The Other New England: The Example of Zadie Smith

Jul 19, 2013 10:29:57 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, using the insights of Zadie Smith as an example, he writes about the "new" England that confronts students when they cross the Atlantic.


"They have no faith, the English. They believe in what men make, but what men make crumbles. Look at their empire. This is all they have…. A lot of stupid-looking stone men on stone horses." [1]

From the “swinging sixties” to “cool Britannia” London has been, like Paris, a highly mythologized space. In the iconography of study abroad it is frequently represented as a cluster of traditions embodied in, among other things, The Tower of London and the Beefeaters, The Changing of the Guards, Buckingham Palace, London buses, policemen with odd hats etc. Those representations ignore the significance of contemporary London in its uneasy relationship with its own past and its uncertain sense of identity. The images through which London is traditionally represented do not give students the tools necessary to understand what they will observe and experience in this other “new” England.

Brixton VendorPhoto: Brixton Market vendor by Stephanie Sadler

London is, arguably, the most cosmopolitan city on earth. As Peter Ackroyd indicated, “London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything.” [2] An estimated 260+ languages are spoken by residents who describe themselves as Londoners. The diversity of the inhabitants, and the buildings they have created or altered, reflects a fundamentally transformed landscape.

A study of contemporary English Literature illustrates these transformations. Any cursory review will place the following writers at the centre of contemporary significance: Monica Ali, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureshi, Timothy Mo, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith. All of these are writing at the heart of British society from perspectives that meld diverse identities.

Buying Fruit
Photo: Buying fruit in Portobello Market by Stephanie Sadler

Zadie Smith offers an insight into the “new” England that confronts students when they cross the Atlantic. Her background (an English father and a Jamaican mother) exemplifies the ethnic conjunctions that are the subject matter of much of her work. In particular in White Teeth (2000), she uses essentially comic structures to dramatise key issues in multi-cultural London. The protagonists are torn between contested notions of history and identity:

"This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experience. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course." [3]

The key concept is the notion that identity is contested, subject to invention both by the characters themselves and by the pressure of others. In another sense, identity becomes a fiction: the self is built out of contradictions and histories formed by “direct collisions”.

Sunday Upmarket - Ethiopian
Photo: An Ethiopian food stand at London's Sunday UpMarket by Stephanie Sadler

These issues are central to an understanding of contemporary Britain in general and London in particular:

a) The nature of identity.

What is identity in England? What is it for the individual whose sense of self is shaped by conflict and uneasy conjunction?

b) The nature of history and nation.

The assumption exists thatEuropehas a long history whereas, in contrast, theUSAis somehow “new”. The truth is, of course, much more complex. From a political perspective much ofEuropeis “newer” than theUSA.ItalyandGermany, for example, have been nations only since the 1870s. Indeed, the idea of “Europe” is still in the process of being invented as recent discords signify. History and national identities are kinds of fiction, invented and re-invented, constructed and disputed.

These dynamics also relate to the question of the relationship between fiction and reality. Central to the notion of fiction is the sense that identities, histories, personalities, geographies, can be constructed. That is, however, also true of nations: the USA was made, Europe is being invented, nations were built; similarly, our personal identities are born out of interpretation and evolution.

Ben Slow
Photo: Street art by Ben Slow on Hanbury Street, East London by Stephanie Sadler

These issues are central to Smith’s work. The figure of Millat, the Muslim son of a Bengali immigrant, is described as follows:

"Millat was neither one thing nor the other, this or that, Muslim or Christian, Englishman or Bengali; he lived for the in between, he lived up to his middle name, Zulfikar, the clashing of two swords." [4]

Smith signifies that this is potentially a battle (two swords) to be fought within an environment where numerous constructed identities clash and coexist.

At the heart of Smith’s work are the following realisations:

a) The self is defined by histories that are both external and personal.

b) History is neither simple nor single but is another kind of constructed narrative.

c) England is remade by the multiplicity and diversity of its populations.

d) Identities in contemporary England are not a matter of fact but a matter of contest, conflict, and, frequently, insecurity.

Peacock Feathers
Photo: Peacock feather seller on London's Brick Lane by Stephanie Sadler

In short, England is an “idea” subject to invention and reinvention, framed by myth, not a fact but a creation just like any other fiction. This is an insight not, of course, relevant only to England. Nations come and go. What is Yugoslavia? Africa is riddled with nations created by colonial administrators. The USA was a conscious creation. We collectively and individually create, recreate ourselves.

Contemporary England is a laboratory in which we are able to observe these processes for the following reasons:

a) It has a profound sense of history and sustains an illusion of permanence which has generated myths and icons that purport to represent nationhood.

b) Britain’s colonial past has led to successive waves of immigration. Somewhat like the USA, the myth of “the melting pot” has been seductive: the proposition that these multiple and diverse cultures will somehow meld into a new whole. The reality is that the conjunction leads to sustained diversity and, sometimes, conflict on both individual (the divided self) and community levels. The conflict may, in the worst case scenario, be driven by hatred, prejudice and misunderstanding.

1: Notting Hill Carnival 2009
Photo: London's annual Notting Hill Carnival by Stephanie Sadler

What our students may learn is that the individual is a microcosm of the nation struggling to negotiate a sense of identity. That is a complex and profound proposition.

[1] Zadie Smith, White Teeth (Penguin, London, 2001), p. 504.
[2] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (Chatto and Windus, London, 2000), p.3.
[3] Zadie Smith, White Teeth, pp. 326 – 327.
[4] Zadie Smith, White Teeth, p. 351.

Topics: London, England