Bridging Divides

Recognition of ourselves lies in our recognition by others (Whitaker

1996: 77).

Natalie’s isolation reaches its peak following Frank’s discovery of her sexual encounters. The email address created for arranging such trysts: ‘ This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ’, emphasises the inescapable nature of both her original identity and her Willesden origins (259). The subsequent chapter, entitled ‘Crossing’, chronicles the events following their marital argument and Natalie’s subsequent flight from her home. Her departing remark to Frank that she is going ‘[n]owhere’ holds a double meaning, referring to the stasis in her personal progression, while also alluding (phonetically) to the absence of cultural mobility within the locality of ‘north-west’ London itself (260). By leaving the flat and wandering unknown city-spaces Natalie is initially disoriented and adrift, no longer secure in her restricted daily routine, doubtful she could ever connect with her original community or fellow residents. The chapter title alludes to Natalie’s personal transformation and the inauthentic hybrid identities she has assumed to escape from her cultural heritage and economically-desolate community: ‘[w]ife drag. Court drag. Rich drag [... ] British drag. Jamaican drag’ (245). She encounters her old school acquaintance Nathan Bogle, a drug dealer of St Lucian heritage (indicated to be in league with Shar at various points in the novel, as well as complicit in Felix’s stabbing). He persists in calling her Keisha - unlike most of Natalie’s close friends and acquaintances he is able to see beyond the socially-constructed persona and perceive the girl he once knew. It is Nathan who first identifies the significance of Natalie’s profession to her manufactured identity, suggesting that a law career is merely another attempt at hiding her true self through a form of drag: ‘wig on your head. Hammer in your hand’ (270). While the previous chapter, ‘Host’, suggested that Natalie considered herself to be continuing a noble tradition of law which has spanned several centuries, she remains unappreciative of the ethnically diverse trail-blazers who have made it possible for her to pursue a legal career. She arrogantly ignores the guiding words of Theodora Lewis-Lane, a prominent Jamaican QC, who was advised to ‘avoid ghetto work’ in order not to be judged on the basis of her ethnicity alone, and who subsequently admonishes Natalie’s cold, individualistic attitude: the ‘first generation does what the second doesn’t want to do. The third is free to do what it likes. How fortunate you are. If only good fortune came with a little polite humility’ (209).

By remaining ignorant of the cultural history of her chosen career, Natalie mistakenly and superciliously dwells on the idea of her ethnicity as an indicator of difference in a professional society where all ethnicities are accepted regardless. She isolates ethnicities into a dangerous dichotomy of ‘them’ and ‘us’ - a position which is exposed as outdated and offensive even to her ethnic-minority predecessors. Nathan echoes Theodora’s criticism of Natalie’s worldview, insisting that shared ethnicity is no longer the only means of understanding a way of life or forging connections in a post-millennial world: ‘[w]hat do you know about it? What do you know about me? Nothing. Who are you, to chat to me? Nobody. No-one’ (276). Further, Nathan attempts to correct Natalie’s earlier naive and superficial day-dreaming regarding a utopian collective vision of society, remonstrating that: ‘my dream is my dream [... ] Your dream is your dream. You can’t dream my dream’, emphasising the limits of ethical and cultural relationality (279). And yet, the narrative is inconsistent and capricious in its portrayal of ethnicity as a declining factor - especially in the workplace. The novel’s narratorial voice emphasises that many employers in the legal sector continue to believe Natalie ‘inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped an unseen multitude’, exposing that ethno-cultural perceptions do continue to influence forms of social and professional engagement (219). Although cosmopolitan ideals do emerge through interpersonal relations, the narrative struggles to embrace a cosmopolitan conviviality (involving the bridging of communal differences) due to the obvious antagonisms created by racial and socio-cultural divides.

Arguably, Natalie and Nathan’s journey across north-west London engenders a revisioning of the spaces of the capital, and an acknowledgement of disparate lives of individuals who populate their route from Willesden to Highgate. Natalie is effectively walking the land to re-engage with the land. Through Nathan’s presence, north-west London’s spaces become sites of possibility for Natalie in a way they never have before - her mental map of the capital hitherto restricted to her own daily routine. According to Ball, to ‘walk through a city is individually to reinscribe it [... ] To claim it in the image of one’s own story, one’s own unique tour through its spaces’; fresh engagement with the lived experience of one’s cityscape therefore involves ‘reinscribing oppressive place as liberating space’, allowing for a fluidity of identity (2004: 9, 33). James concurs, arguing that only by ‘searching its social environment [... ] experientially might the cityscape be re-searched imaginatively, in an effort to prospect the possibilities for dwelling within it anew’ (2008: 71). By reconnecting with a figure from the past and the scenes of her childhood, north-west London’s environment becomes a transformative space for Natalie that not only invites future possibilities of personal liberation and mutual understanding across difference, but forces a confrontation with established cultural affiliations. Despite her best efforts to the contrary, Natalie remains an integral part of Willesden, the spaces of which begin to expose the fissures in her fabricated identity. In attempting to pull a twig from a passing tree, she accidently breaks off ‘less twig than branch, being connected to several other twigs, themselves heavy with blossom’, implying the inescapable nature of cultural attachments (222). Whereas teeth functioned as an analogy for rootedness and belonging in White Teeth, the sustained metaphor of trees and roots throughout NW (often encountered en route to other locations) implies that socio-cultural connection (or ‘rootedness’) is not merely unavoidable, but crucial to both identity formation and community-construction. Natalie’s subsequent abandonment of the branch outside a tube station merely indicates her continued resistance to her ethnicity, community and personal attachments, respectively (and echoes Irie’s failed attempts to escape the claustrophobic, history-infused sites of London in White Teeth). The transnational nature ofLondon ensures the lived spaces Natalie and Nathan encounter demonstrate a mutual interplay between global and local forces, positioning north-west London as an urban glocality. By traversing the multicultural capital, they briefly become cosmopolitan flaneurs, transcending the local, engaging with one another’s troubles, and demonstrating that cosmopolitanism concerns the creation of imaginative spaces that forge a dialogue across personal, socio-cultural and ethno-racial divides.

