Zadie Smith and M. Nourbese Philip: Narratives And Mythologies On Identity, Gender, And Language

Contemporary postcolonial literature is a wide and fruitful field of writing which engages in discourses of cultural identity. Often, these discourses are associated to other themes, such as language and gender. How do Zadie Smith and M. Nourbese Philip, two extraordinary contemporary women writers, position themselves in this field?

Zadie Smith’s short story “The Waiter’s Wife”, written in 1999, explores the intersections of gender and cultural identity by democratizing and normalizing the multicultural experience, and so rejecting narratives or mythologies about gender and cultural identity. Contrastingly, M. Nourbese Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language”, written in 1989, creates and employs narratives and mythologies in order to explore how language, gender, and cultural identity combine. We can say that both Zadie and M. Nourbese illustrate an awareness of issues of language, gender, and cultural identity in relation to narratives and mythologies, and make sense of these matters by constructing or deconstructing narratives or mythologies.

Zadie Smith opts for the second option. In “The Waiter’s Wife” Zadie aims to depict “a multicultural Britain where ethnic differences are deemed insignificant” (Fernández 153). Consider the main characters: they all come from different backgrounds, and all live London: Alsana comes from Bangladesh, and so does Samad, her husband; Clara comes from a black Jamaican family, and is married to Archie, an Englishman. They are all married and involved in family matters: both Alsana and Clara are pregnant, discuss marital life, and engage in discussions with their husbands. As Fernández explains, “the irony behind Smith’s portrayal of the reassertion of the family as the cornerstone of British society lies behind the fact that this family notion ceases to be stable and white by ‘norm’” (154). In fact, both Alsana and Clara are emissaries of the modern British family, although they do not have much in common with either the “standard” British family or with each other: Alsana is subject to fits of rage towards her husband and mainly ignores him, Clara reads feminist books in secret, and, of course, they are both not white.

The protagonists are, first of all, humans. They may come from different backgrounds and have different racial, social, and political concerns, but these only serve to better define the characters, and it is not the other way around: the characters are not defined by their cultural backgrounds and concerns (Thompson 15). This is clear from the beginning of the story, when Alsana, who is Bengali, is shown to be generally prejudiced towards minorities: “So some black people are friendly, thought Alsana after the first meeting was over. It was her habit to single one shining exception out of every minority she disliked” (Smith 3059).

Alsana also has some very conservative views on marriage, and argues that “silence, what is not said, is the very best recipe for family life” (3066). Neena, her “Niece-Of-Shame”, tries to argue that Alsana’s views are caused by expectations of gender performativity in her culture, and so claims that her aunt advocates repression and “wraps her college scarf round her head like purdah, and says, ‘Oh yes, Auntie, yes, the little submissive Indian woman. You don’t talk to him, he talks at you” (3066). However, Alsana rejects these opinions, and shows throughout the story that she has a definite personality which believes in type of marital life without actually playing the “little submissive Indian woman”. In fact, Alsana is subject to fits of rage, often shouts at her husband, and even punches him in the stomach at some point. This way, Zadie emphasises the humanity and the personality of the protagonists, and dismisses expectations which come from their gender or ethnic background: she rejects accepted narratives and mythologies concerning gender and race. We can say that she successfully renders the experience of people with different ethnicities “normal” (Fernández 155).

M. Nourbese Philip chooses, instead, the first option. In “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” she talks about cultural identity, gender, and language by employing narratives and mythologies: in order to discuss gender, she opposes the figures of rapist father and benevolent mother, and, when discussing language, she opposes mother tongue and father language, which the “dumb-tongued” speaker soon turns into “foreign anguish” (Philip 2742, 2744). In the poem, it is clear from the start that English is “a historical, metaphorical, and literal site perpetuating systematic violence and cultural repression and erasure” (Kraus 1). What is most interesting in M. Nourbese’s work is perhaps what Guttman defined the “discourse of myth” (55): the lines written on the margins of the pages, in another direction, so that it is necessary to turn the book around in order to read them. The form of the work on the page, then, is central to the reading of the content: the “discourse of myth” seems to be the key to the rest of the piece. In fact, it is necessary to turn one’s back to the rest of the work in order to be able to decipher this one, which seems therefore to transcend the other discourses (Guttman 65).

This part narrates the birth of a new being which is covered in the fluids of birth, and the action of the tongue of the mother on the baby: “WHEN IT WAS BORN, THE MOTHER HELD HER NEWBORN CHILD CLOSE: SHE BEGAN THEN TO LICK IT ALL OVER. … THE MOTHER TONGUE MOVED FASTER AND STRONGER … UNTIL SHE HAD TONGUED IT CLEAN OF THE CREAMY WHITE SUBSTANCE COVERING ITS BODY” (2742). As Kraus notices, the “creamy white substance” reminds one of a man’s ejaculate: the mother is cleaning the child from the “long, bloody history of colonial violence and patriarchal oppression”, here implied in an image of rape. In this postcolonial landscape, liberation is identified as the mother tongue, which has however has been forgotten by the speaker, who asks:

What is my mother
my mammy tongue
my mummy tongue
my momsy tongue
my modder tongue
my ma tongue?
— M. Nourbese Philip (2742)

The speaker clearly presents a linguistic deficiency. Philip, then, invents a mythology for the birth of another mother tongue which is able to liberate its children on several levels, from language and speech to gender relations.

So, it is clear that both Zadie Smith and M. Nourbese Philip approach cultural identity and its intersections with gender and language by employing narratives and mythologies: either they construct or they deconstruct them. In both cases, the result of this process is that the author is empowered, and clearly aims to change the future. Smith’s characters elude notions which would come from their ethnic background, and prove to be humans with a fluid identity first of all. Philip, on the other hand, bases her poetics on a recreation of narratives and mythologies.

In light of these considerations on contemporary postcolonial literatures, it seems that Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv) is apt to being disputed, as both the creation and the rejection of metanarratives imply a recognition of their authority.


Fernández, Irene Pérez. “Representing Third Spaces, Fluid Identities and Contested Spaces in Contemporary British Literature.” Atlantis, vol. 31, no. 2, 2009, pp. 143-60. Web.

Guttman, Naomi. “Dream of the Mother Language: Myth and History in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks.” MELUS, vol. 21, no. 3, 1996, pp. 53-68. Web.

Kraus, Brittany. “Between Tongues: The Discourses of Decolonization in M. Nourbese Philip’s ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ and Rita Wong’s ‘write around the absence.’” Verso, 2012, pp. 1-6. Web.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition.” Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10, 1979. Web.

Philip, Nourbese M. “Discourse on the Logic of Language.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. F, 2012, pp. 2741-45. Print.

Smith, Zadie. “The Waiter’s Wife.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. F, 2012, pp. 3057-68. Print.

Thompson, Clifford. “On, Zadie.” The Threepenny Review, no. 107, 2006, pp. 15-16. Web.



Did her BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, and is currently doing her MA in English and American Modern Literature in Cork. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.