By Dr. Molly Slavin
A novel deeply-rooted in a specific London neighborhood, one so concerned with locality that one of the main characters is “as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries” (6), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) may not seem an intuitive choice for a reflection on teaching global literature. Yet, it was this novel about the northwest corner of London, specifically the neighborhoods of Kilburn and Willesden, that I used as the capstone of my ENGL 1102 course, “The Global Novel in English,” to drive home the argument I had made all semester: British literature is inherently global, and there is no way to understand the novel or, indeed, England/Britain/the United Kingdom itself, without understanding the transnational implications of “English” literature.
NW, Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, is a text ostensibly about the relationship between two women from northwest London, Leah Hanwell and Natalie (born Keisha) Blake. Arranged in five sections, all with wildly different narrative styles, NW covers topics as wide-ranging as growing up in the 1980s, dealing with the deaths of parents and pets, sex, drugs and addiction, mugging, Margaret Thatcher, and murder. Though the perspective shifts according to section, the narrative rarely leaves northwest London, or even the city itself, except for a few scattered recollections of college in Bristol and Edinburgh. The novel, on a pure plot level, ends up being “about” the murder of a young man named Felix, though it is much more concerned with themes of space, geography, and location than it is with any specific event.
I taught this novel near the end of my composition course that took as its theme the development of the novel in English and even included one text in translation. Prior to reading NW, my class looked at Ibn Tufayl’s early 12th-century Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956). By teaching primarily “classic” texts of English literature, but grounding them in global analysis, I hoped to encourage students to think about the international ramifications of British literature, specifically regarding imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and postcolonial migration to the metropolitan center.
NW encapsulated a number of the themes we had been discussing throughout the semester. Like Zadie Smith herself, the character Natalie Blake is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. Legacies of the slave trade–and of imperialism more generally–abound in the work’s descriptions of the environment of northwest London. Characters frequently wrestle with the lingering effects of the British Empire in the guises of racism, financial inequality, school curriculum, and societal expectations.
We read and discussed the novel over four class sessions (the final two sections of the novel are quite short, and were combined into one class). Each class period emphasized a different mode of communication (specifically written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal) and ways to connect that mode to British cultural production that had a global bent. For instance, one day I split the class up into groups and asked them to come up with playlists for the main characters of the novel, emphasizing they should try to pick British artists for the playlists. Upon discussion, I pointed out how the artists they picked were not confined to Britain, but could be connected to larger historical processes like those we had been discussing all semester. We also drew local maps with global connotations, competed in electronic games emphasizing the global nature of the novel, and discussed NW’s links to the global formations we had been talking about in class since January.
I would certainly do a few things differently were I to teach this text again. For instance, it was too much reading for the end of the semester, so I would cut out one earlier novel and stretch NW over more class sessions so that we could linger more with this particular text. I would also provide a bit more scaffolding to help students understand 21st-century London, while also spending more time emphasizing how the novel prefigures Brexit, a “real world” event with very clear implications for Britain’s global connections.
All things considered, I believe my first time teaching NW went satisfactorily. The students reacted well to the text, particularly when they discovered how young Zadie Smith is. (After a semester of reading old novels by dead authors, they were revitalized by an author who could write fluently about hip hop and collegiate angst.) The book served the purpose I wanted it to serve, mainly that I wanted students to grasp that imperialism and racism and injustice are neither dead nor simply topics they learn about in old novels or history books. These issues are real, and can be viewed vividly in contemporary life and contemporary fiction. By reading NW, and other texts with similar themes, students can understand that seemingly local or circumscribed concerns and issues are in fact global in nature and must be treated and understood through that lens.
Ajplondon. “Willesden Old Library. Wikicommons, 16 July 2006, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Willesden_Old_Library.jpg.
Avaaz. “RIP Brexit.” Wikicommons, 09 June 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RIP_Brexit_(34350858654).jpg.
“Cover Image: NW.” Goodreads, n.d., https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13537891-nw.
Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Strange Suprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: who lived eight and twenty years, all alone in an un-inhabited island on the coast of America … Written by himself. London, 1719. British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-edition-of-daniel-defoes-robinson-crusoe-1719.
Smith, Zadie. NW. London, 2012.