Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" - Irie as an example for 2nd generation immigrants’ desperate search for their place in a multicultural society

Term Paper, 2006

29 Pages, Grade: A-


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Irie Ambrosia Jones

3. Irie’s unrootedness

4. Her social environment
4.1. First generation immigrant: Samad Miah Iqbal
4.2. Second generation immigrant: Millat Iqbal

5. Irie’s development
5.1. Obsession with Englishness
5.1.1. Influence of the Chalfens
5.1.2. ‘Wrongness of the body’
5.1.3. Irie’s failure
5.2. Jamaican roots
5.3. ‘Happy Multicultural Land’

6. ‘Perfect blankness of the past’

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliographie

1. Introduction

“This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment” (Smith, 271)

Indeed, according to recent statistics, 40% of London-born children have at least one parent, who is not entirely Caucasian (Hattenstone cited in Moss, p.11), so “racial mixing has become deeply embedded and rooted in the society” (Walters, 316).

Since the British Nationality Act of 1948 thousands of immigrants from the former British Empire have come in great numbers into Britain. Even after many legal limitation of immigration laws, the number still increases.

This influx of cultures is the background for Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth,

[…] a contemporary portrayal of the British city, now a multicultural metropolis. It is a picture of the economically strapped, burstling world of immigrants from one culture, struggling to find a place for themselves and their children far from their birthplaces. (Goldblatt, 52)

The immigrants are dislocated from their home and have to struggle with the difficulties of living in a collapsed empire. The situation is difficult for the children of first generation immigrants when they come from a biracial background. They are growing up in Britain, but outwardly they are also rooted in their mother country. One of the characters describes their position as “One leg in the present, one in the past” (Smith, 68).

It is very interesting to see how this situation is depicted in this contemporary novel. Irie, one of the main characters, is a second generation immigrants’ child and she has to undergo a difficult and disappointing development in order to find her place in London’s contemporary society.

To begin with, I will give a short introduction to Irie and her racially mixed background. This introduction will lead to a chapter about her feeling of unrootedness as a consequence of lacking role models and her unawareness of her own family’s history. To get more involved in Irie’s life and problems, in the following chapters, two major characters from her social environment will be shortly analyzed: Samad Iqbal, her father’s best friend and a first generation immigrant and Millat, his son, Irie’s first love and one of her best friends. Both of them also struggle with their racial identity. Samad is afraid of losing too much of his traditions, and Millat has to deal with a lot of different racial influences. In the end, both characters will not be helpful for Irie to find her place because they have not even come up with a solution for themselves. So she has to undergo a personal development.

Firstly, she decides to integrate more with English society. England is the country where she grew up, and indeed, she herself is half-English. She develops a kind of obsession with Englishness encouraged by the Chalfens, who she sees as her idols. She also becomes obsessed with Western beauty notions.

Finally, she comes to realise that she cannot change her Jamaican body to an English body and that her longing for purity can only end in failure.

When she decides to have a closer look at her Jamaican identity, she begins to inform herself about Jamaican culture. In the end, she realises that she cannot deny part of herself, but she has to accept both of her origins and her life in an emerging multicultural society. She still keeps her personal vision that one day maybe roots and cultural origins would no longer matter and racial difference might not be an issue.

2. Irie Ambrosia Jones

One of White Teeth ’s main characters is Irie Ambrosia Jones, whose first name is a patois word and simply means „everything OK, cool, peaceful” (Smith, 64). She was born and grew up in multicultural London, and she is the daughter of the English Archie Jones and the Jamaican immigrant Clara Bowden. For many second generation immigrants’ children, this biracial background is a problematic one, especially as Irie’s outer appearance is that of a Black Jamaican girl, although she has never been to Jamaica. She does not know too much about her mother’s history because no one wanted to tell her. Her position between two cultures has many different names among critics:

Ontological uncertainty, coupled with conflicting societal influences, paradoxically results in experiencing both a lack of belonging as well as what one critic [Ahmad] has defined as an “excess of belonging”. This so called ‘excess” […] is a consequence of belonging to “too many places at once” […]. Kwame Dawes calls this hybridity an “in-between identity”; Ali Rattansi uses the term “hyphenated identity”; and Homi Bhabha posits the notion that the offspring of migrants must inhabit the “third space”. (Thompson, 123f)

So living in this often defined and problematic “third space” is not easy, and she has to deal with a lot of difficulties and uncertainties. The self-definition process is always more difficult for the young second generation, as they have to connect two different cultural backgrounds.

