Postcolonial London

The Metropolis in Zadie Smith’s 'White Teeth'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
22 Pages, Grade: 1




I. Postcolonial London
1. Postcolonialism
2. London
a) London as a Physical Location
b) London as an Imagined Place
3. Conclusion

II. London in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
1. Characters
a) Caribbean
b) Bangladeshi
c) White British
d) Conclusion
2. Locations
3. Language




By seeing London, I have seen
as much of life as the world can show.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)


Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth deals with families and generations from diverse ethnic backgrounds; and in the four main chapters Archie 1974, 1945, Samad 1984, 1857, Irie 1990, 1907, and Magid, Millat and Marcus 1992, 1999, she approaches them from several angles. As a result, there has been a discussion on who is to be treated as the central character in this novel.[1] One possible answer to this is offered by Nina Shen Rastogi:

The main character in White Teeth isn’t a character in any traditional sense – it’s the city of London itself. Smith’s goal is less to paint a portrait of any particular character than it is to create a large-scale character sketch of a particular place and a particular time. White Teeth is about the foibles of a community of near-strangers and almost-friends as it collectively stumbles towards an uncertain future.[2]

The paper will investigate this approach by dealing with London as it is depicted in this postcolonial novel.

After a working definition on the diversely discussed notion of postcolonialism (I.1), there will be a closer look on London, both as a physical location (I.2.a) and a literary region (I.2.b). The main issues will be the history of immigration, facts about multiculturalism today, and a brief look on how the colonial legacy has been depicted in postcolonial literature in London. A conclusion (I.3) will summarize the results and present some main questions for the analysis of White Teeth (II).

Here, the paper will take a look on the role of the characters interacting with each other and on how they compromise between their cultural legacy and London’s society (II.1). This will be the major part of the analysis. In two short chapters, this view will be extended by the use of location (II.2) and language (II.3).

The conclusion finally tries to sum up the main aspects gathered in this line of argument.

I. Postcolonial London

1. Postcolonialism

The opinions about the definition of term “postcolonialism” are quite diverse.[3] What seems common in all approaches is that postcolonialism deals with the time after the end of colonialism and the effects that colonisation has had on the colonised countries in the time of independence since then.

Postcolonial literature incorporates the “New Literatures in English”[4] that come from these colonies and broadly deal with the themes of postcolonialism, i. e. power relations, the relation between nation(s) and state, as well as issues of race, class, and gender in relation to the colonial past.

Within this frame there are many different views on what is particularly postcolonial, what still belongs to it, and what does not. It includes up to

the study and analysis of European territorial conquests, the various institutions of European colonialism, the discursive operations of empire, the subtleties of subject construction in colonial discourse and the resistance of those subjects, and, most importantly perhaps, the differing responses to such incursions and their contemporary colonial legacies in both pre- and post-independence nations and communities.[5]

Talking about London, this paper will be dealing with one of these legacies because, as is to be shown in the following chapter, there are plenty of post-independence communities in London. Thus, it is not uncommon to speak about a postcolonial London: “Both the ‘metropolis’ and the ‘colony’ were deeply altered by the colonial process. Both of them are, accordingly, also restructured by decolonisation.”[6] A term that is often used in this context is “transformation”.[7] With decolonisation, it continuously challenges the former imperial power structures. “The postcolonial, then, describes valuable protean forms of resistance, disruption, agency, contestation and change.”[8] The following chapter will take a closer look on how this change effects London.

2. London

The dissolution of the British Empire changes a lot in the colonies, but due to migration also in Britain, and especially in London. The following chapter follows McLeod’s distinction of London in a physical location and an imagined place.[9] According to his postcolonial perspective, London is transformed in two different dimensions.

The physical layer concerns the location London as we might find it on a map. There, London’s transformation takes place by the factual results of migration.
People settle, shops open, streets, neighbourhoods, and boroughs change. Thus, postcolonial London is the changing location of London after the end of colonialism.

The imaginative layer deals with London as theme of aesthetic representation. The way London is treated in art – especially in literature – has changed with many artists from former colonies now living in London and dealing with their experiences in the metropolis. By creating novels which play in London or even deal with London as main theme, they form and transform the concept of the city. They give new perspectives on the city. Thus, postcolonial London is also created in the artworks of postcolonial artists.

In McLeod’s theory these two approaches are not separate from each other, but continuously interact. It is obvious that the location London as the place where postcolonial artists live has an influence on how they create their aesthetic concepts of the city. But, it also works the opposite direction: artworks of London are made for an audience. They are shown, read, discussed, and criticised. This process implements the imaginative view of London in the city as such, which again has influence on the development itself.[10]

This multidimensional concept of London is a dynamic process including the location, the people(s), the culture(s), and their views on it in the representations they make of it.

a) London as a Physical Location

Ethnic minorities have been present in London for a very long time.[11] There are already examples of black people dating back to the 12th century. They were mostly part of the allegedly lower entertainment such as theatre, music, magic, and brothels. During the 16th century the black population increased. Slavery became more and more important and thus many black people were used as servants, prostitutes and entertainers, however, Shakespeare’s Othello (1603) even indicates the possibility of black person even in a higher social position. In the 17th and 18th century slavery becomes more and more important until it is abolished in Britain (1807) and the Empire (1833). In the late 18th century already 3 % of London’s population are black.[12]

The role of trade and the British colonialism already have a certain impact on London’s cultural diversity. By influencing the world, the world also influences Britain, and its capital in particular.

