Identity in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Hanif Kureishi's "My Beautiful Laundrette"

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

35 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Causes of In-betweenness
II.1. Roots and Belonging
II.2. Preserving vs. Adapting
II.2.1. Samad & Hussein
II.2.2. Nasser & Ardashir
II.2.3. Clara & Cherry
II.3. Second Generation/ Generation Conflict
II.3.1. Irie & Tania
II.3.1. The Twins & Omar
II.4. Sexual Habits

III. Conflicts caused by In-betweenness
III.1. Religious
III.2. Ethical and Moral
III.3. Violence

IV. Positive Aspects of In-betweenness
IV.1. Friendship

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Who am I? What makes me me ? These are questions of daily importance to every individual human being. The question of what defines us in our personality cannot be answered in a single sentence, or easily. Multiple external factors from the field of culture such as ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexual orientation or history impinge on who we are, what we identify ourselves or are identified with. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, identity defines

Who or what a person or thing is; a distinct impression of a single person or thing presented to or perceived by others; a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person from others.[1]

Depending on a person’s social surroundings with all its cultural identifiers, his or her identity is shaped.

In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth and Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette identity is presented and problematised as “In-betweenness”[2]. Both works focus on immigrants and their children, the second generation, and the difficulties they face in their daily life caused by in-betweenness. In-betweenness as a term is quite self-explanatory and depicts ambiguity on several levels like belonging, ethnicity or sexual orientation/ habits, to name only a few. This ambiguity entails the social life of the characters as well as their emotional state. In the context of belonging, it is Cherry, from My Beautiful Laundrette, who first brings the term “in-betweenness” up:

Oh God, I’m so sick of hearing about these in-betweens. People should make up their minds where they are. (Kureishi, p. 37)

By this, she labels the subliminal topic of both literary works.

With In-betweenness as a special form of identity, this research paper searches for reasons and circumstances, which make the characters in White Teeth and My Beautiful Laundrette feel in-between. On the basis of their behaviour and emotional condition against the background of their cultural affiliations, it will also specify the conflicts and probable advantages the state of in-betweenness entails.

II. The Causes of In-betweeness

In-betweenness as a state of ambiguity a person might be in can be caused by many circumstances. Since White Teeth and My Beautiful Laundrette focus on immigrants in London hailing from South Asia and Jamaica, the reason for many of these characters to feel in-between is obvious. They live far away from their home country, are confronted with a new environment, different habits and attitudes. While not everybody is able to come to terms with London, because they try hard to preserve their roots and traditions, others try to adapt to their new situation, focusing to make most of it. Whatever reason there is for a person to feel in-between, they usually pass this on to their children. As the parental generation is living an ambiguous life, it is obvious the children do to, learning from their parents. However, they deal completely different with that situation, either trying to figure out where their roots are (e.g. Irie), or trying to push this away in order to focus on new ways (e.g. Magid). Yet, most importantly it comes to a conflict between parents and children, as the children feel at home where they grew up, however are seen as the immigrants their parents were[3]. It is also possible, that someone puts himself into in-betweenness, for instance by being in-between work and family (Marcus Chalfen), or committing adultery (Samad, Nasser). In the latter case, these men are in-between their family and their mistresses. As shown, many things can cause in-betweenness, the major circumstances of White Teeth and My Beautiful Laundrette shall be discussed as follows.

II.1. Roots and Belonging

As already implied, the major topic, which is responsible for in-betweenness in White Teeth and My Beautiful Laundrette is the question of belonging. Whereas the parental generation knows where their home is, namely where they were born and grew up, their inner conflict is depicted by the fact that this is also where their roots and large parts of their family are. With a sense of homesickness and the difference of England[4], characters tend to be drawn between two countries, the one they are living in at the moment and the one where their roots lay. It happens, that characters are drawn between both countries, like Alsana. She is a realistic nationalist[5] and “loves her homeland”[6]. Nevertheless,

she is aware that the socio political chaos in India would not be beneficial for their sons’ education and development, therefore she wants them to be educated in England, rather than in India. Her wish does not stem from an inferiority complex, but out of security problems in India. She pays attention to every single news about India on TV and the reports of the atrocities committed by the extremists in Bengal and fears the possibility of the spread of bloodshed in India after the death of Mrs. Indira Ghandi which can trigger more violence.[7]

