Zadie Smith’s work is often located in the categories of the transnational, the multicultural, and the postcolonial. Yet these labels fail to situate Smith within the landscape of metropolitan London, a context essential to her identity as a writer. Now is the time to read Smith on her own terms, which means reading her both as a writer of northwest London, where she was born and raised, and of a second, fictional birthplace she calls “Dream City”. In a 2008 talk entitled “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith introduced Dream City as a conceptual homeland for many of the characters across her four novels, characters whose identities, like Smith’s, are deeply grounded in London, but whose “complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives,” make them too complex, too multiform for their surroundings. According to Smith, Dream City is “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.”’ This is “a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion,” where “everything is doubled, everything is various.”

Dream City calls to mind Smith’s own diverse hometown of Willesden in northwest London. What allows these communities of new Londoners to create their own complicated, colorful history is an imagined “we” in which a diversity of origins not only coexists, but also, crucially, makes the collective meaningful. Yet Smith’s utopian vision rests on shaky foundations – in the lives of her characters and the worlds of her novels, the “we” of Dream City turns out to be unstable and faltering. In White Teeth, British national identity is under examination, a quandary still reflected by the divisive rhetoric of David Cameron, and the wider attitudes towards immigrant communities that this rhetoric encompasses. In NW, the neighborhood is plagued by an unstable sense of race and class identity, as public housing residents collide with their middle class neighbors. In response to these fissures, the characters of Smith’s novels turn inward to the “I”, an attempted act of self-identification in the face of a insecure collective “we.”

Who is the “we”? Modes of belonging and collective in modern London in Smith’s work, which engages high-stakes political issues like multiculturalism, race and nationality, calls to mind Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as an “imagined community.” London is constantly being reshaped by political and literary fictions, but it is also a real, changing place. A useful framework for understanding this relationship between a place and the imagination of that place is to distinguish between cities and publics. A city is a geographically charted political and juridical entity; a public is a theoretical conception of a community. Michael Warner defines a public as a self-organized relation among strangers all mutually paying attention to the same texts or set of texts. These texts might be a set of pamphlets circulating among the same community, like those circulated by Islamic fundamentalist group KEVIN in White Teeth, or cultural texts, such as the reality television show which captures the attention of some characters in NW. In any case, publics depend on discourse, which represents and actively shapes the community.

Warner suggests that we become individual public subjects as members of a wider public. Our “self-relation” is affected by the wider public in which we participate. But a city is not necessarily a public: Warner draws the distinction that “A nation [or, in this case, a city]…includes its members whether they are awake or asleep, sober or drunk, sane or deranged, alert or comatose,” whereas “a public exists only by virtue of address,” and therefore “must predicate some degree of attention, however notional, from its members.” This hits on the major problem of the city for Smith’s characters. There is no one newspaper or even one single polis-center around which civil society can operate; there is no single set of texts around which a modern nation or city can define itself. Nations, today, include many smaller publics: in Smith’s London, publics are constantly forming around new sets of texts, new conversations that are peculiar to certain races or classes. Smith’s novels take place in a world where the nation is not yet obsolete, but is inhabited by many of these smaller publics (some of which talk to each other and others which do not). Some form counterpublics, resisting the dominant sphere–like the Islamic fundamentalist group in White Teeth–and others hang below public recognition–like the Internet sex sites in NW. Cities are deceptive: we think we know a place by its physical mappings, but the city’s identity is constantly being remade as people within it change and grow and leave. As its elements shift, the city too shifts, reflecting its component parts.

The trouble with global cities like London, as James Holston and Arjun Appadurai explain in “Cities and Citizenship”, is that the theoretical vocabularies we have for understanding multiplicities do not easily translate into real-life community formation. The fictions of London we perpetuate—of London as a transnational city, a post-imperial land, a diasporic world—are, in the end, still fictions. The reality is that a “diaspora,” like Dream City, is not a place but a concept. While “Many are seeking alternatives in the post-, trans-, de-, re-, (and plain con) of current speculations about the future of the nation-state,” these conceptual categories are not enough to enfranchise the multiple identities of the protagonists in White Teeth and NW. As Holston and Appadurai put it, “until transnations attain more flesh and bone, cities may still be the most important sites in which we experience the crises of national membership and through which we may rethink citizenship”. London thus has the burden of becoming a home to each of these imagined categories – the burden of being an instantiation of these fictions.



