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White Teeth


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									              READING GUIDE
                              White Teeth
                              Zadie Smith
The story begins on New Year's morning 1975 when Archie Jones,
disheartened by a failed marriage, seals up the windows of his car and waits
for the exhaust fumes to end his life. Archie's suicide is interrupted by a
Muslim butcher who is enraged that someone would commit such an unholy
act while parked in front of his shop (blocking his driveway as well). Relieved
at being rescued from his own suicide, Archie attends a party later that day
and meets Clara Bowden--an unusually tall, gorgeous Jamaican woman who
has been raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Archie soon marries the much
younger Clara, and they have a daughter named Irie. As time goes on, their
lives intertwine with those of Archie's old friend Samad Iqbal, a Bengali
immigrant who served with him in World War II, his wife, Alsana, and their
twin sons, Magid and Millat.
An overeducated waiter in a curry restaurant, Samad is a devout Muslim who
laments the fact that his sons are growing up in a secular culture with no
regard for religious traditions. Though he himself often gives in to temptation--
he drinks and has an extended affair with his sons' music teacher--he decides
to send Magid, the more serious and scholarly of his boys, to Bangladesh to be
raised by relatives. Since Samad hasn't cleared this with Alsana, he spends the
next decade or so living with a wife who refuses to speak with him. Millat
grows into an irreverent, pot-smoking teenager who eventually joins a militant
Muslim movement that will bring him into direct opposition to his returned
brother, Magid, who is deeply involved with a widely publicized experiment in
genetic engineering. Irie's future is linked ultimately to both of the Iqbal
brothers, as races mix and bloodlines merge in this dazzling comedy of
assimilation and its discontents.

About the Author
Novelist Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father
and a Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997.
Her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth was published in 2000. The book won a
number of awards and prizes, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the
Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Best First
Book). White Teeth has been translated into over twenty languages and was
made into a mini series. Her tenure as Writer in Residence at the Institute of
Contemporary Arts resulted in the publication of an anthology of erotic stories
entitled Piece of Flesh (2001).
Zadie Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man, was published in September
2002. She is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.

Topics to Consider
1. A few days before Archie tries to kill himself because his first wife has left
   him, Samad tries to console him: "You have picked up the wrong life in the
   cloakroom and you must return it . . . there are second chances; oh yes,
   there are second chances in life" [p. 11]. Does Archie's marriage to Clara
   constitute a second chance that improves greatly upon the life he had
   before he met her? Why does the chapter title call the marriage "peculiar"
   [p. 3]?

2. Archie "was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things
   could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean.
   Needle: Haystack" [p. 10]. Does the fact that Archie is so humble, so
   lacking in ambition or egotism, make him a more comical character than the
   serious and frustrated Samad? Is Samad's character ultimately funny as

3. Samad imagines a sign that he would like to wear at his restaurant job, a
   sign that proclaims "I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a
   soldier . . ." [p. 49]. Why, in all the years that pass during the novel, does
   Samad not pursue another job? Is it surprising that Samad doesn't seek to
   change his life in more active ways? Does Islam play a part in this issue?

4. Why is what happened to Samad and Archie during the war more
   meaningful to them than anything that will happen in their later lives? Why
   does Samad expect Archie to kill Dr. Sick for him? What exactly has
   happened in this village--what has the doctor been doing there? Why does
   Samad feel that the doctor must die? Would it have been out of character
   for Archie to execute this man?

5. The narrator notes that "it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of
   the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is
   small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears--dissolution,
   disappearance" [p. 272]. Magid and Millat both shirk their Asian roots,
   though in different ways. Magid begins to call himself Mark Smith while he
   is still a schoolboy, while Millat models himself on Robert De Niro's
   character Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver. " Is the gradual loss--or
   active rejection--of one's family heritage an unavoidable consequence of life
   in a culturally mixed environment?

6. Samad and his wife, Alsana, had a traditional arranged marriage in
   Bangladesh. Is love irrelevant in a relationship such as theirs? Does the
   novel indicate that love is a simpler issue for those of the younger
   generation, who are sexually and emotionally more free to pursue their

7. What is the effect of juxtaposing Alsana with Neena, her "Niece-of-Shame,"
   who is an outspoken feminist and lesbian? Why is Neena one of the novel's
   most pragmatic--and therefore contented--characters?

8. Fed up with her own family, Irie goes to stay with her grandmother
   Hortense, and begins to piece together the details of her ancestry. Does
   what she learns about her family's history make a difference in her sense of
   identity or in her ideas about the direction her life should take?

