Thursday, 10 January 2008

Zadie Smith and Megaphones

Zadie Smith is one of the most original writers to emerge from Britain the last few years and has breathed life into the post-modernist genre which, during the 1990’s, was becoming predictable and somehow contradictory to its own self-imposed fragmentary nature.

Her novel On Beauty has already been praised for its vitality and won a number of literary awards.

It is a reworking of E.M. Forster’s Edwardian novel ‘Howard’s End‘, in which two sisters struggle against social stratification and its snobbery. But along came a classification termed ‘hysterical realism’, which was applied to Smith’s first novel White Teeth. This realism is characterised by fast paced action, chronic length,
Walter Mitty
and constant digressions on secondary subjects less important to the story; manic characters too, with completely undeniable character traits to the point of them being inauthentic and in White Teeth it is at one and the same possible and impossible to relate to the main characters, just as it is impossible to believe in Harry Potter.

Oddly, Smith’s contemporary JK Rowling is guilty of creating a world of semi-realism where characters inhabit the known world when not in the School of Magic, and her later books are of chronic length and full of digressions secondary to the plot. If Smith’s writings fall into ‘hysterical realism’ then Rowling’s are juxtaposed as ‘hysterical fantasism’, a writer attempting to recreate the barriers between reality and fantasy which were destroyed by the post-modernists and Beckett. Even though of course Zadie Smith and Rowling’s writings are incomparable in genre they are both women who have experienced high levels of literary success, and British literature has a long tradition of women writers that spans back to Elizabethan times. Zadie Smith is but the contemporary result of centuries of practice and experimentation, though not without influence; needless to say Greek, Roman, and Arab. But today many British women writers are feeling the influence of former parts of the British Empire from the Indian sub-continent to the Caribbean like Monica Ali who wrote of life in a London Bangladeshi community.

This is a phenomenon relatively new to British women, once the preserve of male British writers like Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul. Zadie Smith herself is descended from the Caribbean. Yet this custom of the ‘colonial literature’ unearthing expression through the language of the coloniser is as stark today as it was when the Nigerian Chinua Achebe was first writing his narratives nearly 40 years ago on the troubles and accomplishments of integration, but of course, not always acknowledged. There are still many different sets of teeth that have no voice and require a megaphone.