Table of Contents
The Central Conflict
The Fear of Dissolution
Multiculturalism as not only a Feature of Britain
Culture Clash as a Worldwide Phenomenon
Foreign Influences throughout British History
The European Core Culture
Soon after Zadie Smith’s novel on multiculturalism in Great Britain was published, White Teeth (2000) aroused lively discussion among critics on how to define this new theme in fiction. An Economist reviewer subsumed the main conflict of the novel to a “post-post-colonial era” (qtd. in Moss 11). The term accurately reflects its relevance to the British nation. However, the term’s reference to history misses the real impact of the book. Laura Moss’ view of a “state of hybridity” (12) falls short, as well. The conflict in White Teeth is not historical but sociological; it reflects the dilemma of the second-generation immigrants in Great Britain. It is a generation caught between two sets of moral values and between two cultural spheres.
The clash between two cultural spheres in one country is the central conflict in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth. The conflict is illustrated by second-generation Bangladeshi immigrants in Great Britain. This young generation have to meet with contradicting expectations. The first generation of immigrants expect their children to preserve the indigenous values of their home country. In order to lead a successful life, the second generation of immigrants have to absorb the western Protestant values of Great Britain. The characters’ efforts to find their own identity in society is portrayed in this tragicomedy.
Zadie Smith portrays the life of a young Bengali second-generation immigrant in the excerpt. Hybridity here is depicted as “part of the practice of everyday life” (Moss 11) of the narrator. Their “everyday life” is determined by the fear of “dissolution [and] disappearance” (326) of her own indigenous values as revealed by her thought of the future family tree:
Even the unflappable Alsana Iqbal would regularly wake up in a puddle of her own sweat after a night visited by visions of Millat (genetically BB; where B stands for Bengali-ness) marrying someone called Sarah (aa where `a´ stands for Aryan), resulting in a child called Michael (B a), who in turn marries someone called Lucy (aa), leaving Alsana with a legacy of unrecognizable great-grandchildren (Aaaaaaa!) (…). (Smith 326)
Another part of her “everyday life” is her worries about her parents. They do not accept their son having fallen in love with a British girl:
When Millat brought an Emily or a Lucy back home, Alsana quietly wept in the kitchen, Samad went into the garden to attack the coriander. The next morning was a waiting game, furious biting of tongues until the Emily or Lucy left the house and the war of words could begin. (Smith 327)
The narrator’s parents expect their children to preserve their native culture. They do not come to terms with the impact of the Protestant western culture. Therefore, the parents or rather first-generation of immigrants see their culture dissolute when their children marry a native British. Hoping to lead a successful life, the second-generation of immigrants, or rather their children’s generation have to conform to the norms of the western culture. That is what British society expects. The children of immigrants are in a conflict between their family and their host society, eventually resulting in a conflict with their inner selves. This conflict epitomises the second-generation of immigrants.
This conflict does not exclusively epitomise the British society. Even though an Economist reviewer called Alsana Iqbal’s inner conflict “post-post-colonial” (qtd. in Moss 11) and thus directly linked this theme to British history. In London, there are large groups of Indians and Hong Kong Chinese. By the year 2011, Leicester is expected to become the first major city in which the Ugandan and Kenyan sections of the population together are larger than the white (cf. Commission for Racial Equality). India, Hong Kong, Uganda and Kenya were colonies of the British Empire. Today, people of these former colonies form the largest groups of the non-indigenous British population. Since the 1960s, Great Britain has supported a steady but regulated flow of immigration. Therefore, Great Britain is a multiethnic society, but just one among many others. In 1995, the American journalist Jerry Adler said that “in the next century everywhere is going to be multiethnic, it’s just for that […]
America has got there first” (41). As a result, for instance, Germany has become a multicultural society in the past fifty years. Germany’s share of a non-indigenous population is as large as Great Britain’s (cf. Gordeeva). Today, as many Turks, Serbs, and Iranians live in German cities as Caribbean, Bangladeshi or Indians do in British, even though Germany has never been a great colonial power.
Alsana Iqbal’s dilemma of dissolution does not typify British society. People are caught between two cultural spheres, everywhere. It is not only Alsana Iqbal who fears that her identity could disappear and Zadie Smith is not the only writer to fictionalise such conflict for a wide readership. The American essayist Gary Engle claims that the comic book hero Superman embodies the cultural assimilation of immigrants in the early 20th century. In his 2000 article What makes Superman so darned American? he writes that immigrants had to “[forsake] the past in favor of total absorption into the mainstream” (32) of American society. At the same time this meant the “loss of [their] religious, linguistic, even culinary traditions” of their home country. The immigrants to America had to reinvent themselves. Superman reinvents himself, as well. He becomes Clark Kent, “a figure as weak as his alter ego is strong”. The shape-shifting between the ordinary American and the supernatural hero “addresses in dramatic terms the theme of cultural assimilation” of the immigrants in America. The Bangladeshi Millat has to assimilate into a new society, as well. To that end, he has to reinvent his identity and eventually reinvent himself.