That being said, the chapter is less a celebration and exploration of cosmopolitan communities than an interrogation of an individual’s capacity for ethical association across ethno-cultural divides. As Skrbis and Woodward argue, an ‘affiliation with difference, underpinned by an attitude of openness within spaces of cultural flows is perhaps the essence of the cosmopolitan identity’ (2013: 11). Yet Natalie and Nathan’s links to the community will always be highly experiential and personalised, tied to particular individuals and spaces. The pair arrive at a consensual understanding of the environment which has shaped them both in extremely disparate ways, separately aware of the lines they have left behind them. Their uphill climb from Kilburn High Road to Hampstead Heath mirrors Natalie’s own crossing into wealth, mobility and social respectability. As the omniscient narrator notes earlier in the chapter, she had: ‘completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand’ (243). The presence of wealth in this section of London allows Nathan to recognise the socioeconomic divide existing between himself and Natalie; he scurries through London’s spaces, appearing as an outsider in his own environment, sneaking through the streets rather like the fox he spots on Kilburn High Road. Whereas Natalie is approaching an ethical revelation, reevaluating her commitment to both the people and spaces of her locality, it is already too late for Nathan to escape the consequences of stabbing Felix on Albert Road. Nathan’s personal and socioeconomic marginalisation is even evident at the textual level; the absence of his own chapter ensures he merely appropriates a supporting role in this successive chapter focused on Natalie (breaking with the narrative structure).

While Leah is haunted by the spectral Shar, Natalie becomes haunted by the denial of her roots. Through a face-to-face encounter with Nathan, a representative of the neglected sectors of London society, she is forced to acknowledge her own moral failings. Nathan stalks Natalie’s footsteps through the spaces of her formative years: ‘when she looked over her shoulder he was still behind her’ (277). By assuming the role of a spectral vision, Nathan haunts Natalie with the Caldwell estate she abandoned and neglected. His surname, ‘Bogle’, originating from the Scottish, denotes a ‘spectre of the night [... ] Usually supposed to be black, and to have something of human attributes’ (Sylvester 2000: 284). Nathan thereby emerges as Natalie’s double, being both the personification of her past and the alternate future that arguably awaited ‘Keisha’ (the similarity between their Christian names alludes to this premise). As Gilroy argues, individuals experience more anxiety when they perceive their own qualities in the differences of the ‘other’, identifying: ‘the greater menace of the halfdifferent and the partially familiar’ (2000: 106). Nathan and Natalie share a related, if paradoxical, identity problem. Nathan wishes to escape from the actions of his past, his reputation marred by previous discrepancies. His life has been local in scope and his social experiences limited by the council estate in which he resides. Natalie, however, longs to return to the person she once was and be accepted back into the fold of her local community, forgiven for her years of egocentrism. In order to do so, she must come to terms with the past from which she is running, shed her individualistic demeanour and reconnect with the Keisha of her past. Through the mobilisation of communal attachments and the restoration of collective memories, the walk therefore removes the symbolic boundaries both between Natalie and her community, and Natalie and her old self, emphasising the significance of territorialised space to the formation of cultural identity.

As Ball recognises, the post-millennial capital occasionally offers ‘temporary escape’ but ‘if you are living in a place as spatially, politically, demographically, and historically connected as London [... ] you cannot forever shut out the world or the past, or retain only virtual connections with them’ (2004: 84). Natalie’s wandering symbolises an unspoken dialogue with her fellow citizens - her own restricted form of reintegration resulting in a reterritorialisation of self amid the transnational cultural spaces of London. The view from Hornsey Lane Bridge is the key moment that forces Natalie to experience a dawning realisation regarding the value of social interdependence.10 The cross-hatching design of the bridge, ‘St Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another’, hinders Natalie’s view of the capital and prevents her from ascertaining ‘any sense of the whole’, suggesting that she has compartmentalised her cultural identity and denied her roots (281). Her London life (and the narrative structure of her chapter) is an episodic series of broken fragments preventing a true definition of self or her local environment. The tower blocks of Caldwell’s basin are ‘connected by walkways and bridges and staircases, and lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built’; their windows, ‘fixed with brown tape, grubby net curtains, no door number, no bell’, betraying the social inequalities housed within (265). And yet the buildings, tellingly endowed with names of

