The City in Fiction and Film, week 22: Zadie Smith’s NW, part one (pp. 1–169)

week 21

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been bandying about the word ‘multiculturalism’ in a pretty loose sense, as if everyone knows and agrees on its meaning. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology (1991) seems pretty clear in its definition:

the acknowledgment and promotion of cultural pluralism … multiculturalism celebrates and seeks to promote cultural variety, for example minority languages. At the same time it focuses on the unequal relationship of minority to mainstream cultures.

But like all dictionary definitions, it obscures the extent to which such terms are politically alive, wrestled over in and by our culture, meaning different things depending on who is saying them, where, when and for what purpose. It is a contested term, with multiple competing meanings, and is often used without any attempt at precision – especially in popular political discourse.

The term dates back to 1960s and 1970s, when – as part of the complex politics of white settler nations within the British Commonwealth – Australia changed its immigration laws to allow entry to previously excluded Asian migrants, and when Canada was not only changing its immigration laws but also wrestling with the relationship between an Anglophone majority and a Francophone minority, primarily Québécois, and with growing First Nations activism. Generally speaking, new migrants were encouraged not to assimilate (as in America’s melting pot, in which everyone is equal so long as they adopt white middle class values) but to integrate (as in Canada’s alternative metaphor of a mosaic of peoples); that is, they were enabled to retain their ‘home’ or ‘natal’ culture, and the development of ethnic community infrastructures was encouraged as a mechanism to foster integration.

In the UK, the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, pursuing a similar policy, said in 1966:

Integration is perhaps a rather loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everyone out into a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman … I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of uniformity, but cultural diversity, coupled with equality of opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance … If we are to maintain any sort of world reputation for civilised living and social cohesion, we must get far nearer to its achievement than is the case today.

Of course, while this massive conceptual, political and cultural shift was occurring, already discredited ideas of race as a meaningful biological concept still circulated, so it was often still the case that migrant populations were regarded as racially different. For all that ‘multiculturalism’ emphasises culture, this deep-rooted shadow meaning persists (when we hear politicians and others attacking multiculturalism, they are as often as not talking about race).

While there are all kinds of brilliant positive things about integration in contrast to assimilation, it has also been the subject of political manipulation. An approach that encouraged cultural diversity has been blamed for ‘failures of assimilation’ (which were of course never the goal, so they cannot honestly be regarded as failures). Furthermore, it is often retconned into a racist narrative that says multiculturalism was introduced because it is somehow impossible for different races to assimilate. Hostility around perceived racial difference has thus been blamed on the racially other for their failure to be assimilated rather than on the host nation’s inability and frequent unwillingness to integrate properly – which would include the education of the host population around such issues. And while there are often instances of migrant communities being unwilling to relinquish their cultural distinctiveness, that is exactly the point of multiculturalism – it is not a glitch, it’s a feature.

It is also important to remember that multiculturalism is not just about immigrant populations. Yes, it is about immigrant minorities, such as South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK. But it is also about substate national minorities, such as the Québécois in Canada, and about similar populations more geographically dispersed within a nation, such as African American population. And it is also about indigenous peoples: First Nations in Canada, Native American Indians in the US, Aboriginals in Australia, Maori in New Zealand, and so on. Each of these groups, and each of these kinds of groups, have their own distinctive histories and their own particular needs to be met within a multicultural state.

Keith Banting, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka, in a piece of research examining whether multicultural policies have a negative effect on the welfare state across a number of European and other nations, identify eight key kinds of policy that multiculturalism implies:

  • constitutional, legislative or parliamentary affirmation of multiculturalism at the central and/or regional and municipal levels
  • adoption of multiculturalism in the school curriculum
  • inclusion of ethnic minority representation and sensitivity in the mandate of public media or media licensing
  • exemptions from dress codes (e.g., Sikhs wearing turbans rather than crash helmets or school caps), from laws banning Sunday trading, etc.
  • allowing dual citizenship
  • funding ethnic group organisations to support cultural activities
  • funding bilingual education and mother-tongue instruction
  • affirmative action for disadvantaged groups

They then examined their sample nations in terms of their commitment to such policies:

  • Strong adopters (6-8 policies): Australia, Canada
  • Modest adopters (3-5.5 policies): Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, USA
  • Weak adopters (under 3 policies): Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland

So next time you hear a British politician banging on about ‘the failure of the multicultural experiment’, remember the UK falls into the ‘didn’t actually try all that hard’ group.

