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Intersections at Play

Compassionate Projection: Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia”

Sylvia Mieszkowski
p. 115-133


Le narrateur de “The Embassy of Cambodia” (2013) de Zadie Smith présente une double particularité : indéterminé du point de vue du genre, il s’avère en outre être à la fois omniscient et intradiégétique. Ce dispositif narratif identifie le récit enchâssé de l’immigrante Fatou à une projection portée au nom de/pour le « nous » indéfini (et, en dernière instance, remis en question) d’une communauté du nord-ouest de Londres, quelque temps avant le Brexit. À l’issue d’un rappel des définitions de l’intersectionnalité (Crenshaw)—comme devoir (Eddo-Lodge) et méthode féministes (MacKinnon)—qui y seront retenues, cet article se propose de lire la construction identitaire de Fatou d’un point de vue intersectionnel, en mettant l’accent à la fois sur la question raciale, sur la classe et sur le genre. La dernière partie de l’article est consacrée à l’allégorie centrale de la partie de badminton, laquelle permet de donner corps à quatre positions que la grammaire de l’identité de Clingman offre ici au féminin culturel représenté par l’« immigrante ». Bien que le narrateur si particulier de “The Embassy of Cambodia” expose en puissance le récit à une critique fondée sur la notion d’appropriation, c’est finalement la projection compatissante qui caractérise l’éthique de la narration de Smith. Cette éthique restitue ce que les influences réactionnaires pesant sur le discours politique nous ont soustrait avec toujours davantage de succès.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Zadie Smith
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1Elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002 and named Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2017 (“About Zadie”), Black British writer Zadie Smith is at the top of her game. Decorated regularly, from the beginning of her career, she won her latest major award, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, in 2018 (“Österreichischer Staatspreis”), the very year the international research group “Intersections: Gender and Identity in the Short Fiction of Contemporary British Women Writers” (FEM2017-83084-P, AEI/FEDER, UE) took up its work. It is in the context of this collective scholarly effort that the present article seeks to read Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” as a story about compassionate fantasising about the cultural “other” figured as “the immigrant.”

  • 1 To date, these are White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012) and Sw (...)
  • 2 Two volumes of essays have come out so far: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009) and Feel Fre (...)
  • 3 In Austria, theatre director Jacqueline Kornmüller even adapted Die Botschaft von Kambodscha, trans (...)

2Born to a Jamaican mother, who emigrated to the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, and an English father, Smith grew up in Northwest London, studied at Cambridge University, where she met her future husband Nick Laird, a Northern Irish poet, with whom she has two children. For a few years now, the family have been dividing their time between London and New York. Although Smith is probably still best known for her novels,1 she has also built quite a reputation as an essayist;2 and whereas she used to publish her relatively few short stories only individually over the years, her first collection, titled Grand Union: Stories came out in October 2019. Although this volume combines new pieces and previously published ones, it does not include the rather long short story at the centre of this article’s attention. It is possible that Smith opted against selecting “The Embassy of Cambodia” because the text—just shy of fifty pages and divided into sections, which at least one reviewer describes as “chapters” (Doughty)—is less a typical short story (if such a thing exists) than an unconventional piece of short fiction. Alternatively, Smith might have chosen to exclude “The Embassy of Cambodia” from Grand Union because the story, having been originally published in two consecutive numbers of The New Yorker, on 11 and 18 February 2013, was reissued later the same year as a stand-alone piece and, simultaneously, as an e-book and as an audio book recorded by Smith herself (Doughty). This multi-pronged3 publishing tactic ensured that “The Embassy of Cambodia” became easily available. Since some of Smith’s other short stories are far less accessible to the reading public, it may have simply been good business to prioritise these more obscure pieces for the collection.

  • 4 For instance, the twenty-one essays collected by Nikesh Shukla in The Good Immigrant (2016), Reni E (...)

32012, the year in which Smith’s story is set in Olympic Games-hosting London, and 2013, the year that saw “The Embassy of Cambodia” first published, seem far away—politically speaking—from the vantage point of 2020. And it is fair to say that this piece of short fiction, even though it tells a story of rape, injustice, ingratitude and racism, is clearly a product of a rather optimistic moment. After all, it was written and published before the policy designed by then Home Secretary Theresa May had taken its well-calculated effect “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration” (Elgot); before the so-called European Migrant Crisis and the xenophobic discourse that sprawled around it; before the Brexit campaign and the visual scaremongering of Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant posters; before Trumpism and the darkening mood that crept up on us in the wake of these developments. No wonder, then, that “The Embassy of Cambodia” seems a more hopeful project than more recent fictional, semi-fictional and non-fictional contributions4 that have weighed in on the debate about “post-imperial nostalgia” (Parmar), immigration, race and racism in the United Kingdom.