Enlightenment thinkers, ‘Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke’, are ‘the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating’, possessing a logic which the communities inhabiting them lack (265, 281). The dilapidated environment of the city offers nurture to Natalie, who glimpses herself in the broken reflection of the London landscape, and perceives in the communal connectivity of the tower blocks a means of reintegrating herself into her community. A resurgence of familiarity and belonging begin to eclipse the identity crisis she suffered by neglecting her origins: ‘[a]mbitious though she was, she was still an NW girl at heart’ (192).

Her perceived role as a new cosmopolitan subject, reintegrated into her transnational community with rediscovered humanist values, is, however, questionable. Natalie fails to switch back unconditionally from selfish individualism to selfless solidarity: her ‘instinct for [... ] self-preservation, was simply too strong’ (292). Nor is her newly discovered ethos sustained throughout the remainder of the novel. As Vered Amit notes, rather than an ethical revelation in a moment of crisis, the: ‘formation of new ethical horizons, the realization of new self-understandings [... ] and other cosmopolitan aspirations’ in general ‘are more likely to be realized through the slow, laborious and frequently frustrated formation of prosaic routines and relationships than by a lightning strike of revelation delivered through new mobilities or connections’ (2012: 65-6). As if to reflect the impossibility of cultural harmony in the capital, the narrative’s denouement is neither celebratory nor redemptive. The concluding chapter, ‘Visitation’, forces Natalie to expropriate the role Shar initially assumed as the visitor seeking hospitality. Despite her various ethical misdemeanours and moral failings, she is once again invited to be a part of Leah and Michel’s lives. And yet, even with her oldest friend, Natalie’s self-interest, egotism and pursuit of individual gain remain central to her atomised life. Natalie revives their lifelong relationship via the (possibly erroneous and unethically motivated) belief that Nathan was unquestionably responsible for Felix’s stabbing. Her subsequent decision to call the authorities in the closing scene of the narrative indicates that multivocality and the fabrication of constructed cultural identities will remain integral to Natalie’s selfhood for good or ill: ‘Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking’, thus ‘disguising her voice with her voice’ (294). Natalie’s hybridity problematises Smith’s own commentary on linguistic multivocality in Changing My Mind, encapsulating the struggle in which: ‘one voice must be sacrificed for the other. What is double must be made singular’ (2009: 136). According to Alan Latham, however, cultural hybridity is evidence for the presence (rather than absence) of a contemporary ‘urban cosmopolitan self, indicating a ‘fusion of different identities’ which may be ‘both hybrid and fragmented’ (2006: 96). The phone call, for Natalie, is ‘proof that no such distinct entity existed’ (238). By possessing a performative identity, tailored to a specific audience at each moment in time, she avoids a confrontation with her moral failings. It is the character of Natalie, despite her cultural anxieties, who embodies Leah’s declaration that ‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’, constructing an identity that pays homage to both her roots and routes (3).

Despite no personal knowledge of Felix, Natalie brutally asserts to Leah that they avoided his fate (and the fate of Nathan Bogle) simply because they worked to escape the limitations of their social class. In this sense, she is continuing to resist what Appiah deems to be ethical markers of the cosmopolitan patriot, which involve a nurturing of ‘the culture and the politics’ of a subject’s locality, spending ‘their lives in the places that shaped them’: ‘Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful?’ (1998: 92; 291). After discovering the report of Felix’s death in the papers, she reveals the absence of an ethically- motivated re-engagement with her locality, discerning him to be local but being unable to definitively place him (once again alluding to the stifling claustrophobic nature of Willesden where everyone is familiar, if not entirely knowingly, interrelated). Leah and Natalie’s decision to ring the police is predominantly based upon communal knowledge of Nathan from years ago: ‘[s]ectioned, was he? At one point? Beat his father to a pulp’; like Natalie, he has been unable to escape his past or his roots (41). Alexandra Schwartz denounces the novel’s conclusive attempt at bringing the ‘four figures together once and for all’ in a final bout of interconnection (reminiscent of the criticism aimed at White Teeth), claiming that Smith’s ‘control over the proceedings has slipped. Her hasty solution is worse than hollow; it’s without sense, a sacrifice of character to some principle of structure whose purpose remains obscure’ (Schwartz 2012: n.pag.). The criticism not only ignores the realism integral to Smith’s narrative - the text is not promoting an idealised urban environment - but disregards the socioeconomic inequalities and cultural marginalisation central to the social structure of the narrative. As Smith acknowledged, when asked to define the events of her narrative, ‘to get ahead somebody else has to lose’ (2013b: n.pag.).

 
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