Absolute Beginners was a film that centered around a narrator who becomes disillusioned with the city he lives in, London, because of the onset of race riots and other racial tensions towards the end of the novel. Although there were many interesting themes in the book, the movie just didn’t do it for me. I am a fan of musicals, however this one seemed just a bit too much for my taste. Perhaps the dance fighting of the race riot put me over the edge. The very drawn out race riot fight scene was much too long in my opinion. This may also be why the movie itself did not do so well. The movie was panned partly because of its significant differences from the book. Although I did not enjoy it as much as some, I can’t deny that the film version was definitely entertaining. Overall, I enjoyed the novel much more.
Salman Rushdie- In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the character Millat ends up joining a militant Muslim fundamentalist group that protests against Salman Rushdie. After coming across Rushdie’s name in my Arabian Nights class this semester as well, I decided to look into Rushdie’s backstory to see how he could be a useful figure that ties themes together for me across classrooms.
Rushdie was a very controversial figure in this time period after the publishing of a work entitled “The Satanic Verses,” a novel that used magical realism and parts of the prophet Muhammed’s life. This book created a massive backlash from the Muslim world who claimed that Rushdie violated his use of free speech (whatever that means). Rushdie’s writing even earned him death threats from several Muslim leaders. It is very interesting that this figure has appeared in both this class and my Arabian Nights class, because many of the themes surrounding him in both classes are very similar.
After watching the 2006 film This is England, I could not help but draw a comparison to a similar film, American History X. Both of these films deal with a skinhead sub culture that is shadowed by racial hatred and bigotry. In American History X, the main character Derek has been led down the path toward racism by several factors. The casual racist ideology of his father’s dinner table ranting is validated for Derek when his father is killed by a black man. This leads Derek down a snowballing path of aggressive racism and brutal hate crimes until he is locked up for a vicious murder of a black gang member. He then realizes his mistakes, which prompts him to save his brother from this dangerous ideology. He saves his brother from following in his footsteps, however his brother is then shot by the brother of the black man that Derek killed at the beginning of the movie.
This is England has many similarities to this movie. Derek and Combo share a racist ideology that seems to stem more from their own insecurities than anything else. Likewise, Derek’s little brother is comparable to the character Shaun. Both characters join the subculture out of need for belonging; Derek’s brother joins when his father and Derek are both taken from him in a matter of months, while Shaun’s own membership stems from his desire for a surrogate father figure. While Shaun is able to escape the subculture before it can turn him into something like Combo, Derek’s brother is fated to be a victim of hatred from the other side.
These two movies share many interesting similarities, and both raise many important issues. The movies demonstrate how subtle racism can explode into something extremely toxic.
After reading Buchi Emechta’s Second Class Citizen, I became interested in the history of colonialism and postcolonialism, specifically in Nigeria. In order to contextualize the climate in which Emechta begins her novel, I decided to look at a brief history of colonialism in Nigeria. British colonies in Nigeria began trading slaves as early as the 16th century. In this century, as many as 3,000 slaves would be taken and sold each year. Nigeria has a long history of human rights violations due to colonial and post colonial influence. After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1960, Nigeria faced a divided nation as a result of different groups of people being put under the same political umbrella. Learning about the history of Nigeria was very interesting, because it explains some of the themes in the novel, and contextualizes the post colonial status of the country.
As the semester closes I began looking towards the overall scope of the books we’ve read – what themes did we start with, and what all has been brought on board as we chugged along?
One of the topics I resonated with most this semester was the idea of searching for the self, and once found, finding an avenue to express that self. Where have the characters been able to look in the uncertain, dangerous, sensational times of turmoil the books feature? In Return of the Soldiers we had women waiting on men, both figuratively and literally – their selfhood determined almost entirely by their ability to satisfy Charles’s wife searches only for his approval, his relative searches only for glimpses of the old him – even his old teenage lover drops her life [and husband!] to care and entertain and restore him. In Swastika Night we had women with even more restrictions. With no place in the actual world, the book used this loss of self to highlight women’s actual importance (the sermon-giver slipping up to tell the women to bear girls instead of boys). Again and again, characters are used as vehicles to highlight the importance of one thing: their ability to both hear and be heard.
