Let me know if you’ll have any issues with the assigned time or if I’ve left you off and you’d like to meet.
Just to bring things in the class full circle, I wanted to share a photo from the Met’s Play it Loud exhibit: a pair of basses owned by Kim Gordon, whose memoir, of course, we read excerpts from.
The exhibit includes dozens of other instruments. It sometimes felt hard to believe that they’re all under one roof. For those of you who couldn’t make it, I highly recommend you check out the exhibit if you can!
Your in-class final exam asks you to write a short essay (roughly 4-6 paragraphs) discussing how the excerpts from White Teeth represent themes of cultural essentialism and cultural hybridity. We should, therefore, define these terms and begin thinking about how they apply to White Teeth.
At risk of defining the concept in a circular way, in cultural studies, “essentialism” refers to the idea that cultures have unchanging “essences.” An “essentialist” argument would assume that there are distinct, separable, and “natural” elements that define a given culture.
By contrast, the term cultural hybridity refers to an “anti-essentialist” position: the idea that cultural “essences” do not exist. Anti-essentialists deny that cultural identity is inherent and instead focus on how culture is historical—that is, how cultures are socially constructed and change over time. Cultural hybridity, by extension, names the ways that cultures and cultural identities are always “mixed” and “fragmented” and never “pure” or “stable.”
As we turn to White Teeth, we can see that the main character of this section of the novel, the Bangledeshi immigrant Samad Iqbal, struggles to negotiate his “essentialist” sense of cultural identity with his “hybrid” existence in London. Let’s consider, in more detail, how.
Since our current essay project asks you to become a “music critic” and consider why Qui Nguyen presents Vietgone (a Vietnam War-era story) in a seemingly anachronistic hip hop/rap style, we’ll need to think more closely about how his choice of musical genre reflects the broader themes of migration in the play. To do so, let’s get creative.
For this exercise, the class will be broken into four groups. As a group, you will be assigned a passage from Vietgone‘s “Music Cue 03,” Quang and Tong’s rap “I’ll Make it Home.” Then, you will be assigned a musical genre (options might include country, hair metal, jazz crooner, folk, grunge, disco, you get the idea). Your task will be to rewrite the passage, adapting it to the conventions of your assigned musical genre.
You’ll have to consider what stylistic conventions characterize your assigned genre and how they might be used to express the themes of migration and homesickness in “I’ll Make it Home.” You don’t necessarily have to rewrite the passage line by line (this would take too long). A representative verse and/or chorus will do—and you can define this in a way that makes sense for your genre.
After we share our adapted lyrics, we’ll move on to part two of the exercise. Here, you will compare and contrast your adapted lyrics and musical genre to the original lyrics and Nguyen’s chosen genre of hip hop. How would writing Vietgone in your assigned genre have changed the tone and representation of themes in the play? What does hip hop as a genre offer thematically that your assigned genre doesn’t? Use these reflections to collaboratively write a few sentences that make an argument about why Nguyen might have chosen to represent Vietgone in a hip hop style rather than in another genre.
White Teeth is the 2000 novel by British writer Zadie Smith. We’ll only have time to read a relatively short excerpt, the second section “Samad: 1984, 1857” (pps. 103-217). I think this passage works well on its own. Nonetheless, since we’re skipping part one (which I invite you to read if you’d like to and have the time), I thought it would be useful to provide you a quick summary of what leads up to this section. Without further ado:
White Teeth, set primarily in London, follows the relationship of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals. Broadly, the novel engages themes of migrant and British identity.
The novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1975 with middle-aged Englishman Archie Jones’ failed suicide attempt. Saved by a Muslim butcher (who believes a suicide in his parking lot would not be “halal”), Archie is given a new lease on life. He wanders into a New Year’s Eve party and meets Clara Bowden, a young woman of Jamaican descent. Archie is smitten by her beauty save for one detail: her missing front teeth. Nonetheless, the two quickly marry.
