‘Global Consciousness. Local Consciousness’: Cosmopolitan Hospitality and Ethical Agency in Zadie Smith’s NW
‘To live through other people and with other people is the only point there is.
There really is nothing else. Well, not to me anyway’.
Smith 2006a: n.pag.
‘Cosmopolitanism without provincialism is empty, provincialism without cosmopolitanism is blind’.
Beck 2006: 7
With the publication of her debut novel White Teeth in January 2000, Zadie Smith was heralded as the new voice of British literature; her writing initially perceived as a celebratory examination of multicultural relations. White Teeth possesses a naive optimism for post-millennial society, envisioning London’s potential in establishing a ‘Happy Multicultural Land’ of transnational associations (2000: 465). As Smith herself acknowledged: ‘[e]nd-of-the-century books catch people in an end-of-the-century mood. The possibility of a community which involved so many different people and could be workable was a very optimistic idea’ (2003a: n.pag.).1 The novel’s vision of harmonious interaction between transnational communities was undeniably marred by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005. The atrocities made certain quarters of British society suspicious ofharmonious integration and reshaped the cultural and thematic sensibilities of contemporary literature. White Teeth’s critical engagement with cultural hybridity, national trauma and marginalisation originally led to Smith being positioned as a postcolonial author. From the © The Author(s) 2017
K. Shaw, Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52524-2_3
outset, she rejected this designation and felt uncomfortable being placed alongside authors such as Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. Smith complains that critics interpret her writing to be making some form of statement regarding multicultural relations, ignoring that: ‘it’s not a statement, it’s just a reality’ (2010b: n.pag.); in doing so, they fail to perceive her characters as people as opposed to merely ethnic stereotypes.2
At an interview in 2013, I asked Smith whether she minded her misplaced literary categorisation as a multicultural author (an inaccurate term she has repeatedly expressed distaste for), questioning whether her work is not more concerned with ethicality in general rather than merely race. Smith acknowledged the importance of ethics to her fiction (name-checking Martha Nussbaum - a strong proponent of cosmopolitan ethics) and definitively rejected the positioning of her work as ‘postcolonial’ or ‘multicultural’ (2013b: n.pag.).3 For Smith, ethnicity is not the sole concern regarding the construction of local communities in multicultural London: ‘I don’t see the racial difference as the big difference [... ] I’m really much more interested in the way people behave to each other, their personal ethics [ ...] of course, race is a difference, but it’s a small difference’ (2010: n.pag.). In this way, Smith echoes Gilroy’s identification of a cosmopolitan culture of ‘conviviality’, picking up from ‘where “multiculturalism” broke down’, questioning how racial differences can be transcended without ignoring race’s inherent power to divide (2004: xi). By defining conviviality as: ‘the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere’, Gilroy ensures the term is not dependent upon racial differences or ethnic categorisation, nor does it suggest ‘the absence of racism or the triumph of tolerance’ (2004: xi). This chapter will argue that Smith’s realistic approach to contemporary urban life similarly involves such conviviality without resorting to a naive or utopian perception of cultural relations.
Smith’s fourth novel, NW, interrogates the relevance of cosmopolitan empathy and communal relations in a localised, twenty-first century urban environment. The narrative focuses on the London suburb of Willesden (heralding a return to the bio-geographical spaces of White Teeth), an area in which Smith was born and to which she feels a great sense of affiliation. London, as a highly fluid global city, contains one of the most culturally- diverse populations in the world, and its history of cultural relations is integral to any reading of the novel. During Smith’s adolescence in the eighties, Tew observes that Thatcherism ‘reshaped both London and the wider nation, with its rampant individualism’, while rioting in Brixton and Holloway meant ‘London life was far from harmonious generally and more specifically in terms of community race relations’ (2010: 30-1, 31). By examining social relations in Smith’s fictional twenty-first century capital, one can discern the legacy of cultural and ethnic differences which come into close and unavoidable contact, either leading to racial hostility or the tentative construction of a viable cosmopolitan community. The inequalities and tensions of the globalised world, evident in Mitchell’s fiction, are played out on a much smaller stage. This chapter will therefore demonstrate how NW can be said to reflect Robert Spencer’s call for contemporary cosmopolitanism to possess a ‘hard-headed awareness of the insufficiently cosmopolitan present with cognisance of the necessity and desirability of a cosmopolitan future’ (2010: 40).
The novel charts the development of interconnected lives in Willesden, exploring the ways in which ethnicity, class and personal relationships play a role in the construction and maintenance of localised urban communities in the post-millennial world. NW explores the unspoken symmetry and synergy between local and global processes, fusing the cosmopolitan with the quotidian. The narrative primarily follows the friendship of Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later Natalie De Angelis) Blake, including their extended relations with (and unconscious connections to) fellow Willesden residents Nathan Bogle and Felix Cooper. The interdependent trajectories of these individuals function like pebbles dropped in a pond, the actions rippling outward, encompassing and connecting other inhabitants of Willesden. The characters navigate their way through the ‘[u]ngentrified, ungentrifiable’ Caldwell housing estate, interrogating the life choices they have made over the course of thirty years in the capital, living in the same ‘corner of the city’, yet inhabiting ‘separate worlds’ (NW 2012a: 42; n.pag.). The narrative captures the fluidity of London life by alternating between free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness narration, and first- and third-person perspectives, while syntactical and phonetic idiosyncrasies are emphasised as linguistic markers to encapsulate the diversity of ethnic dialects. Territorial belonging is therefore central to the narrative and integral to understanding the complex allegiances between local inhabitants and their neighbourhood.
While the older generation of White Teeth continued a tradition of postcolonial displacement, characterised by a lack of agency and belonging, the protagonists of NW enjoy a more bounded and abiding relationship with the spaces of their locality. In 2005, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, Ken Livingstone (the mayor of London) paid homage to London’s multiculturalism, claiming that in the capital ‘everybody lives side by side in harmony’ (2005: n.pag.). Although NW demonstrates a form of territorial belonging for transnational subjects, the narrative rejects the assumption that localised communities are naturally integrated and avoids the contention that all communal ties are overwhelmingly positive or progressive. NW evokes post-7/7 London as an interdependent, if fragmented, city-space, where openness to cultural difference can create a progressive urban environment. This chapter will examine the practice and viability of localising the ethics of cosmopolitanism and explore the development of a cosmopolitan outlook from within the transnational spatialities of north-west London. The cosmopolitanisation of local space ensures individuals no longer have to be footloose or mobile to be considered ‘cosmopolitan’, but can be bounded glocal subjects in a transnational community. Drawing on Smith’s own comments regarding race and community, the fictional north-west London of NW will be positioned as a microcosm for the kaleidoscopic transnationalism of the twenty- first century, interrogating the difficulties in practising the cosmopolitan ideals of empathy, tolerance and belonging.