Hybridity gets fashionable

The novel White Teeth offers a different perspective on science

Andréia Azevedo Soares 24 October 2009

Division: a literary test of hybrid vigor

Different ingredients are combined in the same pot and the result can be both fun and tragic

Even if you haven't read the novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith, you probably remember it – unless you were lying comatose at the beginning of this century. White Teeth was considered to be the literary find even before it was fully written and, immediately after its release, rapturous reviews popped in the media like wild rabbits (1). Critics praised the “multi” issues cleverly addressed in this multi-layered, multicultural and multiethnic story – but overlooked much of the science that lies in it. Yes, although you may not clearly recall it, there is a scientist in White Teeth.

As a fictional character, Marcus Chalfen seems to represent this century’s emerging group of biotechnology researchers. It is his wife, Joyce Chalfen, who introduces him to the readers. Joyce portrays her husband as a geneticist deeply focused on both social and scientific progress. Promoting the chimeric fusion of embryos, it was possible to generate “mice whose very bodies did exactly what Marcus told them”. Dr. Chalfen believes that he controls every single cell of the Future Mouse©, his ultimate genetically engineered creation (2).

But Marcus does so “always with humanity in mind”, Joyce reminds us, given that a cure for cancer could well be a result of such experiments. It is interesting to note that, in Marcus’s mind, the cure for diseases lies in the blend of genetic information from different species. In other words, hybridity paves the way for fixing the illogical, “for illness was, to Marcus, nothing more than bad logic on the part of the genome”.

As a horticulturist, Joyce is also an enthusiast of biological difference. In the nest of a happy marriage, the scientist’s wife imagines her beloved hubby going to "the edges of his God’s imagination” and conceiving “mice with rabbit genes, mice with webbed feet”. She usually resorts to botanic metaphors to praise his hybridity. She also describes cross-pollination phenomena, suggesting that hybrid plants have "an inherent biological superiority over their thoroughbred competitors”. The mixed plants, just as multicultural or mongrel humans, adapt easier and tend to survive in an ever-changing world. That is what Joyce defends. Hybridity is, in fact, the keyword of this novel.

White Teeth is a story about many things. Zadie Smith knits together, in a tragicomic epic, a variety of tantalizing themes such as gender, race, class, eugenics and religion embedded in a saga of three multicultural families in North London. One of them are the Chalfens (who have Jewish ancestry), and the two others are the Joneses and the Iqbals. The patriarchs of the latter families, the British Archie and Indian Samad, happen to be close friends who met by chance during the Second World War and who cherished ever since a mutual and sincere friendship. Samad is married to an Indian woman and is a father of twins, Magid and Millat. His sons share the same genetic material, but each one responds to the environment in uneven ways. Archie is married to a Jamaican woman and is the father of Irie. He considers life to be a matter of chance. Every time Archie must to make a decision, he tosses a coin. His daughter, Irie, also believes in accidents but feels herself a victim of “genetic fate”. Like Zadie Smith herself, Irie Jones carries in her veins a double ancestry: “Irie believed she had been dealt the dodgy cards: mountainous curves, buck teeth and thick metal retainer, impossible Afro hair.”

In White Teeth, we should understand hybridity in its broader cultural meanings – and these meanings are not necessarily correct in scientific terms. Here, hybridity can be a chimera produced in a lab but also racial or cultural mixing. In that sense, it is possible to say that London is, due its multicultural or multiethnic condition, a sort of capital of hybridism. Different ingredients are combined in the same pot and the result can be both fun and tragic, as Zadie Smith shows. The author’s attitude towards her characters and plotline is also a hybrid one – and, if we consider that the tragicomic is also a mixture of genres, this is also quite telling.

People are enduringly enthralled with hybridity. In the past, naturalists believed that species, when intercrossed, were doomed to be infertile “in order to prevent the confusion of all organic forms”, as Darwin wrote in his The Origin of Species. In fact, sterility turned out to be associated with close interbreeding rather than hybridity. Now there is a relatively fresh idea that people who have different racial or cultural backgrounds are tailored to be more tolerant, cosmopolitan, creative and so forth. Or even more successful – like Barack Obama or Zadie Smith herself (3).