Collectivity fails the second generation immigrant Millat Iqbal, the son of Samad in White Teeth. Millat’s disaffection leads him to attend a book burning of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. Although he has not read the book, Millat reacts intuitively to public spectacle as it takes hold on the airwaves and television. The reality that Millat has seen himself excluded from text-based publics means he presumes the book is another disenfranchising text and as such feels no need to read it: “He knew that he, Millat…had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands”. Millat latches onto one thing: “‘So: there’s a fucking spiritual war going on—that’s fucking crazy! About time—we need to make our mark in this bloody country’”. With a dearth of people like himself occupying prominent places within the British media, when he finally does see other “Pakis” on the television yelling, he aligns with them.

The irony of Millat’s anger is that such a moment of recognition might have happened had Millat read the novel. Yet while Rushdie is arguably a voice representing people like Millat, trapped between nations, Millat is disenfranchised from the growing global literary public that Rushdie represents. As a result, Millat aligns himself with another public, the members of the fundamentalist group KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternally Victorious Islam Nation) with whom he burns the book. They are paying attention not to the text of The Satanic Verses itself but to the media coverage it commands. Smith draws our attention to a larger irony of text-created identities: we depend on some texts for singularity of meaning, for something like Truth, and we burn or condemn or just do not pay attention to others—the ones that might even hold the right answers for us.

In another neat demonstration of this irony, while Millat is burning The Satanic Verses, his parents, Samad and Alsana, are in an argument at home. When Samad tells Alsana to act like a Bengali, she in response pulls out the Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia and reads out a brief definition of “Bengali.” When he is unhappy with the definition, she asks him if he wants to burn that, too. This mockery of identities made out of text ironizes Millat’s sentiments of exclusion: if it is absurd for Samad to look up “Bengali” in an encyclopedia, it is equally absurd for Millat to feel that his identity depends on text.

In White Teeth, several sub-communities form around leaflets, noticeably like the political pamphlets which Anderson observes were responsible for much of early British political identity. Smith, surely aware of this, reappropriates this mechanism for creating national identity in a noticeably anachronistic form. The novel includes a Jamaican-immigrant Jehovah’s Witness family, an animal-rights activist group, and the Islamic extremist group KEVIN, all of which publicly self-identify and publicize by way of leaflets.

While Jehovah’s Witnesses distribute the word of their community door-to-door, hand-to-hand, and while the animal-rights group tries to convert new followers, KEVIN does the opposite – their goal is to preserve a sub-community of male Muslim contemporaries, interested not in integration but in destabilizing the dominant public sphere. Hifan, one of the Brothers, singles out Millat on the school playground as a potential recruit. He tells Millat: “‘There is an hadith from the Bukhari…The best people of my community are my contemporaries and supporters. You are my contemporary, Millat, I pray you will also become my supporter; there is a war going on, Millat, a war’”. Hifan speaks to Millat through insular, citational dialogue, creating an internal discourse between him and Millat as equal Muslim men and “contemporaries,” members of one “community.” In this way, as the Brothers of KEVIN attempt to disperse the word of the Qur’an, they burrow themselves deeper into a niche within the already segregated South Asian immigrant community of London, and thereby foreclose any possibility of a wider public.

Millat’s interest is sparked by “leaflets called things like The Big American Devil: How the United States Mafia Rules the World or Science Versus the Creator: no Contest” but when the Brothers attempt to get Millat interested in leaflets about sexual politics or women’s issues, he withdraws, and when he does try to publicize KEVIN using these texts, he fails. Millat approaches an Indian woman in a café and “started giving her the back page of The Right to Bare [a pamphlet] pretty much verbatim…That’s what we think,’ he said, uncertain if that was what he thought. ‘That’s our opinion,’”. Millat’s choice of pronouns is telling: unable to produce an original thought or phrasing of the leaflet on his own, he falls into the comfort of a “we”—the knowledge that he now holds some shared identity with KEVIN, which necessarily means he shares the group’s views.