Almost all the characters we read this year struggled from some form of suppression – an inability to speak, an inability to be heard, or an inability to be comfortable with letting others express themselves. The characters who survived were those who were able to express; the characters who didn’t implode from internal pressures. In Mrs. Dalloway Septimus dangles back and forth, unable to talk, and on the rare occasions he tries he is cautioned or discredited back into silence – by both his wife and his doctor. Though Deborah takes what she wants during her husband Graham’s absence in To Bed with Grand Music, she is never allowed to openly discuss the world she wants to live in – instead she has to perform an act with her mother and caretaker, pretending at every turn that her actions have her child’s wellbeing at heart.
On the other hand, White Teeth opens with Archie saved by a rapping on his car window – an invitation for verbal exchange, and though speech, survival. In Absolute Beginners our unnamed protagonist deals with the multiplicity of free speech, it’s positives and negatives. And so survives.
I realized: it’s hard to talk about a concept that doesn’t yet exist formally. As humans we require language to bridge the gap between the turmoil of emotions and the regulated facts of the known, of the packaged and boxed. When PTSD was merely termed shell shock it was harder to grasp not only the problem but the implications of the existence. Before the oppressed women and minorities placed direct verbal confrontation on their plight the concept of their injustice was much easier to ignore. In reviewing the literature read this semester, a great thesis for the class would be that the advancement of language is crucial and in fact a prerequisite requirement to change itself. Until the vocabulary is created, repression and subsequent suppression is all we have.
Some of the most interesting characters that we did not have time to discuss in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth were the members of the Chalfen family. What interested me most about the Chalfen clan was the way that Irie saw them, “She wanted to, well, kind of merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfenishness. The purity of it” (Smith 272-73). She saw them as picture of perfect Englishness and she strove to be more like the family and spend more time with them despite the fact that they were just as dysfunctional as the rest of the families that were portrayed in the novel. I couldn’t decide whether Irie’s fascination with the Chalfens was due to their supposed lack of being immigrants, although Smith does reveal they are immigrants from Germany and Poland (273), that they are middle class, or that their family seemed “normal” on the surface. The reader finds that all of the airs that the Chalfens put on are just an act, and that just because they are white and middle class does not mean they don’t have issues.
The omnipotent narrator gives an advantage to the reader, because the reader can see into all of the issues that the Chalfens have, like Joyce needing the attention of her family, but also ignoring them, or the way that Marcus lusts after Irie. Irie cannot see these defects, or she chooses to look past them, and it makes the Chalfens appear perfect in her eyes. I think that Irie’s blindness to the Chalfen’s problems was done intentionally by Zadie Smith in order to show how blind society can be simply based off of skin color. The Chalfen family was a white middle-class family, and to Irie, and probably to most English citizens, the Chalfens were perfect because they looked the part of what Britishess should look like. It did not matter that they were also descended from immigrants, or that the family was dysfunctional in their own way. As long as they looked the part, they were British. At least more British than Irie, Milliat, or any of their other family members could hope to be perceived as. I think Archie is included in this because although he is white, he married Clara, very un-British.
This trend of stereotyping people by the color of their skin is an unfortunate trend that continues to happen. I’ve heard countless stories of colored people being targeted in stores by security or management, simply because they are not white. In my own experience, I have walked out of a store with a cart full of items that I bought and was not stopped by the greeter, but the Hispanic person behind me was stopped and asked for a receipt. Maybe it is because I look sweet and innocent, or maybe it is because I am white. And for many, despite it being 2016, as a white person I embody what an American is. I think that Zadie Smith was criticizing this characterization of skin color and showing the dangers of assuming authenticity based on race.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International Books, 2001
This file was too big to send via email to Timmy. So, here is “Nature as Female” for all those who want it. 🙂
by Simon Cropp
In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, we are told stories of the histories of people under the terminology of root canals. The important formation of who characters are in this novel, such as Archie and Samad, Irie, and Clara, is linked to the metaphor of teeth and how possibly the procedure of removing decay from the roots of their heritage.
Allow me a digression:
And this reminds me of my own uprooting, when my wisdom teeth had to be removed. Wisdom teeth are the last sets of teeth to grow in, and they’re often impacted, so later in life, almost all of us have to have the dreaded procedure.
I was 22 years old and didn’t have insurance that covered procedures;, so for me, the removal of wisdom teeth had to be a budgetary affair. My dentist said he knew a guy. Oral surgeon in training. Had to get a number of contact hours in to meet the requirements of his program, and removing wisdom teeth was considered something he could do unsupervised. I remember there was a rule he had to follow: no an anesthesia. I had to be awake for the procedure. But people do it this way I was told. He’d give me a Valium, I’d feel like I was asleep, all would be right in the world.