NW (2012) is Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, following White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). She was born in Brent in London in 1975, to a Jamaican mother and Anglo father; and she wrote much of her first novel in the final year of her English Literature degree at King’s College, Cambridge (at Cambridge, she failed an audition to be in the Footlights, rejected it is said by Mitchell and Webb). Her novels are, among other things, concerned with the matter-of-fact, normalising representation of the multicultural city, especially London. Her work is also defined by a kind of stylistic restlessness, as if each novel is as concerned with finding the voice in which to write as it is with the characters or narrative. This is emphasised in NW by the variety of approaches she brings to third-person narration in each of the novel’s sections – and even sentence-by-sentence as she manipulates the proximity of the narrator’s voice to the viewpoint character’s perspective.

We began by reading the opening chapter together, seeing how Smith establishes setting, mood, atmosphere, character and theme. It begins with a too-hot spring day, the sun altering how the periphery of a Willesden council estate looks from just a few doors down, where Leah, born on the estate, reclines in a hammock in the shared garden behind her basement flat. Significantly, she has moved on in to private accommodation, just not very far. A caricatured sunburned and overweight-in-a-crop-top working class girl smokes a fag on a balcony in the nearby block of flats, talking too loud on her mobile phone. Leah is a second generation Irish immigrant, pale-skinned and red-headed. The gap between her and her loud neighbour troubles her: physical proximity to her past assuages some of the guilt she feels about her class mobility, even though has not ascended the hierarchy that far. She has also just found out she is pregnant by her Nigerian-French husband Michel; he wants kids, she does not.

We also read chapters 9 and 10 of the first section together. The former is a googlemaps-style set of directions to walk from an address in NW8 to another in NW6; the latter is a dérive, a trek along the same route described as a succession of sense impressions – smells, glimpsed commodities, adverts, leaflets, music from passing cars – which capture the experience of moving from bustling, working class streets to the wealthier and more barricaded areas around Regent’s Park and St John’s Wood:

The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russian, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. (40)

This pair of chapters captures something essential to the novel’s project – the filling in and fleshing out of the city not as an abstract space but as a place (or a nested and interlocking array of places), rich in history and memory, both public and private. The city no more precedes these places than a map precedes the territory.

Branching out from these chapters, we were able to discuss the ways in which Smith captures the ethnic diversity of London, from ‘a life-size porcelain tiger’ to the many various ways in which muslim women observe (or not) strictures about headdress, which bear ‘no relation to the debates in the papers, in Parliament’ (39). It is there in the built environment, too, with ‘the Islamic Centre of England opposite the Queen’s Arms’ (40).

We will return to the novel next week, to consider the ways in which it talks about social and economic class, and suggests that urban identity is not a fixed thing but something that, for all its roots, nonetheless constantly emerges in the moment.

Attack_The_Block_2We also took a look at Attack the Block (Cornish 2011), a British banlieue movie that probably owes more to District 13 (Morel 2004) than La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), and a lot to US hip-hop/ghetto cinema, but which nonetheless has something of Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) about it. It recalls our work on Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991) in its focus on how the protagonists are trapped within their South London estate (filmed on the Heygate estate before it was demolished, complete with multiple scandals) but its greater significance in relation to NW is the way in which it fills in and fleshes out. It starts with a young white woman, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), walking home at night, and being mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths in hoodies. The gang is multiethnic – and the film never highlights nor makes an issue of this – though no doubt David Starkey would say something racist about them all being ‘culturally black’. At the same time as it invests in a romantic narrative of gang loyalty and redemptive male violence, the film does also work to undermine these ideas. Perhaps the key moment comes at the end, when the Jodie stands by her erstwhile mugger, Moses (John Boyega), when the police arrest him – he is, after all they have gone though, her neighbour. Part of her community. It is all a little too glib and easy, but it hits an affective chord.

We also could not quite figure out what it means that this multicultural gang – a stand-in for a multicultural community – defend the block against violent, featureless black male monsters from outer space. A little too much like Zulu (Endfield 1964) or Black Hawk Down (Scott 2001) in its use of this fundamentally racist colonial adventure narrative set-up.

week 23

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

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