But Millat is unsuccessful (“‘Oh, darling,’ she murmured…‘If I give you money, will you go away?’”). After this failure, Millat finds himself alone on the streets of London, further alienated by the leaflets meant to create a community. Millat retreats deeper into the KEVIN community, falling onto the comfort of a shared “we.” Yet while Millat may have the help of KEVIN, a “we” to belong to, that “we” is inauthentic to him. Smith draws our attention to the disenfranchising potential that these seemingly foundational modes of citizenship hold and suggests that membership in a community in the modern age is darker, more complicated, more full of colliding counterpublics. And the stakes are high: the texts that fail Millat lead him down a path toward extremism and violence. Smith points us toward a controversial claim: that the texts around which we form our identities, communities, publics, nations, are not only flimsier than we would wish, but their unreliability also makes them dangerous. A world where individuals feel themselves without an identity is a world where cities are sites of territory-staking violence.

White Teeth and NW are preoccupied with similarly fragile collectivites. But NW, rather than being preoccupied with the question of a coherent national identity, asks a microcosmic question: what is one’s local, community identity? And what happens to the local in an age of technology and globalization, when neighbors might identify more strongly with an organization like KEVIN than with northwest London, or with an Internet-based community more than Willesden Green? In answering these questions, NW makes a similar move as White Teeth, turning once more to the “I” in the face of a collapsing “we”. This “I” turns out, once more, to be unsatisfying.

The unstable sense of collectivity in NW—and the attempt to hold it together—is demonstrated clearly when Natalie Blake becomes involved in a brief altercation on a playground. Shortly before this episode, Natalie wishes to be “intimately involved” with strangers instead of walking silently past other people – this desire, however, is turned on its head when her involvement results in unpleasant consequences. At a playground with her child, Natalie and a few other women gang up on a white teenager and his girlfriend because the boy is smoking a cigarette. An old white lady, angry about the boy’s smoking, declares: “I’m going to give them all a piece of my mind…They’re all off that bloody estate”. Natalie and a “formidable-looking Rasta in a giant Zulu hat” join in asking him to put out the cigarette—a veritable multicultural taskforce protecting the local public grounds. The playground can be read as a microcosm of generational, class, and racial diversity—the perfect place to see the various elements of the NW neighborhood to converge. Together, this diverse band of women share causes of motherhood and a desire for safety in the shared public space.

The boy responds: “I don’t do like you lot do round here. This ain’t my manor. We don’t do like you do here. In Queen’s Park. You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so”. As an argument erupts, the Rasta woman yells, “I’m not Queen’s Park, love, I’m HARLESDEN. Why would you talk about yourself in that way? Why would you talk about your area that way? Oh you just pissed me off, boy. I’m from Harlesden—certified youth worker. Twenty years. I am ashamed of you right now. You’re the reason why we’re where we are right now. Shame. Shame!”. The nebulous “we” of the woman’s statement is not race-based – it’s related in part to class and in part to geography. She defines the two against the affluent “Queen’s Park” stereotype (the playground is in Queen’s Park): even if the two are from opposite ends of London, Hackney and Harlesden, according to her they have a class interest in common. The rasta woman’s use of the collective pronoun “we” points to her imagined collectivity of a shared neighborhood, society and public. Her “we,” though, is an indistinct category which includes people, like the boy, who define their communities along different lines: “I’m Hackney.” This is not a “we” discursively created out of rational public discourse, text, or leaflets: the scene, in fact, makes a mockery of the notion of discourse as a productive social force.

The Rasta and Natalie seek a common dialogue around which to engage the boy, and they attempt to invoke shared ideals, to call on their membership in the same community. But up close, their “we” shatters. Natalie, who is not explicitly included in the conversation, jumps in to try to bridge it: “Just put it out, man. Said Natalie. She had not ended a sentence in ‘man’ for quite some time”. The Rasta woman, too, slips into the local patois: “I was willing to chat with you, right?…But you just lost me with that nonsense. Shame on you, brother”. Natalie was once Keisha, her former name associated with her working-class background, and can add “man” to the end of her sentences, and the Rasta woman claims to be from the same kind of place as the teenagers and can speak like them. But an inauthenticity about the adults’ interaction with the teenagers pervades the end of the scene. The argument is instigated by the fact of their shared public space, but this alone is not enough for Natalie and the Rasta to demand a communitarian ideal from the teens: instead, they appeal on the basis of shared conceptual space, in the form of linguistic tropes. Public ethics in this instance require an additional imagined notion of a community, of a “we”, which none of the parties seem able to agree on.

