Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
A Future Imperfect
For where is our fiction, our twenty-first century fiction? (Smith 2009: 39).
Smith, musing on Barack Obama’s vision for a better post-millennial America, formulated the idea of a utopian ‘Dream City’; a city where an individual has ‘no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues [... ] It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because I feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun we’ (2009: 138-9). The London envisioned in NWis no ‘Dream City’. By acting as a microcosm for wider global relations, Willesden instead reflects the struggle in actualising a cultural space where citizens can balance existing allegiances with the potential formulation of new ties and identities. Smith claims transnational communities in general are constantly evaluated: ‘is it successful or is it a failure?’, but ‘the reality’, as Smith claims, ‘is that it’s both things all the time’ (2005b: n.pag.). Cultural relations in London, specifically, fail to suggest the designs of an idealised cosmopolitan project and instead simply reflect transnationalism as a feature of everyday existence in the capital. The desire for cultural relationality across entrenched divides in the narrative comes to reiterate the sentiments of Alsana Iqbal in White Teeth: ‘[i]nvolved is neither good, nor bad. It is just a consequence of living [... ] one becomes involved and it is a long trek back to being uninvolved’ (2000: 439).
Understandably, NW shares a strong thematic continuity with White Teeth, echoing the socio-cultural connectivities intrinsic to north-west London, and interrogating the realistic engagement of close friends, acquaintances and almost-strangers as they negotiate their fragile existence in the post-millennial capital. Unlike White Teeth, however, the narrative avoids the ‘artificial energy’ which Smith admits powered her first novel (2006b: n.pag.). Although the two novels bookend the racially-charged events of 9/11 and 7/7, there is no explicit binary opposition between an ideal representation of millennial transnational optimism on the one hand, and a more realistic portrayal of emerging twenty-first century relations on the other. Sabine Nunius perceives Smith’s fiction to act ‘in contrast to “postmodern” literature’ by contesting that there is no longer a ‘general void or lack of meaning in contemporary society but [... ] a feeling of coherency and communality’ that refuses to embrace the post-9/11 tradition of cultural malaise and individual vulnerability (2008: 110).11 By acknowledging how contemporary society both functions and feels, the novel places both human morality and the concept of community at the centre of postmillennial fiction, without either theme subsequently being decentred and destabilised by postmodern irony and experimentation. These human attachments in NW go some way towards rectifying James Wood’s criticism of White Teeth, which he identified as an instance of ‘hysterical realism’ (an offshoot of the literary techniques of postmodernism), and resulted in his re-evaluation of Smith as a ‘great urban realist’ (2000: n.pag.; 2012: n.pag.).12
The socio-political and ethno-cultural troubles of the early twenty-first century necessitate a more realistic narrative commentary on the importance of multicultural relations and civic responsibility. This chapter has attempted to show that the localised environments of NW play host to the same tensions evident in Mitchell’s more global fiction. Crucially, rather than circumventing the more global issues of displacement and cultural hybridity inherent to White Teeth, NW moves beyond the limitations of ethnicity alone and positions such contested issues as everyday features of the post-millennial urban environment - less raw and more quotidian. The novel’s characters become more than exaggerated ethnic stereotypes employed to display the true diversity of London’s thriving transnational communities. Cross-cultural interaction in the narrative remains subordinate to related issues of socioeconomic status or social-standing, reflecting Smith’s claim that ‘human problems persist’ in the capital but ‘most of them in my opinion are ones of class and money, not of race or cultural tendencies’ (2010b: n.pag.). By interrogating how cultural connectivities are forged across these established divides, the novel positions Willesden as a microcosm for the exploration of wider cosmopolitan ethics, with the narrative marking a progression away from On Beauty’s limited focus on the aesthetics and ethics of art: ‘mining not only the ways in which we feel but also exposing the stratified ways we live’ (Marcus 2013: n.pag.).13 Through the ethical and cultural agency of Leah and Felix, Smith defiantly portrays London as an exemplary transnational metropolis of social and ethical possibilities at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Despite the contrasting ethnicities of these characters, NW forges a commonality between vastly disparate individuals in troubling times, their spatial coordinates and sense of belonging uniting them as residents of contemporary north-west London.