I showed up for the day of the procedure with my friend Mike–as the Valium would render me likely incapable of driving. I remember now, the receptionist at the dental office had captured my withered, blackened heart at that time. She would look at me with these big blue eyes, smile, and I never heard a thing she said. Well, when I checked in, she said something like: “The doctor is running late. Run and get something to eat. Blue eyes, beautiful smile, blue eyes,” or something like that.
Mike took me to McDonalds and we pounded down a couple of McDoubles, because, you know, I was 22 and could do that.
We returned to the office, met the surgeon in training, and he asked where we’d been. I said, “Oh, since you were running late, the receptionist said to run and get a bite to eat or something. So we ate some cheeseburgers.”
The surgeon in training didn’t take this well. Began rubbing his balding head. He said, “Oh no, no, no, this won’t do at all. Not at all. We must reschedule.”
“Sir,” I said. “I am a manager at Blockbuster video–to get this time off–today and three more days in a row for recover–that was a feat, I tell you! Why must we reschedule?”
“You ate! You can’t eat before this. The Valium won’t work. You can take it, but it won’t work. Your cheeseburgers might get tranquilized, but you, my friend, will not.”
“But she said…” my friend Mike said gesturing to the receptionist.
“I said something like bread,” she said from behind the counter. Blue eyes, smile, blue eyes. Anger too! Oh no.
My mind scrambled. “I’ll take the pill. It’ll work. You’ll see.”
Despite his hesitation, the oral surgeon agreed. And we were off. I took the pill, went back to the room, rested in the chair, and sure enough, I began to feel something. A stirring in my brain. A numbing in my body. I knew it would work.
The procedure began. And all that something I had felt before, that numbing? It fled. Ran away. As the surgeon jacked my mouth open with some device that wouldn’t allow me to clamp down–after he numbed me–he began digging in my gums. And wisdom teeth, it turns out, don’t just come out a tooth. They come out in pieces. They are cracked and broken and jackhammered, and pieces of teeth and blood sprayed on his mask. Sweat formed on his brow.
All effects of the Valium gone, I suppose he saw something reflecting in my eyes. Horror? He brought in a second assistant. She sat down in a chair beside me and just held my hand. He brought in a woman to hold my hand! I didn’t flinch, though. I let him work. For two hours he removed slivers and chunks of gigantic teeth, but it was the roots, he said, the roots were the biggest he’d ever seen. Like the roots of a horse tooth. He brought in the beautiful receptionist and my friend Mike to look at my impressive roots.
So much pain, black smoke pouring from my mouth, but I continued on, wondering what it would be like to have real insurance.
Finally, he stopped. He took off his tooth and blood-soaked mask and said, “There is one tooth left. Upper right. I cannot do this anymore. It is too much. That tooth is not impacted. So it will remain. I cannot subject you to this anymore.”
“I can handle it,” I said around the mouth apparatus.
“You are stitched and sewn, here are two subscriptions for Vicodin. You will need them. Don’t talk or the stitching will break. Keep gauze in your mouth so clots can form. I will be here the rest of the day before returning to Denver. Call if you need anything.”
So Mike and I left. I felt particularly strong that day. Like I had done something most people hadn’t done. So I continued to play that role. I acted as if there were no pain. Of course, I filled the prescriptions. I b.s.’d with Mike, told him that’s how a man does an operation. Mike told me to stop talking. At the time I thought he was concerned I would break my stitching, in retrospect, I think he didn’t want to hear what I was saying.
I did break my stitching from talking too much. We had to go back to the oral surgeon in training that Friday afternoon. We caught him in the parking lot as he was loading up his car to head back to Denver.
“You may have to go the emergency room,” he said. “I can’t numb you. All my equipment is loaded…”
I looked at him, looked at Mike, imagine blue eyes looking at me from somewhere, and I said, “Just do it. Just stitch it. No numbing.”
He did it. And it hurt. But whatever.
I learned something that day–a fundamental lesson to my own self, to my own sense of being and history. I learned to never eat McDonalds again.
But then, these painful extractions, these lessons and formations of who we are in distinct moments, is this not what Smith meant with her epigraph: “What is past is prologue.”
What I did not know that day cost me.