3. Irie’s unrootedness

In developing a personal identity, it is important to be aware of one’s own roots. The reader gets to know in the beginning of White Teeth with the statement “What is past is prologue” (Smith, 1). Here, Irie’s uncertainty already starts: she does not know much about her mother’s history and consequently, about her Jamaican origin. She has had no first-hand experiences, because she never visited Jamaica, and her family tree is full of gaps and abstractions. Her history stays a mystery to her, “a long list of parental hypocrisies and untruths” (Smith, 314), as part of “the Jones / Bowden gift for secret histories, stories you never got told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumor you never unravelled, which would be fine if every day was not littered with clues, and suggestions” (Smith, 314). So why is everyone so close-mouthed about her full-blooded Jamaican great-grandparents for example? Maybe because there were things they do not want to share with next generations? Maybe the heavy earthquake that occurred at the moment of Irie’s grandmother Hortense’s birth just saved her great-grandmother Ambrosia from being raped by a certain Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, the man after whom Irie’s school is named. And maybe Ambrosia’s impregnation happened on “one drunken evening” (Smith, 295), when English Captain Charlie Durham, who loved her “just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland” (Smith, 299), gave her “a little English education” (Smith, 295), before he left her forever. Maybe, therefore, it is enough to mention an English stock on Hortense’s side, and Hortense says: “De past in done wid. Nobody learn nothing from it” (Smith in Moss, 11).

Moreover, Irie’s mother Clara herself does not have such a strong connection to her past any longer, as she lost contact with her mother. Hortense did not appreciate an interracial marriage (although Charlie Durham and Ambrosia were also English and Jamaican): “Black and white never come to no good” (Smith, 318). Clara, nevertheless, married Archie and their cultures intermingle. Therefore, Irie and Clara had an issue that was “mostly unspoken, for Clara knew she was not in a position to preach” (Smith, 272).

Generally, Clara can hardly function as a role model for Irie as she, in Archie’s words, “was not that kind of black” (Smith, 46). She has “European proportions” (Smith, 221) and needs no bra, whereas Irie “was landed instead with Hortense’s substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes, and Guavas” (Smith, 221). Even the English Markus Chalfen is more than impressed by her breasts. Although it is said that Clara “had roots” (Smith, 24), she already lost parts of them. For example, symbolically, this is shown by the fact, that she has no upper teeth, which she tried to hide from Irie. She even neglects her Jamaican roots, as she refers to her grandfather Captain Charlie Durham’s “good English education” (Smith, 294), when asked by Joyce Chalfen which side of the family gave Irie intelligence. Later she regrets her answer, which was “false as her own white teeth” (Smith, 294).

According to Smith herself it is better that Irie has no direct female role model, as “role models are another crock and something which limit you” (O’Grady, 108). So therefore Irie can, as Goldblatt put it, “proceed on her own path of self-recognition and identity” (Goldblatt, 53), in order to find her own roots.

4. Her social environment

On her way to establish her own identity, Irie might look for other examples of uprooted characters in her social environment with whom she may be able to identify. However it is obvious that this would be a senseless goal, because most of the immigrant characters depicted in the novel are in a struggle for a stable identity as well. The following two paragraphs will give a side glance to the Iqbal family, friends and neighbours of the Jones.