The chapter has argued against Susanne Cuevas’s assumption that Smith has transcended the notion of ethnicity, and is now writing ‘from a “postethnic” perspective’ (2008: 394). Ethnicity remains integral to post-millennial socio-cultural relations in the narrative - ‘[h]ere is the Islamic Centre of England opposite the Queen’s Arms’ - and a strong racial current continues to flow beneath all activity in north-west London (35). For example, Leah’s workmates from ‘St Kitts, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan’ prepare for a ‘warm night out on the Edgeware Road’, open to ‘the heat’ in a way ‘Leah’s family can never be’, emphasising the sense of belonging and rootedness transnational subjects have established in the capital (32). Even the quintessentially English church in Willesden, run by the local vicar, is subject to the unprecedented cultural flows of cosmopo- litanisation: he ‘is the same, but his congregation is different. Polish, Indian, African, Caribbean’ (62). Rather than assuming a post-ethnic stance, Smith emphasises the cosmopolitanisation of space and cultural specificities of north-west London to be integral to a lived experience of the capital. The polyvocality and multiculturalism of the novel reflect Smith’s own refusal to accept that we live in ‘a post-racial world’; instead she simply claims ‘the reality of race has diversified’ (2009: 143). The narrative confronts the harsh realities of transnational engagement, depicting an unsentimental London which has witnessed the terrorist violence of 7/7, with the subsequent mounting cultural tension and increasing social divides that followed. Smith admits she worked on the structure of the novel first, determining that it should be tirelessly ‘moving through London neighbourhoods’ and thereby demonstrating the ‘reality’ of life in the capital (2013b: n.pag.). In spite of this, the socio-cultural atmosphere of Willesden mediates between stagnation and progression - a trajectory of social mobility contrasted against economic immobility. Nathan is incapable of escaping the ‘fixed coordinates’ of his claustrophobic life, while Felix’s fluid movements and interactions result in disharmony, evident in his brutal stabbing by hostile others (291). The novel indicates that only by assuming a critical stance towards cosmopolitan engagement, acknowledging, comprehending and negotiating the reality of racial tensions (lingering from late-twentieth century relations), may contemporary society address the social associations required to build more ethically-principled communal relations.
Nava argues that the horrific events of 7/7 specifically prompted ‘a new awareness of commonality and interdependence among Londoners’ (2007: 163). Through Leah and Felix’s tolerance and empathy, the narrative reflects an enduring optimism for London’s future - a future mediated by the events which have befallen the capital since the publication of White Teeth. The root problems at the heart of Willesden do not complicate or invalidate the values of cosmopolitan empathy or cultural engagement. Rather, the racial and economic inequalities are an impetus for citizens like Leah to reinvigorate urban life, prove its inherent malleability and inject an ethical idealism into its socio-cultural relations. Openness to alterity therefore becomes central to Smith’s vision of cosmopolitan urbanism, representing what Gilroy terms an emerging cultural ‘pressure from below’ to enforce ‘hospitality, conviviality, tolerance, justice, and mutual care’ through social obligations (2004: 108). Tellingly, throughout the narrative Smith contrasts Natalie’s complicated personal and communal detachment against the cosmopolitan empathy practised by Leah. As Derrida warns (with regards to cosmopolitan forgiveness and hospitality): individuals who fail to ‘negotiate this hospitality in him or herself [... ] cannot be hospitable to the Other’ (1997: n.pag.). Following this reasoning, local communities are sustained in the novel via progressive relationships and acts of openness across cultural, social and economic divides - relationships contrastively fostered by Leah and spurned by Natalie. Smith’s tangible promotion ofLeah’s social and ethical capital, introducing the norms of reciprocity and cooperation in answer to an individual- centred society, fails to strengthen pre-existing relations between the local inhabitants of Willesden. The pair therefore present a clear conflict between the forces of individualism and cosmopolitan empathy in attempting to forge culturally-diverse communities.
That being said, although Natalie has effectively ‘done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from’, her rejection of cultural attachments is not necessarily antithetical to the cosmopolitan outlook (55). As Cole’s Open City attests (as discussed in the following chapter), cosmopolitanism suggests that individuals may form new ties and allegiances beyond established racial affiliations and circumscribe obligations to cultural roles. Nigel Rapport concurs, claiming that the cosmopolitan project in general ‘entails the recognition that individuals are not beholden to a particular communitarian belonging or cultural rootedness for their sense of self (2012b: 184). It is Natalie’s personal ethics, not her denial of ethnicity or community, that prevents her from being an ethically cosmopolitan subject. In failing to demonstrate an empathetic identification with those suffering from socioeconomic inequalities in Willesden, Natalie remains blind to cultural marginalisation and avoids both local and global ethical accountability.
According to Tew, Smith’s fiction suggests that ‘the leap of empathy to fully understand otherness may be unachievable, but she recommends the attempt’ (2010: 115). Despite her unromantic portrayal of Willesden, one should not ignore the optimism integral to the narrative, nor disregard the close personal attachments Smith enjoys with northwest London - being born into, and continuing to reside in, an area of which she writes. Philip Hensher therefore observes that NW reflects ‘a fiction of consequences both global and heartrendingly intimate. The voice is global, plural and local’ (2013: n.pag.). The localised focus of NW demonstrates that although cosmopolitanism is a global-cultural theory, it is intrinsic to ordinary encounters. While cosmopolitanism is often mistakenly subsumed by the related frameworks of multicultural- ism or transnationalism, the narrative concentrates on individual ethics, rather than the actions of collective groups. The everyday lived experiences and cultural agencies of the characters echo Loren Landau and Iriann Freemantle’s positioning of cosmopolitanism as ‘a form of “experiential culture”’, arising from ‘the demands and pragmatics of living, rather than being the result of an appreciation of cultural diversity or a universal concern for others’ (2010: 381). Cosmopolitanism in the narrative is refigured as a series of idiosyncratic and situated socio-cultural connections as opposed to an abstract universal philosophy.
