Dear Zadie Smith,

White Teeth

I read White Teeth first at a lovely lakeside resort in Maine where my husband and I used to vacation for a week every summer. There we retreated from the many stresses of our workaday urban lives. There one afternoon I lay prone on a glider on our porch beside the same loon-friendly lake Steven King views from his home. Digesting a fabulous lunch I didn’t make or microwave, I started your novel. I was transported back to 1975 to a heavily trafficked intersection in London similar to countless intersections in the New York metropolitan area we’d just fled. Not exactly my idea of vacation reading. But then I found sluggish post prandial me laughing my head off while bearing witness to the aborted suicide attempt of one Alfred Archibald Jones.  Not only did you make Archie’s failure to self-destruct amusing at the exact same time that it was pathetic, but you also definitively answered a question I’ve often pondered: What Makes Shit Happen?

As I read on, you answered another question for me too. Or maybe I should say you validated my sense of the role of a novelist in our diverse society. I always thought

From Cuban Santeria Museum

it was our job to reflect our vision of the world, not to tailor that vision to what we imagine readers might like. (That’s why I’ve never even been tempted to write about a menopausal vampire!) But that summer I was still writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and had submitted a proposal to my editor for what would become Hot and Bothered. The plot depended on the practice of Santeria, the mix of Catholicism and African religion that many immigrants from the Caribbean bring to America and practice. At that time there were still many practitioners in Hudson County, New Jersey where my

East London Anti mosque Protesters

series takes place. I was fascinated by their rituals and beliefs. Alas, my editor found Santeria “too exotic,” and I conceived another plot for the novel. But in White Teeth you reflect the beliefs, rituals, and histories of several immigrant groups and social classes as well as the particular patois of their members. Nothing is ‘too exotic” for you to mirror or skewer, and as a longtime urban community college prof, I recognized the fluid world your Bengali-Brits inhabit. Those characters themselves are plausible rather than exotic. Reassured, I kept your example in mind as I wrote Hot and Bothered and Hot Wired in which Bel ventures into the worlds of strippers and rappers respectively.

Years later when I began The Bones and the Book, I again found inspiration in White Teeth.For in that novel you roam freely throughout world history as

Geneology Book

one must when peopling a novel with descendants of colonials and crusaders. I marveled anew at your knowledge and appreciation of how memory distorts history and affects how the past influences the present. In The Bones and the Book I include characters representing three different generations of Jewish immigrants to Seattle and move backwards and forwards in time as they maintain and/or shed rituals and beliefs some editors would no doubt deem “too exotic.”

Present-racial America

I also enjoyed your next novel, On Beauty. Again, I marvel at your ability to capture the zeitgeist around you, in this case, the “post racial” world of American-Anglo academics in a New England college town. Even more, I marvel at your sense of humor. Jon Stewart aside, it’s not easy to be funny about serious issues like racism, elitism, betrayal, sexism, ageism, and the decline of the liberal arts but, as in White Teeth, you manage it. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story

4 responses to “Dear Zadie Smith,

  1. Hi Jane – I too am a big fan of Zadie Smith’s books and appreciate the way she revels in complexity rather than over-simplifying, as is so tempting when writing about social and cultural issues. I also enjoy how you share your own experiences as a writer in the context of these letters. So keep them coming! Onward!

    • It is tempting to over-simplify social and cultural issues these days, Joyce. It’s also tempting to underestimate readers’ abilities to grasp complexity. The trick/challenge is to make complexity comprehensible! Our political leaders and their speech makers struggle with this all the time. At least the good ones do.

  2. What a great post, Jane. I’ve had White Teeth on my shelf for years and have yet to read it (embarrassing!). I just moved it to my bedside table…

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