White Teeth

White Teeth Study Guide

White Teeth is Zadie Smith's acclaimed debut novel, first published when she had barely finished college. The novel began as a short story, and a single chapter gained Smith a contract with a prominent literary agency. The novel was released in 2000 to an enthusiastic and universally positive response. Smith's unique storytelling style inspired the term "hysterical realism," placing her among the ranks of such writers as Salman Rushdie and Mikhail Bulgakov. White Teeth is an examination of contemporary London, told from a kaleidoscopic range of viewpoints. Though packed with tangential references to various eras and earlier generations, it focuses primarily on the parents and children of the culturally and ethnically diverse Jones, Iqbal, and Chalfen families.

Though Smith was only 25 years old upon White Teeth's release, she received many awards, including the Guardian First Book Award, Whitbread First Novel Award, and Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). White Teeth also won two EMMAs (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards) for Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer, and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Orange Prize for Fiction, and Author's Club First Novel Award. Despite such acclaim, Smith remained humble after White Teeth's release, maintaining that her ambition was not fame, but to hone her craft: "Even if I never write anything which anybody ever buys and reads again, White Teeth is enough for me always to be able to publish some little thing some day. That was the greatest pleasure of it, because all I wanted to be was a writer."

According to Smith, White Teeth is not autobiographical, although she was inspired by her mixed-race family history, set the novel in her childhood neighborhood of Willesden, and calls the scene where Archie and Clara meet, "a bastardized version of how [her] parents met." Originally, Smith simply wanted to write a novel about a man who lives, "a good life by accident"; a concept around which she developed the story. Smith cites television as a significant influence on the novel, particularly in the comedic timing of Archie and Samad's relationship. Although White Teeth deals unabashedly with issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and prejudice, Smith claims this was not a conscious goal. Rather, Smith explains she could not have written about London, a highly diverse city, without addressing such issues: "I was just trying to approach London. I don't think of it as a theme, or even a significant thing about the city. This is what modern life is like. If I were to write a book about London in which there were only white people, I think that would be kind of bizarre. People do write books like that, which I find bizarre because it's patently not what London is, nor has it been for fifty years."

In 2003, White Teeth was adapted into a made-for-television film for PBS Masterpiece Theatre, directed by Julian Jarrold, with a screenplay by Simon Burke. The production was hailed as "superb" and "rambunctious," with an acclaimed cast including renowned Indian actor Om Puri as Samad. Smith was pleased with the adaptation, despite the changes made to allow a smooth transition from novel to film. In fact, Smith makes a cameo appearance in the film, as an extra in the End of the World Party scene where Archie and Clara meet.