Natalie, after having successfully gotten the teenagers to back down, “accidentally locked eyes with Marcus—briefly causing her to stutter—but soon she found a void above his right shoulder and addressed all further remarks to this vanishing point”. Natalie, who pages ago just wanted to be “intimately involved” with people not pages ago, cannot even maintain a brief moment of eye contact with this boy: not only does their shared conceptual community fail, the two cannot even inhabit the same space. The “we” which supposedly establishes a communitarian ideal— which inspires Natalie to be a public defender—breaks down in the face of the true population of the city. And while Natalie, whose career is predicated on buying into the notion of legally defined communities, lives her life by such imagination of a public, her stymied moment of triumph reveals Smith’s discomfort with the glue that holds publics together.


When Natalie and her friend Leah Hanwell suspect Nathan Bogle of murdering Felix, another character, the two women turn to the law to report him, placing a phone call to the police, in the trust that he will be brought to justice. This turn to the state at the end of NW marks a trust not only in the authority of the police but also in the larger system, which has allowed Natalie to succeed Felix to die and Shar, the two women’s school contemporary, to fail.

Their exchange just before they call the police is telling. Leah asks Natalie:

“Why…not us? Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.” Natalie responds: “Because we worked harder, she said, laying her head on the back of the bench to consider the wide-open sky. ‘We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle—they didn’t want it enough…This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.”

Natalie is the more powerful, privileged member of the conversation, and it shows; she pushes her logic of self-definition onto Leah, who is less privileged, and less convinced. For Natalie at the end, the sky seems “wide-open” – the way she sees it, they are not fenced in, not trapped. Of course, Natalie has the privilege of seeing the sky; her money affords her more freedom than Leah, who is described in the book’s opening as “in a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides. Four gardens along, in the estate.” The logic which allows Natalie to trust that her life is justified is the rhetoric of meritocracy propagated by the British New Labour policy, especially as it applies to housing—the sense that the people who live in homes and gardens and have children are the ones who seek the views of open blue sky, rather than sit in the fenced-in homes of the trapped poor.

Natalie talks herself into believing that in her life, as in the courtroom, “people generally get what they deserve.” With that trust in authority, the two women turn to the law to report Nathan Bogle. However, Smith does not endorse this view: Felix is not so easily dismissed as “the poor bastard” who had it coming; he was on his way out, just like Natalie.

While Natalie’s logic is not Smith’s, NW sets forth Natalie’s notion as the kind of logic upon which publics depend to hold themselves together. It is how Natalie can handle living in the same space as strangers whose experiences are so far off from her own. It is the logic of a mixed community like NW, where the experiment of melding a public together out of such wide stratifications has not been entirely successful. Natalie’s jaunt out into the dark, forbidden streets of NW; her brief flirtation of walking in an unknown part of the neighborhood, unprotected, like a native; even her use of her own former name, Keisha, as an online pseudonym (KeishaNW), are all attempts to bridge her roots with her present, her neighborhood’s surroundings with her upwardly bound middle-class existence. But in the end, these each pass, and Natalie falls back on the logic that tells her to trust in the private life she has built for herself.

The last twist comes when Natalie, as she phones the authorities to report Bogle, chooses to speak in her Keisha-voice. Natalie is a barrister, which means she could use her position as part of the legal system to enforce the law. But she adopts the speech of her former working-class self to make the call. Rather than informing the state as a member of it, from within the system as a public defender, she chooses to inform from the bottom up, as a member of the wider public citizenry. She does so trusting in the divisions that make the system, rather than trusting in glue that holds a “we” together. It is an even greater submission to the state that Natalie informs as Keisha–as her “blacker” self, in the voice that she used when she lived on the estate. Rather than using her position as a cultivated barrister and enforcer of the law, as upper-middle class Natalie, she chooses to speak as a member of the public on which the state will exert its regulatory power, as lower-class, estate-dwelling Keisha. The moment manifests a Hobbesian logic, implying that the only way to hold together a public is by trusting the civic authority that shapes it, which its members submit to, to which its members must turn. The public at the end of NW is no rational public citizenry held together around the circulation of text and discourse.


