false modesty, are very impressed with their own bloodlines, but take a keen and not altogether disingenuous interest in more troubled folks with darker skin.
The novel is a multi-ethnic stew of different races, classes, religions, ages, sexual preferences and education levels. Zadie Smith writes these characters expertly, as if she inhabits them all. She is spot-on in the way they talk, the way they move, the way they think, the way they mix in the company of others. There is not a single one that is not fully realized and instantly believable.
This is what separates the Zadie Smiths of the world from lesser writers – the characters. It’s not an easy thing, writing characters honestly and accurately. Many (too many) come off wooden, half-baked, caricatures more than characters. I don’t exclude myself from that group. Too often I’ll write a character that sounds like someone I saw in a movie, someone I don’t quite nail, that I don’t quite know. It’s frustrating, because I think I have a pretty decent ear for dialogue and pretty good instinct for people. But converting that to the written page is a tough slog. It’s not just about getting the words right. You have to get inside their heads and bodies, hit all the notes precisely, whether they’re in a knife fight or simply flicking away a mosquito.
You know what else I love about writers who have great characters? They have no fear. They go in with both guns blazing, writing their characters as they see fit, not worried about who might be offended or how those characters might be perceived. Zadie Smith wrote “White Teeth” in the late 1990s, when she was a very young woman. It was published in 2000. This was before the era of “cultural appropriation,” before the self-righteousness that has bubbled up over writers writing characters they have not lived in the flesh.
If you’re not familiar with cultural appropriation as it pertains to fiction, you can read about it here and here and here. The short version is this: writers must be extra careful when they write characters that don’t fit into their own socio-ethnic-economic groups. A white male writer cannot possibly write a black female character accurately because he has no idea what it’s like to be a black female. Similarly, an Asian female writer cannot possibly understand what life is like for the Hispanic male character she wrote.
That’s only partly true, though. A writer from the dominant ethnic group and gender has a much higher litmus test than a writer from a minority ethnic group and historically oppressed gender. So in this sense, Zadie Smith would probably get a pass. She’s half-Jamaican (and thus considered black in most circles) in a white country, and female in a largely male-controlled world. The white, male and Southern writer William Styron, however, got more than a little grief for writing a first-person account of a black slave in “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”
One school of thought that is gaining more currency these days is that writers should stay in their respective lanes, write what they know and what they know only. That’s basically a lefty point-of-view, by the way. I know, being a lefty myself.
Is it fair? Should we delve into it further? Is it up for discussion?
I guess so, though I prefer to sit this one out.
If you asked me my real opinion, it’s this: f**k it. Writers should be free to write what they want to, in the way they want to, with the characters they want to. If they fail at it, they probably won’t get published anyway. And if by some miracle they do get published, then nobody has to buy the book. Should they take the time to research and know the characters they write? Of course. Should they shy away from writing them? Of course not. The minute you start dictating what art should look and sound like is the day you take creativity to the guillotine and chop its head off. It’s the same argument conservatives used to make against books deemed lewd or obscene, only now the nags are coming from the left instead of the right.
Maybe that’s just me fighting for my own piece of land. Because if I have to build a story around a male Filipino/Armenian/Scots/English/Swiss-German from a middle class American family because that’s the only experience I know, then I’d rather learn to play the tuba.