This shows clearly her ability to evaluate the benefits of living in England. Although she misses her home country, she knows about the benefits of living abroad, even if that means to be far away from her extended family and some of her daily habits and little luxuries (“I come from the land of tea to this godawful country and then can’t afford a proper cup of it.[8]) As their financial situation does not allow her to go back, or at least to visit, she at any rate tries to be informed about the ongoing in Bangladesh and South Asia in general. Being very aware of her roots, she also adds former habits to her new life, such as wearing sari, and tries to live at peace with her situation. The most important to her are her children and for them she sacrifices longing for her home country. Also, she understands that the second generation has different ideas about roots and belonging than their parents do[9], after all their home is London. It turns out to be difficult for the second generation to combine their parents’ roots with their own. In this connection, it should not be forgotten that both second generations in White Teeth and My Beautiful Laundrette are described as adolescent, being no older than in their early twenties. Thus, they are in more than one identity crisis, do not now who they are or where they belong. Their parents’ suffer from being in-between increases their confusion. Even if they know where their home is, they also know that there is more to it and start digging for their roots:

Oh what a tangled web we weave. Millat was right: these parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth. These parents were full of information you wanted to know but were too scared to hear. But she didn’t want it any more, she was tired of it. She was sick of never getting the whole truth. She was returning to sender.[10]

Nevertheless, even if parts of their roots are to be found in their parents’ home country, as their parents usually raise them according to their best knowing and traditions, they mostly don’t even know a lot about it, let alone their parents mother-tongue[11]. This not knowing where their roots actually are combined with the feeling to please their parents, makes them in-betweeners.

II.2. Preserving vs. Adapting

Of course, there are different ways to deal with in-betweenness. However, the quandary to live at peace is to find ways to combine the ambiguity, which turns out not to be easy at all. Most characters struggle, the few at ease with their situation have learnt the hard way, like Irie searching for her roots, embracing all possibilities eventually[12]. Others, like Samad or Hussein are downright disappointed by their life in London. Furthermore, they cannot be the persons they have been in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Trying to preserve their roots does not combine with their life in England. Their relatives however, Ardashir and Nasser, have put their roots out of their minds and thus become successful businessman, making it in a world in which Samad and Nasser thought they would be able to. And then there are those characters, who believe to be no in-betweens, like Cherry, although they actually have not made up their minds where they are. In what way the mentioned characters are dealing with in-betweenness exactly, if they preserve their roots or try to adapt to their situation, or if they repress the condition of in-betweenness, shall be further looked into in the following chapters.

II.2.1. Samad & Hussein

The dilemma both, Samad (WT) and Hussein (MBL), are in originates amongst other things from their disappointment in the English working system that does not give them the opportunities to work in their learnt profession. Both have studied. While Samad should not work as a waiter, since he is overqualified for this job[13], it is the only job he got offered. Hussein, who has been “a famous journalist in Bombay”[14], does not even have a job in England, hence is so frustrated he is not leaving his bed anymore and drowns his dissatisfaction in alcohol[15]. As a marginal note, Darcus (WT), who does not leave his armchair either, does not speak properly and only watches TV[16] should be put into consideration about the letdown of the English working system, too. These feelings are so strong that both, Samad and Hussein, start to preserve their roots in order to protect them from any Anglicising.

He [Samad] tries to preserve his religion and culture […] which should remain entirely untouched by the British culture. With the same aim in his mind, in the past, his great-grand father [sic] put his life in danger. […] He asks “What am I going to do, after this war is over, this war that is already over – what am I going to do? Go back to Bengal? Or to Delhi? Who would have such an Englishman there? To England? Who would have such an Indian? They promise us independence in Exchange [sic] for the men we were. But it is a devilish deal” (Smith 2000, 112)[17]

After all that has happened to them, also the impossibility of going back to their home countries, they gain a romantic idea of their past, when all seems to have been perfect and clear. Also, as it seems obvious to them that they can’t do a lot about their situation, they try to bring their children up the best possible way, to survive in this country, which has not done them any good. Samad is doing that by sending Magid, the first born and cleverer one of the twins, back to Bangladesh, hoping he would grow to be a good Muslim, while he could look after Millat himself. Hussein wants Omar to go to college because “he must have knowledge […] in order to see clearly what’s being done and to whom in this country.”[18] However, both parents’ ideals have nothing on their children and so it comes that Magid returns being “more English than the English”[19], Millat joins the fundamentalist Islam group KEVIN and Omar prefers to set up a laundrette to quickly make “big money.”[20]

“There are no words. The one I send home comes out a pukka Englishman, white suited, silly wig lawyer. The one I keep here is fully paid-up green bow-tie-wearing fundamentalist terrorist. I sometimes wonder why I bother,” said Samad bitterly, betraying the English inflections of twenty years in the country, “I really do. These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. […] it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.” (Smith, p. 407)

These failed attempts to preserve theirs as well the roots of their children, bring Samad and Hussein to take more drastic actions about themselves. While Samad turns to god, “is in his own world”[21] and only answers his son by yelling at him[22], Hussein simply goes back to bed with his vodka. His hopes are with his brother, asking him to take care of Omar and marrying him off to his cousin Tania[23]. It has to be said that preserving and being distraught about their situation does not help them to improve it. Yet, Samad’s and Hussein’s personal disappointment is so big, that for themselves they see no other solution than to preserve and hide, to suffer from their ambiguous life.

