Today I offer up a point-counterpoint Guest Post from my friend Flora, who tackles two novels: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis. Flora and I went to grad school together, so beware the references to post-colonial narratives and such. These are awesome books, and I hope you enjoy Flora’s take on them.
I read too much Babysitter’s Club as a child. Despite token acknowledgment of ‘difference’ (Stacey’s diabetes! Mary Anne’s shyness!) the series was a pretty unsuitable template for a second generation American kid whose best friend lived 45 minutes away, who’d never babysat in her life (since when were 11 year old’s appropriate caregivers anyway?), who couldn’t even name all her aunts and uncles, much less tell you which continent they lived on. Split the hairs on difference: most of my high school friends were either first or second generation themselves, and spoke at least two languages fluently. This was Washington, DC, after all. But I was stubborn and confused: ripe fodder for angsty writing, except I didn’t think to give whatever my heritage was a book of its own.
This was long before I’d heard of Bhabha and Appadurai and post-colonial narratives, and when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out my reading list docket was full of 1960’s R&B histories. I finally got to it a few weeks ago, and I have to admit the first two-thirds were spent just a little jealous that I didn’t think to write something similar when I was 24. By the last third I caved in to overwhelming admiration of literary talent, aided by a pleasant but not captivating detour into Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis. The two books both detail late 20th century identity politics, although Petropolis is a picaresque novel which follows the misbegotten adventures of the quarter-African, nominally Jewish Sasha Goldberg of Asbestos 2, former USSR, and in White Teeth the stories and characters of immigrant London come twirling together, 200 years in the making, converging on a evening’s celebration of the allegorically denominated “FutureMouse”. In short: ok, maybe they have different scopes, but Petropolis made a great sprint of a plane read, whereas I submerged myself in White Teeth‘s London for weeks.
Thematic ambition aside, it’s still hard to give poor protagonist Sasha Goldberg a lot of credit. She gets where she needs to be, in the end, but Petropolis‘s plot at times seems a clumsy duel between Sasha’s mental fortitude and the kindness of strangers on the one hand, and her bumbling ineptitude on the other. She escapes a loveless mail-order engagement and a family of matzo fanatics, yes – but arguably her procreative encounter with a friend’s alcoholic older brother and flame-out at art school helped get her there in the first place. In a crafty moment she uses her racial ambiguity to evade INS raid, but every time she boards a plane, I found myself marveling that she didn’t get lost. This probably owes in part to linguistic ambiguity: Sasha’s transition from Russian to broken and then reasonably fluent English, and the cadence of her many companions, is written without enough variation in tone for the written dialogue to assume the weight of plausibility.
Whereas the characters of White Teeth together comprise a tapestry of identity — Jamaican, Indian, Bangladeshi, British — each person a different part of the puzzle, Sasha herself changes to fit her surroundings. As a child she has “yellow freckled skin, frizzy auburn hair, and eyes like chocolate eggs”, the result of her maternal grandmother’s fling with a guest to Khruschev’s “Sixth International Youth Festival”; she manages to introduce herself as just “a plain Jew” and leave the African part out. But as an adult she is a “negritianka” to others, a “big black girl” at first sight and I couldn’t help but wonder: what about the other 3/4 of her genes? How did they evolve as she grew up? Too often identity is something thrust onto Sasha, the image of her created through these flat external observations and not enough through complex self-definition. A Chicago family embraces her as a Jew whose religion was repressed; her father’s second wife at first fears her to be a mugger. And, ultimately, this paper doll view of Sasha with interchangeable outfits limits the depth of her character, and of the novel’s gaze.
I’m being uncharitable. But there is Sasha Goldberg, and there is White Teeth‘s Irie Jones. Poor Irie, with her Jamaican mother’s buckteeth teeth and English father’s unfortunate nose and a “substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes, and guavas.” Like Sasha, she is in love with ill-fated beauty, hers in the form of childhood friend Millat Iqbal, who was “beauty parodying itself.” Irie, like Sasha, is ungainly, insecure, and overshadowed by her friends’ charisma. But unlike Sasha she (almost) holds it together. She is the sassy voice of reason in the tempestuous teapot of Willesden. Irie, a new sort of Londoner, may be incongruent with the status quo but she is at least consistent within herself, which allows readers a handle of identity to hold on to. And through Irie the necessity and pain of finding identity has an voice that is elegant in its ironic naiveté: “In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won’t matter anymore because they can’t because they mustn’t because they’re too long and they’re too tortuous and they’re just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it.” (437).
And until that time, books like White Teeth are a reminder of the complexity of life as it really is, and ballast against a Babysitter’s Club World.