A Talk by Kim Evelyn: “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging”

On February 12th, faculty and students were treated to an eloquent and thought-provoking talk from Ph.D. candidate, Kim Evelyn, at an event hosted by the English Graduate Colloquium. Kim’s presentation, titled “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging,” highlighted a paradox central to British colonial identity– the incongruity between a British Caribbean individual’s sense of national belonging and the feeling of exclusion. The multigenerational Caribbean characters of Smith’s White Teeth struggle with the difficult idea of “home,” recounting family histories in order to create a narrative of identity foundational to their experiences of diaspora.

Following her talk, I asked Kim to elaborate on what it was like to participate in the Graduate Colloquium.

Q: Can you briefly tell us how your talk fits into your larger project?

KE: The talk came out of my second dissertation chapter on George Lamming’s novel The Emigrants and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. My project looks at conceptualizations of home (the idea of it, domestic homes, national homes, and the necessary questions of belonging and identity that stem from that) in the literature of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK. With this chapter I’m especially interested in how characters narrativize home, particularly how it’s constructed in the speech acts and oral histories that characterize these two novels (indeed, orality and written forms of creolized Caribbean speech are distinctive features of much Caribbean literature in general).

Q: How was the experience of presenting at the colloquium?

KE: The experience of presenting in the colloquium was terrific. I’m generally very comfortable reading and speaking in front of large groups, so that helps. I’m excited about my project and I was jazzed to have an opportunity to talk about it and share some of it with others!

Q: How did you decide what to give your talk on, or rather, what to leave out, since it is part of a larger project?

KE: This happened in stages. First I chose to present on White Teeth alone because it’s a contemporary novel that garnered quite a lot of academic and popular attention when it was published and I thought that it might be the most widely known and read novel that I am writing on. Then I knew I needed to contextualize my reading in terms of my project and the historical, literary, and theoretical frameworks/traditions I’m working with, so the first section of the talk largely came from the draft of my introduction. After that it was a matter of deciding what to focus on keeping the time limit in mind: I wanted the talk to be narrowly focused and I cut some really interesting material in order to focus on the Bowden women and their inscription of identity, belonging, and home in their oral family history. It was also necessary, as I’m sure we can all appreciate, to revise for continuity and with a listening audience—rather than a reading audience—in mind.  The exercise of preparing the talk was incredibly useful for making revisions to the whole chapter in the interest of organization and clarity.

Q: It seems like you got some excellent questions. Have any of those ideas made their way into your work?

KE: I think that Professor Davis’s question about exile (and my answer) will need to be addressed in my work for certain. “Exile” is a term frequently used in the literature and criticism I’m working with, but I’m hesitant to use it because I think of exile more along the lines of Edward Said. In Said’s critical theory, exile is a “condition of terminal loss” and an “unhealable rift between . . . the self and its true home.” The connections between Caribbean people abroad and in the Caribbean are just too tight-knit for me to apply the term “exile” too broadly or easily (though the Windrush generation felt it much more acutely because, initially, they often did not have the resources or technology to travel or communicate back and forth as frequently as they–as well as their children and grandchildren–later would).  The Caribbean community in the UK (and its literary counterparts) made a home of the diaspora itself, enabling community strength and fostering senses of belonging. This pattern is repeated across accounts from migrants, the autobiographical nonfiction of Caribbean writers like Lamming, and in the diaspora’s literature.

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