II.2.2. Ardashir & Nasser

Samad’s cousin Ardashir and Hussein’s brother Nasser on the other hand, have accepted the in-betweenness of their belonging and tried to make the best out of it by adapting to England. Both are businessman and business is what counts to them the most. Ardashir runs a successful Indian restaurant at Leicester Square, “the biggest tourist trap in London”[24], which serves Westernised Indian food to please the English/ tourist customers. Nasser owns several places; such as the garage Omar first starts working for him or the laundrette, which becomes Omar’s in a short period of time. Even if they are businessman living according to Thatcherism, they also have a sense for family. Both have quite a big family and offer available jobs to family members, which are lousy paid. Samad works for Ardashir, Omar works for his uncle Nasser. At least Nasser provides promotion prospects for Omar, while Ardashir does not rise Samad’s wage[25]. Both try to make their way in their new home, which does not necessarily mean that they are not traditionalists. Nasser has a huge family, three daughters and a wife, who’s mind is still stuck in Pakistan, being illiterate and practicing magic to get rid off her husband’s mistress Rachel. It is natural to Nasser to marry off his eldest daughter to Omar, although these do not have a love relationship. Presumably, Nasser’s marriage got arranged as well, which would explain why he has a mistress. Making an effort to combine all possibilities there are, Nasser as well as Ardashir are able to limit their feelings of in-betweenness, at least if they feel in-between, they do not get distraught about England, like Hussein or Samad.

II.2.3. Clara & Cherry

Of course there are characters, who neither adapt nor preserve their roots. On the contrary, they repress them. Most obvious example for this is Cherry, who is a flat character. As she does not develop but only gives opinions without supporting those, she comes across ignorant of other people’s problems. Especially saying she were sick of in-betweeners shows her arrogant nature. Saying that, she tries to deny that she is an in-betweener herself. She likes to present herself as a modern woman, wearing mostly Western clothes[26] and, as Eva Ulrike Pirker described, she and her husband do “not feel ambiguous about their situation”, although “there are certainly two sides to their lifestyle.”[27]


[1] "identity, n.," OED Online, November 2010, Oxford University Press, 23 January 2011 <>.

[2] See Eva Ulrike Pirker, Transcultural Perspectives: Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000) (Paderborn: Fink, 2007) 52.

[3] For example Joyce Chalfen asking Irie and Millat where they originally were from. (Smith, p. 319)

[4] It is already the simple things that are different and that put someone into a melancholy position such as cold weather, foreign language (although English is an official language in Pakistan and India, it is not the character’s mother-tongue), foreign food and different ways of life.

[5] Fatma Kalpaklı, Zadie Smith: “White Teeth“. (Palo Alto: Academica Press, 2010) 157.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smith, p. 440.

[9] “He’s second gernation – you always say it yourself – you need to let them go their own way.“ (Smith p. 346)

[10] See ibid, p. 379.

[11] See Kureishi, p. 37.

[12] See Smith, pp. 338, 541.

[13] See ibid, p. 58.

[14] Kureishi, p. 39.

[15] This disappointment is not the only reason why he starts drinking, but also because his wife comitted suicide.

[16] See Smith, p. 31.

[17] Kalpaklı, p. 147.

[18] Kureishi, p. 99.

[19] See Smith ch. 14.

[20] Kureishi, p. 95.

[21] See Smith, p. 344.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See Kureishi, p. 125 – 126.

[24] Smith, p. 59.

[25] Ibid, pp. 59 – 61.

[26] This is better depicted in the film than in the screenplay.

[27] Pirker, p. 52.

Excerpt out of 35 pages


Identity in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Hanif Kureishi's "My Beautiful Laundrette"
University of Paderborn  (Institut für Kulturwissenschaften)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette, White Teeth, identity, in-betweenness, inbetweenness, multiculturalism
Quote paper
Elisabeth Werdermann (Author), 2011, Identity in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Hanif Kureishi's "My Beautiful Laundrette", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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