Yet, this is not the only example of the clash between cultures. The culture conflict that occurs in the Turkish city of Batman is similar to that of Millat’s. There, young women are forced to commit suicide if they adopt a western lifestyle. The author Dan Bilefsky writes in his article 'Virgin suicides' save Turks' 'honor' that their offences range from “stealing a glance at a boy to wearing a short skirt [and] wanting to go to the movies”. These young women have dishonoured their family; at least in their parents’ eyes. Hoping to join the European Union, Turkey has imposed severe punishments on murder in the name of honour. Therefore, the parents pressurise their children until they kill themselves. These young women are the second-generation of expellees from rural villages in the north who came to Batman because of war between Turks and Kurds.
Batman is a town of 250,000 people in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey, where “religion is clashing with Turkey’s secularism” (Bilefsky). The conflict between conservative Muslims and their children that seek to embrace the secular values of the republic is comparable to Millat’s. He is in a conflict with his parents, as well, due to his having conformed to the values of Great Britain. Even though his parents came to the United Kingdom on safety and economy grounds rather than being expelled from their native country and even though this conflict does not result in killings.
Clashes between cultures are at the same time clashes between generations. Millat’s parents are disappointed when he brings a British girl back home because they fear that their native traditions could disappear. Conservative Islamists in Turkey feel their family dishonoured when their daughters follow a western lifestyle. These conflicts are always the result of a difference in attitude and behaviour. The point is only that this difference is so enormous. Hence, Zadie Smith portrays the dilemma of the second-generation of immigrants in Great Britain.
Culture clashes have been a recurrent feature of British history. It was the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who tried to persuade sceptics of British immigration policy. In his Chicken Tikka Masala Speech he argued that “the idea that Britain was a ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon society before the arrival of communities from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa is fantasy.” Great Britain has been open to foreign influences throughout its history. The Celts were conquered by the Romans, who in turn, were driven out by the Anglo-Saxons. In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England. After the conquest, several kings reigned over Britain who were eligible of French but not of English. These examples illustrate that foreign influences have led to clashes between cultures throughout British history. Even if this comparison with today’s multiculturalism is symbolic, it proves that the theme in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth does not epitomise this century.
The comparison of the foreign influences in the past with today’s multiculturalism confirms that a hybrid identity cannot exist. It did not exist in the past; it cannot exist in the present. Even if Laura Moss asserts “hybridity is no longer an exception to a concept of identity based on some kind of unity, or even unity in diversity” (12).
A country needs a limited number of values that are shared by everyone. Millat and Alsana Iqbal need to conform to the Protestant British values to a certain degree in order to lead a successful life. A modern society cannot survive if it is based on the principle of “unity in diversity”. The German orientalist Bassam Tibi claimed that a society with a pluralistic set of values could not exist. He coined the term “European core culture” in view of the emerging multiculturalism in European societies. The
“European core culture” needs a set of values that are based on “those of modernity: democracy, secularism, the Enlightenment, human rights and civil society” (154). Bassam Tibi’s remarks carry weight, as he is an immigrant himself. He is in the same situation like the characters in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth. They all have to accept the principles of their host society.
The novel White Teeth was published at a time when people became aware of the advantages and the problems of a multicultural society. At the turn of the millennium, the second-generation immigrants, for the most part, had grown up. The social position of this adolescent generation of the non-indigenous population showed the state of integration. The society is celebrating its multiculturalism. The diversity of religions, languages and traditions is a great asset that contributes to the vitality of every society. This diversity of culture causes severe problems, as well – not just in the United Kingdom but also in every society with non-indigenous population. Politicians demand from the immigrants to assimilate into the mainstream society to become a prosperous part of it. The parents of this second-generation of immigrants want them to maintain the family culture in the host society. Finding a believable balance between these two contradicting expectations is next to impossible. It is the dilemma of this generation to come to terms with this culture conflict. Fictionalising this dilemma, Zadie Smith reflects this phenomenon of a multicultural society artistically.
In conclusion, this article on culture clashes in Zadie Smith’s tragicomedy White Teeth provides very many examples that support the thesis of this literary essay. Since the focus of research was on a short extract of the novel, the whole storyline and with it the development of the characters in the book could not be considered. Zadie Smith’s purpose in writing White Teeth has not been the interest of this essay, either. The argumentation within this article has gone beyond literature, analysing the reasons for such conflicts in reality as portrayed in Smith’s novel. Culture clashes are a recurrent feature in every society. People are obliged to reinvent their identity and eventually reinvent themselves. Because this reinvention process affects the people’s inner selves, culture clashes have been chosen frequently as a theme in literature.
Adler, Jerry. "What Is an American?"Newsweek 10 July 1995: 41.
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