Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
The publication of Zadie Smith's White Teeth in 2000 had an enormous impact on the turn-of-the-century literary scene. With its assemblage of cultures, argots, races and classes, it spoke to a contemporary audience of a London that had been irrevocably altered by immigration and multiculturalism. That it had been written by a twenty-four-year-old from northwest London, who began it as a student at Cambridge University, made it a cause célèbre, heralding a new kind of writer in a new kind of London. Following in the footsteps of Pepys and Dickens, Smith made it clear that this new polyglot way of expressing the experience of being a Londoner was shaped by geography, experiences and voices. As she said in a lecture delivered at the New York Public Library eight years after the novel appeared, ‘Recently my double voice has deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colourful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle.’ The book, however, made huge ripples in this otherwise tiny literary world.
If globalisation seems now to be supplanting the British novelist's traditional preoccupation with regional and national identity, an examination of Zadie Smith's work to date – consisting at this point of four novels, some short stories and a considerable number of essays – shows that the global can comfortably sit inside the local, sharing language and relationships. In Smith's work, it is the local, in all its geographic clarity, that is the metonym standing for much more than mere location. In her first and fourth novels, White Teeth and NW respectively, the world consists of a very particular part of London: the ‘North-West London of Cricklewood, Willesden, Harlesden, Kilburn and Hampstead’. In these places, ‘You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That's how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you're not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It's the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience.’