• Sascha Nixon


“So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond.”

Zadie Smith’s triumphant debut novel, White Teeth, became a national bestseller 20 years ago. Smith uniquely balances reality and humor, as events that would otherwise be appalling to readers are often infused with a hilarious wit. Readers will walk a fine line between laughing and crying as they take an emotional journey through Smith’s words.    

White Teeth primarily focuses on two families: the Iqbals and the Joneses. Of the four married characters, three are immigrants or from immigrant families. The novel takes place during a transitional period in history, the 1970s through the 1990s, yet also flashes back in time to other periods that impacted the main characters. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or Rebellion, is one such period. Another is World War II. As a child of the late 90s, I did not always get Smith’s subtler references to historical events, but in a way I enjoyed this. I spent time researching certain elements of her story, which allowed me to connect more deeply to the content and the characters.   

Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, the two husbands, met during World War II and have forever remained stuck in that period of their lives. Samad’s children then grow and face a divided world. At home, Samad’s sons—Millat and Magid—face constant reminders of their heritage and the importance of becoming good, Muslim Bangladeshis. However, Western culture influences the boys every single day. Archie’s daughter, Irie, experiences a somewhat different problem. She knows that there is more to her heritage than she has even heard, but her mother does not discuss this with her. I admit, I do not share this immigrant experience. However, through Smith’s story, I was able to grasp a more complete understanding of the internal turmoil faced by those who feel separated from their homes or cultures. I often felt compelled to ask myself how I would react under circumstances similar to those faced by the characters. Smith encourages empathy in readers through her bold and timeless storytelling. 

Though set in Britain, the novel expertly addresses themes that are still relevant in countries around the globe. Topics such as immigration, religion, gender roles, belonging, freedom, and more are present in every chapter. Yet Smith’s writing also subtly reminds readers that her fictional characters do not mirror every immigrant’s experience. While Samad’s feelings of loss and separation are relatable for so many, he is still a fictional man, and the way in which he approaches certain aspects of his life are not meant to represent immigrant experiences as a whole. The author makes clear that the pseudo-understanding of privileged citizens, or the erroneous assumptions privileged citizens make, do not contribute to a better understanding of other cultures and identities. 

Smith addresses white privilege through the somewhat humorous yet frustrating actions of the Chalfen family. As a white woman, I felt challenged by Smith’s words in the best possible way.  The Chalfen family was uncomfortably familiar at times, leading me to question my own privilege and consider how certain comments could be interpreted by those other than myself.  Travel and a college education do not make me a citizen of the world; developing thoughtful relationships between people of different backgrounds and beliefs do.

White Teeth leaves readers with something to ponder in every chapter. As the story progresses, Smith transitions from a focus on Samad and Archie to a focus on their children. In doing this, she seems to indicate that younger generations have the power to choose their own paths. If young people choose to work towards a more understanding world, perhaps we will create a better one.

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