On Zadie Smith’s Bangladeshi characters

PHOTO DESIGN: Sarah Anjum Bari

I am not a Bangladeshi immigrant living in a Bangladeshi neighbourhood somewhere in Kilburn, London like Samad Iqbal and his family from White Teeth (Hamish Hamilton, 2000). But I still identified with them on many grounds—cultural nuances, identity, religion. Geographic boundaries held little value. I know saying this seems unfair on the literary quality of Smith's debut novel, but I bought this book solely because it had Bangladeshi characters at the pulpit of the story. 

It is important to note: I am not implying that works like Tahmima Anam's Bengal trilogy, Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Arif Anwar's The Storm, Numair Atif Choudhury's Babu Bangladesh!, and Nadeem Zaman's In The Time of The Others did not accomplish the task of placing Bangladesh on the literary map. I am only expressing my admiration for a writer who, despite not being a Bangladeshi, flawlessly, sensitively wrote Bangladeshi characters without perpetuating stereotypes.  

White Teeth follows the lives of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal as they navigate a world after surviving the horrors of the Second World War as British soldiers. It swings back and forth through time and poses questions about the legacy of colonialism, about the marginalisation of people of colour, and the things that glue a society together.  I can't speak for everyone with my limited knowledge but personally, I felt as though the pages of White Teeth provided me with a holography containing all things accurately Bangladeshi—from the slangs, the greetings, the food items, and the religious connotations to the sense of loss which stems from having a distinct Bangladeshi identity often muddled with, and overshadowed by, Indians in the Western Imagination. It felt like a soothing ointment—something to assure readers even back in the year 2000 that South Asia is more than just India (as Samad Iqbal clarifies to Poppy Burt Jones in the book). 

One could argue that the dialogues and fears about natural disasters and physical and economic security shared between Samad and his wife, Alsana, allude to another common stereotype: that Bangladesh is a country perpetually stuck in death throes. However, if one considers the context of the late 20th century in which the book is set, these factors no longer seem clichéd, because these issues were in fact deeply embedded in the collective psyches of residential and non-residential Bangladeshis at the time. Political turmoil—transitions of power and dictatorship—gripped the nation, coupled with a devastating flood in 1988 and a cyclone in 1991. Instead of entirely encompassing the psyches and identities of the Iqbal family, these events serve as concerns that connect them with their homeland. Without them, there would exist a yawning gap that would prevent them from feeling truly Bangladeshi. 

Yet these characters and the lives they lead are very much punctuated with individual characteristics. Samad oscillates between spiritual faith and the "real" world, plunging deeper and deeper into a pit of identity crisis, eventually turning into a culture police of sorts. Alsana is calm, she dotes on her sons, is bitter towards her husband because of his questionable choices, and has made peace with their loss of identity, unlike Samad. Their son Magid is a precocious child with an affinity for intellectual growth. His twin Millat is his absolute antithesis—reckless, violent, dissolute. These characters are fascinating because each is a world of their own, a world not engineered by the then Western gaze which would normally want them to possess "exotic" qualities. 

In 2016, Lionel Shriver declared at a Brisbane writer's festival that a writer "should not try on other people's hats". They should write only what they know and are familiar with. Last month, I saw a similar tweet that sadly received a lot of support. "White people shouldn't write Brown Characters," it read. These notions—that someone shouldn't write about someone else—completely obliterate the purpose of fiction, which is, to imagine. This kind of censorship is not only a blow on creative freedom but also a stifling hand that squeezes the life out of diversity in imagination. My faith strongly rests on the fact that proper, unbiased research should be done when writing about people of different identities. At the same time, the people being written about have the privilege of pointing out where the author sounds condescending or insensitive in their depiction of another's culture and experiences. 

To see that the Iqbals in White Teeth were Bangladeshi characters written by a British-Jamaican author was a revelation to me. It confirmed that a writer can venture, expand, imagine without succumbing to cultural appropriation, by virtue of research and non-stereotypical representation. As Kamila Shamsie said in the wake of Shriver's "crass and unhelpful" speech, "In short: don't set boundaries around your imagination. But don't be lazy or presumptuous in your writing either. Not for reasons of 'political correctness', but for reasons of good fiction."

Zadie Smith's White Teeth is both an example of non-stereotypical writing and a reminder that writing good fiction is possible, even if your characters and you have vastly different identities. An intergenerational saga, White Teeth delicately weaves the stories of people who have been shaped by colonialism one way or another. It is laced with drama, wit, suspense, thrill, and insight, a novel that can keep one occupied even after the last page has been turned.

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor. Email: [email protected]