Have White Teeth, Will White Riot

Posted on September 11, 2010


Hark!: A boy and a girl falling in love at Giants Stadium mid-song at a U2 show last summer. Can a novel do this? Doubtful.

It’s one of my most annoying traits: I’m a novelist, but not a great lover of many novels, especially anything post-1960. Before you slap my virtual face off and call me an elitist twat, allow me to acknowledge that this is not because there’s a dearth of good and even great contemporary stuff; it’s all because of my longtime hang-up with the written word versus music.

For some reason—all those ABBA records my family spun in the basement?—I am wired to respond to melody, chorus, and BPM. I have the patience of Joan of Arc stoned six ways to Sunday and deeply enjoy immersion in a solitary act, but to me narrative arcs are such feeble modes of communication when compared with the speed and impact of Music, i.e., a language so simple and yet sophisticated it can unify tens of thousands regardless of age, race, education, gender, and so on in thirty blinks of an eye. See the photo, left, I took at Giants Stadium during U2’s 360 tour last summer: I swear the two people pictured became a couple over the course of two hours. I’ve never known a book to pack that level of voodoo.

Lesson: English, Cantonese, legalese, Vulcan, and even poor ole Esperanto just don’t have shit on a cracker compared with a great driving anthem blowing out your car speakers. I know what you’re thinking: Heather, books are consumed in solitude, unlike popular music. They are not conducive to “meeting people.” This is true, but I still hold books to that high standard. I don’t think it’s wrong to want them to perform at the level of my favorite art form.

Lest you think I’m a complete weirdo, let me tell you about my favorite exception, a first novel so full of It, grit, and voice that I swear it has a face, name, and Social Security number. At the start of my book’s incubation period in 1999-2000, I came across Zadie Smith’s award-winning White Teeth, an intergenerational saga of love and marriage in the bubbling-over melting pot of mid- and late 20th-century London. Looking back, Smith’s book probably appealed to me at least partially because its early chapters (set in 1975 and the 1980s) re-created the milieu of Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash and post-Clash eras.

My Zadie Smith pile, under my Roddy Doyle and autographed Nuala O'Faolain and Jeffrey Renard Allen

Much like that band’s best work—e.g., “White Riot”—Smith amplified the sound of the city’s immigrant cultures rubbing Old Britain the right-wrong way. Although many people I recommended the book to struggled with the threads of the Jones, Iqbal, and Chalfen families, Smith’s tendency to sprawl like the city she was depicting struck me as just right. Strangely, even though it meant the story was maybe a little longer than was convenient for readers, I think it’s the reason White Teeth interrupted my powerful Clash obsession. Another way of saying that: It was written the exact way it had to be written, and its confidence and swagger in being born the way it was, imperfect in a few places, had a powerful effect on me.

Whatever I was going to do with my life (mind you, I had no intention at this stage of writing a novel; that form terrified me), it had to be honest. It had to have its own logic, rather than borrow from an existing source. It had to be its own universe.

My ticket stub for the Strummer show I'd never see; Strummer died nine months later of a heart attack

I was about to find out what mine was.

Almost three years after seeing Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros at the Roseland Ballroom, I was due to take them in again at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on April 4, 2002, just a few months into starting the creative writing MFA program at The New School. The last eight months had nearly killed me, literally. In mourning after 9/11 and weathering depression and insomnia, I was too whacked-out on Zoloft and my emotions to go.

Nine months later, on Dec. 22, 2002, the man born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, died of a heart attack after walking his dogs in Somerset, England. I was home for Christmas, checking my email in the basement while my mom reheated me some dinner upstairs. A message from my good friend Rob Morast came to me through the ether: “Dude, I’m sorry. Joe’s dead.”

Blogging soundtrack:

  • Streetcore by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, especially “Coma Girl” and “Long Shadow”

In memory of my fellow New Yorkers who died on 9/11/01: “You cast a long shadow/ And it is your testament”