4.1. First generation immigrant: Samad Miah Iqbal

Samad Miah Iqbal is Archie’s best friend and a first generation immigrant from Bengal. He arrived with his wife Alsana a long time ago, and their twin children Millat and Magid grew up in Britain. So, again in Archie’s words, “they’re not those kind of Indians” (Smith, 46). For Samad, roots are very important, as “tradition was culture, and culture let to roots, and these were good” (Smith, 161). Cuder-Domínguez states that “the pursuit of purity […] haunts many of the characters in Smith’s novel, particularly first-generation immigrants” (Cuder-Domínguez, 184). Samad fears the loss of his “pure” Bengali roots and of his “traditions to an overwhelming and bland majority culture” (Goldblatt, 53), and therefore, he is terrified of too much assimilation. He decided to send one of his sons back to Bangladesh to get a traditional education and escape the destructive influence of Western societies. But Samad’s attempt failed terribly, because Magid comes back being “more English than the English” (Smith, 336). On this transformation, Goldblatt concludes, that “no pure racial identity can exist in a world of shifting people and values and no one person, particularly a parent, can choose traditions, customs, or values for his children” (Goldblatt, 53).

So, as Mair states, “in spite of his determined efforts to retain his personal and cultural integrity even Samad Iqbal himself is unable to fend off the effects of twenty years’ residence in England” (Mair, 239). He got upset, for example, when he saw his wife wearing running shoes, a sari and an African headscarf, while he himself wore a terry cloth jogging suit and a LA Raiders baseball cap (Smith, 166). In another occasion he “employed the best of his Western pragmatism” (Smith, 116) to masturbate against his religious commandments or began an adulterous relationship with his sons’ teacher. Cuder-Domínguez observes: “Trapped inside his own guilt, Samad yearns for the East and blames the West, although he himself is going nowhere” (Cuder-Domínguez, 184). Samad is very critical of the assimilation of his children to British culture, although he himself cannot give them a successful example of living as a Bengali man in a different country, far from his origin country. He is frustrated with his job as a waiter, which does not challenge him enough, and also with the development of his sons away from the Bengali traditions. He is frustrated with his whole situation in London. Therefore, in a conversation with Irie, he blames the country desperately:

Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere. (Smith, 336)

So, whereas Irie has to deal with her “excess of belonging”, Samad complains because he belongs nowhere. But Irie does not blame England, because it is the country where she grew up and lived all her life so far. She is not frustrated in the way Samad is, because she is not fully aware of her roots and therefore not afraid to lose them. So, first generation immigrants’ problems are different from her own, although, “families pass on their traumas from one generation to the next” (Smith in O’Grady, 106), as we will see in the next chapter.

4.2. Second generation immigrant: Millat Iqbal

Millat Iqbal is one of the twins of Samad and a good friend of Irie, as well as her first secret love. He does not have biracial parents, as Samad and Alsana both came from Bengal, and he has a Bengali appearance. But like Irie, he never had first-hand experiences in Bengal, but he grew up and stayed all his life in London. So, he knows who he is and who his parents are, and he feels comfortable in his body. But where is he going and will he find a stable cultural identity?

When he plays with his Tomytronic and listens to Western music like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, Samad is worried about this total assimilation to British pop culture. But Alsana calms his down: “Let the boy go, he is second generation – he was born here – naturally he will do things differently” (Smith, 240).

So, Millat finds himself in a different situation as Irie, but in a difficult one as well, as he “stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden” (Smith, 183). He realized that he “was a Paki no matter where he came from” (Smith, 194). Although he was born in London, because of his different appearance, he will never be seen as English. Hall emphasizes that “diaspora identities are always fused with other cultural elements and keep “reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference” (Hall cited in Ahokas, 120). In this way, Millat takes up different cultural identities and mixes them up, in the new “Raggstani” style:

It was a new breed, just recently joining the ranks of the other street crews: Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boy, ravers, rudeboys, Acisheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas, and Pakis; manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel of the last three categories. Raggastanis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati, and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; kung-fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Black Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy) […] (Smith, 192)

With his Raggastani gang he can first live out his ideals of gangster style, which becomes like a life philosophy for him. He wants to be special and different, because he can never be like the others, white London-born people, because of his cultural background and his appearance.


Excerpt out of 29 pages


Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" - Irie as an example for 2nd generation immigrants’ desperate search for their place in a multicultural society
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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Zadie, Smith, White, Teeth, Irie
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Stefanie Brunn (Author), 2006, Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" - Irie as an example for 2nd generation immigrants’ desperate search for their place in a multicultural society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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