Interview by Jane Zwart
I happened to land there in '94, a time of a lot of theory, especially high French theory. All of my ideas about novels—you know, I really thought of them as this kind of "truth and beauty" thing, this kind of life-changing thing—were not in fashion at all. Well, because I'm very easily influenced, I fully got onboard the French theory train and forgot about all that "truth and beauty" stuff. It was only years after, when I wrote this book, that I thought it was quite a brutal experience to have to give up one version of aesthetic pleasure and have to leap into this other, purely intellectual response. So Katie was kind of about that (and, of course, she's a foil to Howard, who takes up so much space in the book).
Let me ask you a question about another young woman in On Beauty, the character Zora (who, it seems, was probably named for Zora Neale Hurston). Even though she's very into "curating her own identity," to borrow a phrase from your commencement speech at the New School, she seems hardly at all interested in questions of her ethnic identity.
No, but what's interesting is that Zora and I became somehow conflated in a lot of people's minds. I realized it when I was at the playground shortly after [On Beauty] came out and one of the other professors at NYU—another mom—came up to me and said, "I didn't know your father taught at Amherst." [laughs] And I said, "My father did not teach at Amherst." I realized she thought that I was a child of academics, that it was all my life. I had written myself into a new family. Like the kind of people I met for the first time in college, I guess: upper-middle-class kids whose parents were writers and artists and intellectuals and journalists. It was just inconceivable for me, that idea, that your parents could be involved in that world. For instance, that you could make art and offer it to them and that they would respond in an intellectual way. My mum certainly reads everything I write now and is really responsive and smart with it—and of course has a degree herself now. But my father never really read me. He read articles about me, but he could never get through any of the novels. So the idea of a father like Howard is something I had to imagine; it wasn't my own reality.
Anyway, yes, Zora. When I was an adolescent, I was, I think, very focused on proving that I was British—which tells you something about Britain because I was born there and I have a passport. I shouldn't be needing to prove I'm British to anyone, but that's the way that country works. And Zora is a satirical representation of that part of my personality as a teenager, which I look back on ruefully now because I missed out on a lot. Trying to get other people's approval when I could have been doing something more interesting. My Jamaican heritage—my African heritage—has become much more interesting to me now than the fact that I happen to have a British passport.
So it seems that heritage is something that you've thought about in religious and artistic terms, as well as in ethnic or cultural terms—which is why I wanted to ask you about a claim you made shortly after you had written The Autograph Man: that "much of the excitement of writing a new novel is always in the repudiation of the one written before." What, from White Teeth, does The Autograph Man repudiate?
I think those two books trace a series of religious preoccupations that I was working out. In White Teeth, Islam. I read the Koran, and a lot of the novel came out of that. And then I had these kind of Jewish mystic-y friends from college, and that's really where Autograph Man came from.
But my father died while I was writing the book, too, and my interest in Judaism became less theoretical and more spiritual—to the point where I thought I might even convert. The book itself is a form of idiot's kaddish. It's odd thinking about it now, but it was an obsession for a little while.