This sort of hybrid vindication is initially quite attractive because we can interpret it both as praise for diversity and a potential tool against racism or inequality. However, if we think in biologically deterministic terms, it is not difficult to see how the claim that hybrids are special, or somehow destined to stand out among the ‘narrow-minded’ pure-blooded population, is nothing more than a new and disguised form of biological determinism. In fact, people can be bright or dull regardless of their genetic or cultural background.

White Teeth is thus a brilliant novel precisely because it satirizes the discourses endowed with cultural and genetic determinism. Zadie Smith spares no one; her comedic gaze is turned on sceptics and religious alike. As Ashley Dawson suggests in Mongrel Nation, Zadie Smith “parodies the biological determinism of much hybridity discourse through its depiction of Samad’s transformation in Britain” (5).

The Muslim Samad is extremely keen on religion (even though he betrays his wife) and believes that a noble bloodline runs through his veins. He thinks this inherited nobility will provide him with courage and ability in the war theatre – but by the end of Second World War, he has earned no medals, performed no great feats, accumulated nothing to be proud of. Indeed, even his injury – a lost hand – is the result of an accident. His noble ancestry, if any, certainly could have done better.

Curiously, the Samad who believes that "blood will tell" is the same Samad who wants to send his sons to Bangladesh to provide them with a more traditional education, and to prevent them from being “corrupted” by the English drinking-and-swearing environment. Given that Samad cannot afford to send both sons, he sends Magid only, who appears to be the more seriously engaged with intellectual matters. By setting the twins apart (this split is narrated in a chapter called “Mitosis”), Samad reprises notorious experiments undertaken in the past to understand how much of what we are is determined by genes or by the environment. Against all odds, Magid becomes extremely focused on science and atheism in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Millat turns out to be increasingly involved in Islamic militancy back home. On the top of such improbable events, Irie Jones sleeps with both identical twins on the same day, becoming pregnant with a multiethnic baby whose father no paternity test on Earth could ever determine.

The Future Mouse© is perhaps the best example of Zadie Smith’s unavailability to give simplistic answers. This genetically engineered animal, programmed to die precisely at the dawn of the new millennium, is going to be publicly presented during the Millennial Science Commission. It is to this media circus apotheosis that all narrative and characters eventually converge. The description of this hyped event seems to predict the Human Genome Project ceremony in 2001, at the White House, where the so-called ‘code of life’ was proudly presented to the world.

The Future Mouse© embodies society’s greatest fears and hopes and, as the animal carries its own destiny ‘written’ in its genes, this could well be interpreted as a symbol of the impossibility of escaping from genetic fate. It could be interpreted as such, if Smith’s fictional universe was driven by a single and omnipotent force. But it is not. As life itself, White Teeth emerges from a complex interaction of nature, nurture and chance.

Related information:

(1) White Teeth began as a short story and then was expanded. Zadie Smith was given £250,000 in advance to conclude her debut novel. When the book was released, the writer was 24 years old and was enthusiastically applauded by reviewers, as Stephen Moss summarizes in an article published in the Guardian.

(2) The copyright mark “©” that appears in the name of Marcus Chalfen’s genetically engineered mouse implies that life, once manipulated in laboratories, might become a commodity.

(3) On the 26th February 2009, The New York Review of Books published a lecture by Zadie Smith on Obama entitled “Speaking in Tongues”. In this article, the British writer draws on Obama’s book Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance to illustrate the struggle to combine, or synthesize, “disparate things” in an individual with a hybrid legacy. In doing so, she describes an imaginary place called “Dream City”: “It is a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I. When a personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin – well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various.”

(4) Dawson, Ashley. (2007) Mongrel Nation – Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain. Michigan, University of Michigan Press.