White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Zadie Smith's debut novel White Teeth met with remarkable critical acclaim around the world. White Teeth focuses on two families living in London: the family of Archie Jones, a former British soldier, and that of Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi soldier who fought alongside Jones in World War II. The novel, published in 2000, uses these two individuals as focal points from which to examine the roles of race and ethnicity in modern Western society. In particular, Smith seeks to portray the reality of how European civilization relates to the cultures it had previously colonized.

The British Empire occupied vast territories across the globe, and in White Teeth Smith discusses the impact of British culture on the cultures of former colonies, and vice versa. At the same time, the novel also depicts the genuine friendship of Jones and Iqbal, providing a sharp contrast to the perception of cultural erosion and appropriation. Smith's novel has been praised as a testament to the contemporary British experience, and it was listed on TIME Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels, a list of the magazine's choices for top 100 English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.

1. Smith started writing White Teeth while studying for her college finals.

Smith completed her manuscript for White Teeth between the ages of 21 and 22—a fact that astounded fans and publishers alike. Smith found time to work on the novel while studying for final exams at the University of Cambridge. Although the book wasn't published until age 24, publishers were extremely excited upon receiving the manuscript, and Smith received numerous competing offers.

2. Smith now thinks White Teeth is just "okay."

In a 2012 interview, Smith explained that White Teeth no longer felt like her own book. When asked if it was true that she could no longer even open a copy of the novel, she replied:

Never ever. To me it's a book by a different person, and it's not to my taste. But I will say, now that I've grown, I can look back and think, Okay, it's okay for a 22-year-old. It is what it is. It's full of flaws but I think fondly of that 22-year-old who wrote it. Whereas before she filled me with total horror.

3. Smith once interviewed rapper Eminem. It didn't go well.

In addition to writing fiction, Smith has served as a contributor for numerous publications, often conducting interviews with guests. In 2003 she interviewed rapper Eminem for Vibes Magazine—an interview that, according to Smith, went rather poorly. Smith would sometimes cite her failed interview in later articles, describing the encounter:

I'm not good at this. I interviewed Eminem a while ago and when I got home and transcribed it, it was more like "An interview with Zadie Smith in which Eminem occasionally says yes and uh-huh." I talk too much.

4. Smith has been compared with author Salman Rushdie—a comparison she detests.

Numerous reviewers and outlets have compared Smith's writing with that of Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, famous for his controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Both novelists focus on the experiences of people of color living in modern British society, but Smith considers the comparison "racist nonsense." Smith and Rushdie did embark on a book tour together, however, and Rushdie provided Smith with a promotional endorsement on the back cover of White Teeth.

5. In her writing, Smith tries to get under people's skin.

In an interview, Smith noted that she writes from a variety of cultural and ethnic perspectives in order to understand those characters' points of view, mostly stemming from her own curiosity. As a response to a question about cultural appropriation in literature, Smith explained:

In terms of things that I borrow, of course I use things all the time. I have absolutely no defense apart from I love and am curious about other people's lives and I am explicitly a voyeur. That's why I started writing: because I wanted to know what's it like to be a Jewish Chinese guy or an old black woman or a white professor or whatever. That is my absolute intention to get under the skin and do that. I can be wrong. People tell me I'm wrong all the time. I get letters and people get grumpy, but that's the risk you take.

6. Samad Iqbals's ancestor, Mangal Pande, was a real Indian revolutionary.

Throughout White Teeth, the waiter Samad Iqbal speaks with pride of his ancestor Mangal Pande (also spelled Pandey). Pande was vital to an uprising against the British occupation of India. In 1857 he led an attack against British officers—the start of what is referred to as the First War of Independence. Pande allegedly attempted to convince his companions to engage the soldiers as well, but ended up doing so himself, attacking two of them. He was promptly arrested and executed, but he was viewed as a martyr who inspired subsequent revolts. Pande was commemorated by the Indian government in 1984 with a postage stamp bearing his image.

7. Smith explained she wasn't upset by changes made in the televised adaptation of White Teeth.

White Teeth was adapted for a BBC miniseries in 2002 and later aired by PBS in the United States. Smith recalled her amazement as she walked along the casting line for the series, stunned at the number of actors and actresses waiting to audition. The adaptation featured several deviations from Smith's original plot—particularly a change in the motivation of Samad in sending his child to Bangladesh—but Smith did not react with disappointment to these changes. She explained:

A cut has been made; a motivation inserted, and an artistic clarity is the result. The moment I saw it, I gasped—this section of the novel would have been so improved had I thought of the same strategy. It is this kind of cutting and pasting in the film that I most enjoyed; it taught me a lesson.

8. Smith changed the spelling of her name at age 14.

Zadie Smith was actually born Sadie Smith, but she made the decision to change the first letter of her first name at age 14. The rationale behind this name change was, reportedly, to make herself sound "more exotic."

9. "White teeth" are mentioned only once, briefly, in the novel.

Smith has described the purpose of the title White Teeth as a through line that links the characters together in a novel about ethnic difference—despite everything else, the characters all share white teeth. However, "white teeth" are mentioned only once in the novel, in a brief and unremarkable fashion. Mr. Hamilton, an aging, ex-military man, mentions that:

One sometimes forgets the significance of teeth. We're not like the lower animals—teeth replaced regularly and all that—we're of the mammals, you see. And mammals only get two chances, with teeth.

10. Reviewers had trouble categorizing White Teeth as a comedy or a philosophical novel.

Reviewers have noted that White Teeth defies typical categorization. Although the novel is philosophical in nature, serving as a reflection and meditation on colonialism and racial disparity in the West, Smith also includes comedic interludes and upbeat characters. In a review, the New York Times noted:

It's a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer—a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. This, "White Teeth" announces, is someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio.

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