In the film This is England, Shaun is a little boy who falls in with a group of skinheads. This happens for a variety of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to his desperation to feel love and acceptance; to feel like he is a part of a group. Shaun’s father died in war leaving his mother to raise him on her own. She is obviously trying her best to cope with the loss of her partner, but she is missing signs that her son is having trouble with peers and looking for a guidance. Enter Woody and a group of skinheads. They shave Shaun’s head and explain to him what he needs to wear to be a part of their subculture. Shaun’s mother is angry that his head is shaved without her permission (after all, he is just a young boy), but after confronting the group over this, she leaves her son with them again.
This acceptance and belonging seems innocent enough at first, but leads to Shaun being involved with threatening people and “paki-bashing”. This young boy, who at the start of the film simply looked for friendship and love, has graduated to participation and (mostly) acceptance of violent crimes.
Perhaps something similar can be said for Mohammad Hussein-Ishmael, Mo, a Muslim and Pakistani butcher is White Teeth. Mo decided to join KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation) in an effort to belong to a group after he spent years as a victim: “The second reason for Mo’s conversion was more personal. Violence. Violence and theft … he had been a victim of serious physical attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year” (391). Mo had spent years being marginalized and assaulted and wanted acceptance and action. Certainly, the type of community that Shaun and Mo were looking for are very different, but at their core, I think that both wanted to belong and feel accepted.
My final thought when connecting these two pieces is the circle that they could be involved with. If this book and film existed in the same literary universe, I think it’s possible that the characters would be in a violent circle of hatred and longing for acceptance.
English citizens fear immigrants ⇒ subset of citizens join skinheads ⇒ skinheads feel marginalized ⇒ violence and “paki-bashing” ⇒ Mo is assaulted repeatedly ⇒ Mo joins KEVIN ⇒ KEVIN commits terrorist acts ⇒ English citizens fear immigrants
In reality, we’re experiencing a lot of this in American today. I think that we can break through this cycle by recognizing it, calling attention to it, and making an effort to get off the ride.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International Books, 2001.
This is England. Directed by Shane Meadows. Warp Films Limited, 2006.
When taking the time to consider the film Absolute Beginners and its depiction of the Notting Hill riots as a kind of rock opera compared to the novel’s depiction of a darker, more somber toned version of events, we see the conflict of image vs. word. Consider MacInnes’ descriptions: “Quite decent, respectable people they seemed, too: white-collar workers and their wives, I expect, who’d probably been out to do their shopping. Well, they saw the lads get in the Spades’ car, and drive it against a concrete lamp-standard, and climb back in their handy little delivery vans, and drive away” (246). The crowds of white collar workers, quite civilized, escalating racial violence. “Then came another incident–and soon, as you’ll understand, I began to lose count a little, and, as time went on, lose count a bit of what time was, as well” (247). The narrator’s loss of time seems to be a loss of existential identity in the temporal landscape–but it is not silly. The crowd is searching for violence. For a subject to exact violence upon.
“Well they weren’t disappointed long. Because out of the Metropolitan Railway station–the dear old London Transport, we all think so safe and reliable–came a bunch of passengers, and among them was a Spade” (247). The subject to be brutalized. “A boy of my own age, I’d say, carrying a holdall and a brown paper parcel–a serious-looking kiddy with a pair of glasses, and one of those rather sad, drab suits that some Spades wear, particularly students, in order to show the English people that we musn’t think they’re savages in grass skirts and bones stuck in their hair” (247). What is to be made of the image of this poor victim, so much in contrast to the vibrant silliness of the film’s West Side Story-ish portrayal of the Notting Hill riots?
I remember an American movie from 1979–The Warriors–a film based on Sol Yurik’s dark novel about gang warfare. The film became a greatly exaggerated version of the book, a musical or fantasy, if you will, as the director felt no one would allow him to make a direct adapation. Hollywood lore posits violence and rioting broke out in response to the film despite its fantastic tone. Fear of glorifying gang violence on the bigscreen became a talking point in the media even though the Warriors depicted gangs of mimes on roller skates, rednecks in overalls, and a weirdo who wore beer bottles on his fingers. This fantastical version of gang warfare in New York sparked fear and debate about how violence should be depicted on screen.
Whether or not this ultimately affected the 1986 adapation of MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is certainly worth debating, but the spectacle of seeing rioting, the imagery of gang warfare displayed as an actual dance number, allows us to wonder.
America’s subcultures in the late 70s and 80s were marked by fear and violence. Gangs prowling the urban America. To show the reality of this on the bigscreen would be to glorify it–or so people believed.
MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby, 1980.