Smith’s novels give us a picture of a British collective that is unstable, unsatisfying and disenfranchising, and where the turn inward —the attempt to self-define—does not ease the difficulties of living in the city. White Teeth initially places trust in the possibility of a coherent “we”, whether generated by sub-communities or intellectual counterpublics, but Smith uses absurdism to deconstruct the components of our collectivities, slowly withdrawing her–and our–trust from community at large. The members of KEVIN, having decided on the public spectacle of reading Sura 52 at a press conference as an act of protest, end up in a debate about which translation to use. When Millat “walked into the Kilburn Hall of an evening he had only to squint to mistake this talkative circle of chairs, these supposed fanatic fundamentalists, for an editorial meeting at the London Review of Books.” In their attempt to subvert the discourse of the dominant public sphere, KEVIN ends up creating its own intellectual subculture, thus emulating one of the characteristic formations of the wider public discourse: the bourgeois intellectual. When texts fail to constitute a coherent identity for a subcommunity’s members (here, KEVIN), the novel resorts to satire, imparting a nihilistic message that scoffs at any attempt to situate oneself meaningfully in a coherent identity.

While absurdism allows White Teeth to shy away, the stark realist style of NW’s means the issue of how to navigate the perilous terrain of “I” and “we” cannot be avoided. NW is a departure from White Teeth’s hysterical realism — as Wood calls it. Instead of enormous plots, Smith employs the close-lens realism she described in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a world where “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic…the world is covered in language”. In the sections following Natalie and Leah’s perspectives, Smith’s style so immerses us in their subjectivities that the only meaning is found in tiny moments. NW has brought us too close to the lives of these people to just zoom out. This means that at the end of the novel, we need an answer: can Natalie be happy?

Natalie’s attempts to control her own self-definition ultimately bring her back to the collectivity she endeavors to define herself against. She streamlines her identity, abandoning her former name, Keisha, which she finds distasteful; yet despite these endeavors, she continues paying 10 percent of her income to her family, chooses public defense over private litigation, and insists on moving back to the neighborhood where she grew up. What appear to be her most personal choices are tied to her original community – she cannot escape the ‘we.’ In the end, her attempt to self-define, to be her own sole author, is no more successful than KEVIN is for Millat.

What is striking, however, is that NW does not criticize the failure of the “we” from the perspective of the disenfranchised. Felix, the “poor bastard” who is murdered, is marginalized; so, too, is Nathan Bogle, the alleged murderer. But they play relatively minor roles; instead, we are largely privy to the tribulations of Natalie and Leah, the ones who should easily integrate into the “we” of wider British society. If White Teeth examines the failure of the public sphere for the obviously marginalized, NW depicts its failure even for those who should be enfranchised by it.

The utopian multiplicity of Dream City is no more than a dream. Smith’s account of the multiple voices in Dream City finds an interesting parallel in Natalie’s use of her Keisha voice. Smith says in the article, “between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony”. Yet Natalie’s experience would seem to indicate that there is conflict between her two voices, Natalie and Keisha. Smith adds that someone “from Dream City,” with these multiple voices, should not “mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application.” This is, however, exactly what Natalie does when she uses her own experience to justify faith in the system at the end of NW. While her speech might seem to redeem the “we” that has faltered throughout the entire novel, in re-endorsing the collective, she also justifies its divisions and stratifications, and positions herself on top. Her faith in multiplicity masks a conservative reality.

Natalie’s logic is not so far off from something Smith herself has said. She wrote that she has the British state to thank for her success: “I retain a particular naivety concerning the British state, which must seem comical to many people…the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage… To steal another writer’s title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt”. With this in mind, it is easy to see why NW portrays a collective held together not by idealistic energy but by conservative trust in the system.

The optimistic ‘we’ of Dream City is not attainable for Smith’s characters. Natalie idealistically attempts to engage the subcommunities of her locale, but instead falls into the comfort of the atomized relationship characteristic of modernism: the citizen viz-a-viz the state. Although such a relationship yields neither a real communitarian sensibility nor the transcendental “we” Smith refers to, it does yield a certain comfort, albeit a mechanistic one, that “people generally get what they deserve.” For people like Natalie – and Smith herself – who are beneficiaries of New Labour’s supposed meritocracy, it proves easier to trust in the idea of an exceptional individual than a system which is inhospitable to communal ideals. This logic ultimately resists the spirit of Dream City—it elevates the “I” instead of embracing the wider “we”.

Sanjena Sathian graduated from Yale University in 2013 with a major in English. The above is excerpted from a longer essay which won the John Hubbard Curtis Prize in English at Yale University.