The novel then moves backward to give us Clara’s backstory. Raised in London by her mother as a strict Jehovah’s Witness, she rebels by carrying on a relationship with Ryan Topps, a “mod” with a scooter whom Clara regards as exciting and “dangerous.” After the two are involved in a scooter accident (which knocks out Clara’s front teeth), an ironic reversal takes place: shocked by the near-death experience and believing it a sign that he is one of “God’s elect,” Ryan becomes a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Clara, by contrast, completely loses her faith and takes up with hippies and bohemians. Amongst this company at the “End of the World” New Year’s Eve party (named so because of a Jehovah’s Witness belief that the world would end in 1975), Clara meets Archie. They eventually have a child, Irie, who remains troubled by her dual identity as she grows throughout the novel.
Unlike his daughter, Archie is completely uncurious about his origins and sense of identity. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe Archie as the most boring man in the world. Strangely for a protagonist, his only distinguishing characteristic is his inability to make decisions: he always, instead, flips a coin to avoid taking any solid positions.
The novel contrasts Archie to his best friend, the Bangladeshi immigrant Samad Iqbal, the both of whom met serving in Europe during World War II. When we meet Samad, he is working as a waiter in a British Indian restaurant, a job he detests because of his educated upbringing. Samad also believes that he descends from a great lineage of Indian patriots dating back to the 1857 Mutiny against British rule. Unlike Archie, Samad is obsessed with knowing “where he comes from” and maintaining a “pure” sense of Bengali and Muslim identity despite residing in Britain. He and his wife Alsana (who were wedded in an arranged marriage) have twins, Millat and Magid, whose lives go in two completely different directions. We’ll learn more about Samad, Millat, and Magid in the assigned section.
You’ll be able to fill in the rest from here!
Post your research as a comment here.
- Read your passage aloud at least twice.
- Annotate your paragraph. What literary elements do you see at play in the passage? What words or images don’t you understand? (Look up unfamiliar words or allusions in the OED or reputable dictionary.) Don’t just name the elements but explain them (for example, if you see a metaphor, don’t just say “metaphor” but explain what the comparison being made is).
- Highlight words or phrases that you can’t quite explain or still have questions about.
- Pass your passages and start again once time expires.
Part 2: Once all passages have been annotated,
- Use the class’s annotations and observations about this passage to write a thesis about how this passage “works.” Use the template “In this passage, Dawson does _____ to show _____” as a guide. Write an additional few sentences explaining the evidence for your thesis from the passage.
- Share your theses/sentences and discuss passages as a full group.
(Adapted from Danica Savonick’s Collaborative Close Reading guidelines.)
I wanted to say a little more about the sestina form, as it appears in When Rap Spoke Straight to God, which I glossed over in class.
The sestina is a complicated form that goes back to 12th century Troubadour poetry. The form consists of six stanzas of six lines each, with the addition of a three-line envoi. (Envoi is a poetics term for a short, concluding stanza.) The “end words” of the first stanza are repeated in a fixed order, with the concluding envoy including all of the end words.
Dawson’s sestinas in Rap Spoke Straight to God follow an irregular order of end words. If you map out the six end words (swing, trump, skies, this, “K,” new) in the sestina beginning on page 11 (with the line, “For some, it don’t mean a thing without the swing . . .”), you’ll find this pattern:
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 2 3 4 5
5 6 1 2 3 4
4 5 6 1 2 3
3 4 5 6 1 2
2 3 4 5 6 1
(5 6) (1 3) (2 4)
This is just another way that Dawson works within “traditional” poetic forms, yet also audaciously remixes them.
For more on the sestina form, check out this page: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/sestina
Understanding a poem always requires multiple readings. Let’s practice!
We’ll read a few passages from Erica Dawson’s When Rap Spoke Straight to God three times each. Each time, you’ll approach the poem slightly differently.
- The first time, just listen to the poem.
- The second time, choose one line of the poem and “annotate” it with a short question or comment.
- The third time, the class will “explode”—meaning, you’ll share aloud what you wrote after the line has been spoken.
We’ll then follow up with some questions:
- What did you hear during the explosion?
- What surprised you?
- What didn’t you understand?
- What patterns did you notice?
- Which lines drew your attention and why?