Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Post-colonial Metamorphosis in Zadie Smith's White Teeth

--the growing divide between parent and hybrid species.
Even in the darkness, Irie could see Clara scowl. “Permishon for what? Koo go and share and ogle at poor black folk? Dr. Livingshone, I prejume? Iz dat what you leant from da Shalfenz? Because if thash what you want, you can do dat here. Jush sit and look at me for shix munfs! (313)
This speech by Clara is an eruption of confused resentment, spouted during a late night argument between her and her only child, Irie. Gaze, attitude, and voice cover the ground between the two women in a mist of bitter feelings as they face each other off: Clara, middle-aged, crouched beside the traditional roots of her Jamaican heritage, against Irie, 17 yrs old, standing headheldhigh with the propriety of a proper British teenager. The broken words Clara speaks smack of the uneducated speech of Afro-Caribbean dialect, working thus to identify her with her family's rich history, while Irie, who has been seemingly metamorphosing into a different person after studying beneath the pseudo-British Chalfens, reflects an altered perspective and attitude raging downward at her mother. This passage thus sets the stage for the fissured conflict between Clara and Irie and the broader clash of generations—the traditional and the hybrid.

In this speech Clara draws a subtle yet clear distinction between herself and her daughter. A significant phrase in this passage is “Dr. Linvinshone, I prejume?”—an expression which hearkens back to the earliest periods of colonization and Christianization of Africa, the great unpeeling of the vast dark continent. When American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley first met Dr. Livingstone in 1871 on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he reported greeting him with these words in a measure of “cowardice and false pride" (see footnote). The words reflect marked deference and were probably similarly spoken by Clara, packed also with an underhanded use of the “absurd intonation” she remarks about being taught to “a generation of English kids” (303)--perhaps directing them as a mockery of Irie's British education. She cleverly uses them also to refer to the historical tragedies associated with Africa’s colonization. She locates herself among the “poor black folk” whom she imagines Dr. Livingstone and others, particularly the Chalfens, “ogling” under the pretense of aiming to help them.
Apart from this, her garbled words, “Jush sit and look at me for shix munfs!” seem to pack a hidden resentment toward Irie, as if Clara feels that her daughter has become a detached member of her family. She could easily feel betrayed by Irie’s pretentious attitude (seen in the previous dialogue) after complementing her prior to the argument on her “honest to God Bowden” body (222). In Clara’s view, Irie’s new criticizing perspective, then, has separated her from what she truly is, or at least from what Clara perceives her to truly be.
Indeed, Irie's speech does seem to reflect this. She speaks down at her mother, saying “Why can’t you just sit up properly and talk to me properly and drop the ridiculous little-girl voi—” (313). Is this merely insolence on the teenager’s part, or has the time she’s spent with the Chalfens convinced her that she’s of some other breed than her mother? Irie leaves this conversation reflecting that her “parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth” (314). She is thus in fact, as Clara accuses, “ogling” her mother and father, even dismembering them. Her perspective has effectively morphed into something disconnected from its roots.
Along with her newly adopted gaze and attitude, Irie’s actions reveal a sly power rising against her parents. The narrator describes her as having developed a “well-worn tactic” to get what she wants from her mother: “She knew from experience that her mother was most vulnerable when in bed; late at night she spoke softly like a child, her fatigue gave her a pronounced lisp” (312). This is top-rate scientific manipulation, taking advantage of her mother at her weakest point. This behavior is reminiscent of colonizing practices McClintock describes in her piece, in which she discusses the invader studying the desired territory and culture before piercing it, as it were, directly between the armor (see footnote). Often the fatal blow to a nation before its completed colonization was the establishment of a dominant language. When a colonizing nation places its language at the top of the educational hierarchy, for example, the newly ‘othered’ language always takes on a stigma of simplicity, rudeness, even savagery. This is an ancient tactic, mastered by such conquistador masterminds as Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés. Irie makes the method her own. When Clara is most linguistically incapacitated she is most vulnerable to manipulation. Irie is well-aware that this occurs at night whenever Clara removes her false teeth--teeth which have acted as her most loyal protection since her moped accident. With her teeth removed she opens up a gap in her armor just large enough for Irie’s scheming devices.
Thus, Irie demonstrates a bold and thorough severance of the bond between her and her parents, especially Clara. A stark divide has been crafted over time that distinguishes Irie as her own breed apart from that of her parents. As a second generation immigrant, Irie has developed her own version of a colonizer’s gaze that scientifically observes defects in her parents’ physical and symbolic bodies. Whereas she rests on a podium of education, possesses a backdoor connection with the colonizer, and owns full reign of the colonizer’s language, her mother, a first generation immigrant, remains among the lower rungs of immigrant society. Indeed, Clara self-identifies with the servile deference and ‘otherness’ of a second-class citizen. Her roots place her on the outer margins of English society, where interestingly she is willing to remain--even if it means forging a broad split with her only child.

-The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Boston, 1909.
-Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. McClintock, Anne, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.