In the beginning of the 20th century many critical, anti-colonial intellectuals from the colonies already live in London.[13] Their meetings and discussions form an early centre of resistance against British authority within its very heart.[14]

With the end of colonialism this tendency becomes even more prominent: many people from the former colonies now settle in London, mostly for economical reasons. The inhabitants of the colonies are British subjects and thus have the right to live in the motherland as well.[15] At first this does not change with independence.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

After World War II, many people are encouraged to move to Great Britain as cheap workers. Britain needs workers whereas there are huge problems of poverty and starving in the former colonies. When the wave of immigration seems to flood the island, different laws try to reduce the amount of further immigration (the Commonwealth Immigration Act [1962] and its renewal [1968], the Immigration Act [1971], and the British Nationality Act [1981]). It all leads to a complicated immigration system which has quite often been criticised to be racially discriminatory.

Today, 7.9 % of the British population are non-white (4.6 million).[17] More than half of them come from Asia, especially from the former Indian colony. Another quarter of the ethnic minorities is black, mostly from Africa and the Caribbean.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Nearly half of the non-white British population live in London (45 %)[19]. There, they form more than 29 % of the capital’s population. With more than 300 different languages, London thus is a multicultural melting pot.[20]

The distribution in Greater London is particular: most of the ethnic groups form certain neighbourhoods, nowadays some parts of London are mainly known for the ethnic group that live there, such as Whitechapel and Tower Hamlets (Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyanese), Southall (India, Pakistan), but also Hampstead (South Africa) as well as Clapham and Balham (Ghana).[21] These neighbourhoods have a quite ambivalent appearance. On the one hand, they are the traditionally poor regions, areas of the working class and partially ghettos. On the other hand, some of these areas turn into highly stylish or cultural areas. The East End, especially around Brick Lane, is full of alternative culture and art mixed with expensive Indian restaurants – one of London’s hotspots for tourists and middle-class Londoners.

As the charts of Greater London indicate,[22] the white British population tend to live in the suburbs whereas the ethnic minorities live rather central. Black Caribbean immigrants mainly live in Brent, the South around Lambeth, Southwark, and Lewisham as well as the North East around Hackney. The Bangladeshi community live mainly in Tower Hamlets with a regional population of up to 58 %.

As indicated above, already colonialism has impact on London’s population and cultural diversity. But with the end of colonialism the face of London changes even more rapidly. That is why a postcolonial perspective on London is of interest.[23] Via immigration London is transformed, the Empire is surmounted, cultures mix, even between colonisers and colonised, new views on the former centre of the Empire are created.

b) London as an Imagined Place

The views people have of the city are represented in literature. With authors migrating from former colonies to London the perspective on London changes and thus the representation of London in their novels:

[i]n such ways might culture, and especially literature, offer transformative resources to those of us who demand an end to the divisiveness and prejudices which often found their origins in the attitudes of the Empire.[24]


[1] Cf. Nina Shen Rastogi, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth . Barnes & Noble Reader’s Companion, Spark Notes, Barnes & Noble, New York 2003, 34–38.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] The following after Bill Ashcroft / Gareth Griffiths / Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, Routledge, London 1998, 186–192.

[4] Ibid., 186.

[5] Ibid., 187.

[6] Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, London 1998, 19; quoted after John McLeod, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the metropolis, Routledge, London 2004, 15.

[7] McLeod 2004, 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 7–10.

[10] In other art forms the influence is equally important: McLeod 2004 mentions the role of song and dance in the rebuilding of London in the 1950, 25–27.

[11] If not indicated differently the following after Sukhdev Sandhu, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, Harper, London 2003, xv–xxvi.

[12] McLeod 2004, 6.

[13] Ibid., 5–6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] If not indicated differently the following after Franz Ansprenger, “Erbe des Empire. Bedeutungswandel des Commonwealth“, in: Hans Kastendiek / Karl Rohe / Angelika Volle, Länderbericht Großbritannien. Geschichte, Politik, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn 1998, 405–419.

[16] Office for National Statistics (1), “Population and Immigration” , National Statistics Online, <> (19/1/06).

[17] Cf. Tab. 1.

[18] Office for National Statistics (2), “Population and Immigration” , National Statistics Online, <> (19/1/06).

[19] Cf. Tab. 2.

[20] McLeod 2004, 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cf. Tab. 3.

[23] McLeod 2004, 1–7.

[24] John McLeod, “Revisiting Postcolonial London”, in: The European English Messenger 14.2 Autumn 2005, 39–46.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Postcolonial London
The Metropolis in Zadie Smith’s 'White Teeth'
University of Marburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Postmodern and/or Postcolonial:Contemporary Writing from Britain and the Commonwealth
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
532 KB
Postcolonialism, Postmodernism, Zadie Smith, White Teeth, London, Martin Kuester
Quote paper
Michael Koehler (Author), 2006, Postcolonial London, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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