Niece-of Shame: cultural assimilation
If I remember correctly, most of the class agreed that White Teeth could easily be considered a funny novel. Smith uses wit and a humorous form of satire to illustrate ideas of stereotypes, cultural inheritance, and generation gaps among immigrants. With that in mind, I would have to say that Niece-of-Shame (Neena) is by far my favorite character in the novel so far. She illustrates most of the major themes present in the story and the scenes where she appears are just flat-out giggle-worthy – most notably the scene when NOS takes her girlfriend to dinner at the Chalfen’s. I mean come on, breasts as pillows? There would have to be something wrong with you if you didn’t find that funny. The casual way that her aunt refers to her is also rather ridiculous – “Oh, Niece-of-Shame is in the living room. Niece-of-Shame is doing some sewing today.” Makes me chuckle. But as we learned with Mendel’s Dwarf, comedy is really only another form of cruelty.
I guess the angle of her character that applies most to our discussion is NOS’s relationship with Alsana. Alsana has single-handedly inflicted shame on her niece for assimilating herself with Western culture to the point of her Eastern traditions becoming completely unrecognizable (in fact, I wonder if anyone else shares Alsana’s opinion on the woman). She’s a lesbian for goodness’s sake; I don’t think that you could get more Western than expressing some deviant form of sexuality. NOS represents the epitome of cultural inheritance and the generation gap between immigrants to a new culture and the children that are raised in the new place. But I think what makes the “shame” so poignant, is the hypocrisy of Alsana herself. She prides herself on being all Eastern, but I’m not sure that physical beat-downs between husband AND wife are typical of a Bengalese culture (though I don’t know much about it). Her general lack of religion (or the picking and choosing of the parts she likes the best) seems out of place with the perceived idea of Eastern tradition. So what gives Alsana the right to thrust shame on Neena? Not to mention the fact that the former is only two years older than NOS. I find their whole dynamic rather interesting and I’ve got about 80 pages left in the novel and so I hope that NOS shows up again.
If this guy was a niece, he would be shamed.