9. Why does Smith include an episode in which Millat travels to Bradford with
   other members of KEVIN to burn copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic
   Verses? Does the fact that none of the boys have actually read the book
   make their ideological zeal more comical, or more frightening?

10. How does what we learn about Irie and her daughter on the novel's final
   page relate to the genealogical chart that appears on page 281?

11. Various characters, from various families in the novel, collide in the
   novel's climactic scenes leading up to the FutureMouse convention. Do the
   issues of religion, science, and animal rights relate to the novel's interest in
   personal fate and family history?

12. Do the children of Archie and Samad experience their ethnic or racial
   identities in different ways than their parents do? If so, why? Is Smith
   suggesting that there is a rising trend in intermarriage between members of
   different races and ethnicities, so that these issues become of less interest,
   or meaning, as time passes? Is Alsana right when she says, "you go back
   and back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to
   find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe" [p. 196]?

 Interview with Zadie Smith from Bold Type
How did you get started on White Teeth? Did you go to university to
study fiction writing? Did you always write stories when you were
growing up?
The novel began as a short story, which expanded. It was a natural enough
thing to happen. My short stories have always pushed twenty pages. That's no
length for a short story to be. You either do them short like Carver or you stop
trying. Besides, I was walking into novella territory, which is no good, so when
I got to eighty pages, and after the encouragement of a few people, I just kept
going. I went to University to study English Literature. I never attended a
creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups
moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is
therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. The best, the only real
training you can get is from reading other people's books. I spent three years
in college and wrote three and a half stories but I read everything I could get
my hands on. White Teeth is really the product of that time; it's like the
regurgitation of the kind of beautiful, antiquated, left-side-of-the-brain liberal
arts education which is dying a death even as I write this. Generally, an
English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world and
that's what I'm being in the only way I know how. I didn't always write stories
when I was young. I wrote some, but I've never been prolific. From the age of
five to fifteen, I really wanted to be a musical movie actress. I tap danced for

ten years before I began to understand people don't make musicals anymore.
All I wanted to do was be at MGM working for Arthur Freed or Gene Kelly or
Vincent Minelli. Historical and geographical constraints made this impossible.
Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep
with shuffle.

Who did you show the novel to first?
I read what I had to friends. In a college atmosphere like Cambridge you're
fortunate enough to be surrounded by about five hundred wannabe William
Hazlitts, so it's not difficult to get feedback, constructive criticism etc. I love to
be edited if the editing is intelligent and I had about five good friends who
were essential to the germination and progression of the book. Where and
when do you do your writing? Any small room with no natural light will do. As
for when, I have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too
lethargic for any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a
regular 9 to 5; when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I
do two hours of productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-
be novelist to hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks
the dog, drinks three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day,
or that some other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty
press-ups and stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I
remember reading that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming
convinced everything I was doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If
it ain't broke...

How did you do your research for the historical parts of White Teeth?
The same way anyone researches anything from a Ph.D. to a family tree:
libraries, internet, movies, occasionally stories people told me--but mostly just
books. Books, books, books. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to find out
about the last day of WWII or the roots of the Indian Mutiny, get thee to a
books catalogue. People who were actually there rarely ever tell you anything
of wider interest. Everyone's a navel-gazer. I have a friend who's grandmother
was born in 1902; she's a ninety-eight old intelligent Jewish lady who's lived
this whole century. Ask her what the first World War was like, and she'll tell
you the woman she lived next.

Are you an only child? Are there any echoes of your family in the
Nope. Two brothers of 22 and 16 who are about to revolutionize British hip-
hop (they pinch me if I don't say that) as well as a half sister and a half
brother in their mid-forties. I'm extremely close to my younger brothers;
family is everything and that's why none of my family appear in White Teeth in
any obvious way. The people in the book are fairly savage to each other. My
family are a much happier, calmer unit than Archie's. The Smiths could never
keep up with the Joneses.

If you enjoyed this book…
Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner
Disgrace; J. M. Coetzee
Drown - Junot Diaz
Family Matters - Rohinton Mistry
My Beautiful Laundrette - Hanif Kureishi
Running in the Family - Michael Ondaatje
The Autobiography of My Mother - Jamaica Kincaid
The Family Markowitz - Allegra Goodman
The Nature of Blood - Caryl Phillips
The Necessary Hunger - Nina Revoyr


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