The novel’s fictional north-west London is not a homogenous monolith, but an aggregation of disparate factions comprised of a composite mix of transnational characters. Accordingly, Smith incorporates map directions (from one area of the capital to another) into her narrative to demonstrate their failure to encapsulate the heterogeneity of London’s spaces: Felix ‘considered the tube map. It did not express his reality [ ... ] “Wimbledon” was the countryside, “Pimlico” pure science fiction’ (143). Instead, the ‘A to B redux’ version of directions captures and affirms the everyday realities of the individuals who populate these diverse districts: ‘Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World (34). Willesden’s cultural composition thereby reflects the cosmopolitan urbanism ofLondon’s city-spaces, in which global and local relations penetrate one another, creating glocal spaces of cultural interplay. Smith’s north-west London functions as a microcosm for the mounting cultural relations of the wider globalised world, imposing an analogous globality on the heterogeneous boroughs and districts which form a composite cosmopolitan environment. The narrative encapsulates how positive social relations and attachments begin at the most parochial level; lived experience in a contemporary urban cityscape is increasingly informed and shaped by more global processes of movement in general. Therefore, a concentration on the locally relational spaces of Willesden does not herald an escape from global issues but rather a direct confrontation with the realities of London life, rejecting the idea that cosmopolitan theory is reliant on transnational mobilities or that cosmopolitanism itself necessarily supercedes the nation-state. The cosmopolitanisation of narrative space ensures cross-cultural sympathies and associations become a necessity for those bounded individuals not subject to transnational mobility and untroubled by questions of geographical or ethnic belonging. In this sense, the practice of tolerance and cosmopolitan empathy by Leah embraces a glocal form of ethical agency for its implementation. Through a locally relational analogy of wider global issues, the narrative interrogates the practices of cosmopolitan solidarity and cultural rela- tionality, entwining the complementary concerns of: ‘[g]lobal consciousness. Local consciousness. Consciousness’ (221).
The political shift in Britain following its 2016 referendum on exit from the European Union exemplifies the socioeconomic and racial tensions evident in NW, as well as curtailing any more optimistic designs for cosmopolitan community-building and ethical engagement. In ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, a levelled and passionate response to Britain’s unprecedented moment of political isolationism, Smith acknowledged the unique positioning of London as a model for multicultural idealism, an ‘outward-looking city’ that is ‘so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north’:
around here change is the rule. The old grammar school up the hill became one of the largest Muslim schools in Europe; the old synagogue became a mosque; the old church is now a private apartment building. Waves of immigration and gentrification pass through these streets like buses (Smith 2016: n.pag.)
Smith goes on to reason that London-centric rhetoric and focus during political debates conceals the changing reality of Britain - a rapid and intense shift from cosmopolitan togetherness to nationalistic fervour which exposes an ‘us vs. them’, ‘London vs. the rest’ attitude founded on class division and racial tension. Yet she also recognises the ‘painful truth [... ] that fences are being raised everywhere in London’, as the capital witnesses the preservation of historic xenophobia and ‘post-imperial melancholia’ that has so often characterised cross-cultural relations (ibid.; Gilroy 2004: 109). The dramatic political developments are integral to any subsequent readings of the novel, not least due to Smith’s literary positioning (both by herself and her critics) as a London novelist. The initial image of Leah, fenced off in her garden before opening the door to otherness, now evokes a Britain fenced off from Europe, and symbolises the mediation of local and global frames of reference in the struggle between nationalistic and cosmopolitan modes of belonging.
NW does not imagine some pretty fantasy of twenty-first century life, or envision an unrealistic utopian depiction ofthe capital as a quixotic dream never to be realised, based on ‘the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect’ (2000: 541). Rather, the novel imagines a future imperfect, as citizens negotiate a fragile day-to-day existence in an atmosphere of conflict, diversity and socioeconomic discord. Dissonance is suggested to be the means by which to achieve harmony when living with difference. Xenophobic fear and casual racism persist in the fictional capital, while social exclusivity prevents true cosmopolitan openness and conviviality. These processes of social disintegration and dissolution are the very materials with which Smith builds upon the possibility of transnational connectivities and interrogates cultural convergence. By demonstrating a realistic conception of cosmopolitanism characterised by a rootedness in ‘realities of the present rather than mobilising for the future fulfilment of any one or other set of utopian ideals’, NW encapsulates Schoene’s requirements for the cosmopolitan novel; the ‘post-1989 cosmopolitanism’ embodied by White Teeth following the fall of the Berlin Wall has finally ‘shed its starry- eyedness and grown realist’ (2010a: 10, 9). The novel therefore rejects the sense of an ending that late-twentieth century fiction adheres to, and instead reflects on recent socio-cultural and ethno-political transformations and their role in establishing new ethical possibilities in literature.
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