4Since scholarly articles on short fiction routinely run into the problem that their objects of analysis tend to be not widely known, it will be useful to first provide a brief introduction of “The Embassy of Cambodia”: first on the level of narration, focusing on the short story’s unusual narrative voice and the effects it has, and then on the level of plot, which unfolds a tale of border crossing and transition. Driving this investigation is the question of how the construction of the protagonist’s identity can be analysed intersectionally and how the story fans out different positions that the cultural other “as immigrant” can occupy. To help theorise the story’s intersectional aspects—most importantly with a view to its representing the interlacing of race and gender, as well as social class/poverty—I shall first be drawing on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, then on Reni Eddo-Lodge’s re-framing of it as a core-feminist demand and, finally, on Catharine MacKinnon’s take that intersectionality needs to be understood “as method” (1019) rather than as a position or a collection of attributes.

5While there are several elaborate metaphors in Smith’s short story that merit closer attention—the eponymous Embassy of Cambodia itself is one example, the story’s protagonist’s swimming is another—I contend that the series of badminton games, to which the text keeps alluding, is the short story’s central allegory, and I will thus offer four interpretations to which the structural positions of the (partially) observed badminton games give rise. Since I consider Smith’s short story as a textbook example of what Stephen Clingman has called “transnational” (6) fiction, I shall draw on his Grammar of Identity in order to forge links between my four readings of what Smith’s story imagines as positions open to “the immigrant,” based on grammatical structures. In conclusion, I will suggest that the ethics of storytelling which underpins the performance of the unreliable narrator in Smith’s story is an exercise in compassionate projection and as such, in MacKinnon’s words, “intrinsically demarginalizing” (1026): an imaginative act that moves the vulnerability, suffering and resilience of the cultural “other” from the fringes of awareness to centre stage.

“We”—“I”—“she”: Narrative Voices and Unreliability

  • 5 This unorthodox page referencing is owed to the fact that the sections of “The Embassy of Cambodia” (...)
  • 6 Although Kaya Genç, in her review for the LARB, appears to be certain that the narrator is female, (...)

6At almost fifty pages, “The Embassy of Cambodia” seems rather long for a short story, but not every page is fully covered by text. Divided into twenty-one sections,5 it is told by a rather unconventional narrator: nameless as well as genderless,6 she or he is apparently a resident at “a dingy retirement home” (0-6: 77) in the north-west London borough of Willesden, who spends a lot of time “on the balcony overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia” (0-13: 96). This narrator’s voice oscillates, in the course of the story, between three modes. Throughout, s/he uses the first-person plural, initially rather unabashedly, speaking in the name of “we, the people of Willesden” (0-1: 67). This impersonation of a community by a voice that also possesses an oracle-like omniscience, prompts David James to refer to this narrator as “chorus-like” (59), since it is invested, much like the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, as a persona with superhuman authority to provide insight into plot developments and characters alike. Kaya Genç agrees, when she describes the narrator—a little tautologically, at least if one thinks of the ancient Athenian tradition—as “a representative chorus.” Next, she adds the nineteenth-century narrative tradition as yet another literary ancestor to this voice-which-speaks-for-the-many, due to its “relationship between gossip, the novel, and the idea of a story-telling collective.” If writers, Genç continues, “speak on behalf of imaginary communities, . . . here is the imaginary imagined.” Yet the relationship between this representative and her/his community is arguably not only “the imaginary imagined,” it is also problematic, as becomes clear when the narrator, on one occasion, uses the first-person singular.

7In “Speaking in Tongues,” an essay published in 2009 as part of her collection Changing My Mind, Smith formulates her writer’s credo: “I believe that flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things” (149). And, in “The Embassy of Cambodia,” the narrator’s switching between modes of narration could be interpreted as an instance of such flexibility, an example of how an individual can comfortably speak for a collective: “Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right” (0-13: 95). Still, there is another way to read this change of voice, since the effect of this second narrative mode (that of the first-person singular) is that the narrative voice’s authority in its first mode (that of the first-person plural) is being undermined, as this authority has not been bestowed upon her/him by the collective in the name of whom s/he speaks. It remains unclear until the story’s end whether the authority that did “choose” him/her is that of the implicit author, which would add a self-referential touch to Smith’s story. A page later, the narrator goes a step further than questioning her/his own authorisation, by casting doubt on the community’s very existence as a community: “We are not one people, and no one can speak for us” (0-13: 95-96).

  • 7 In certain respects, this is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s short story “An Unwritten Novel” (1921 (...)

8The third mode of narration, a conventional third-person singular, is used whenever the plot revolving around the story’s protagonist, rather than the act of narration, is foregrounded and moved along: “On 6 August, Fatou walked past the embassy for the first time” (0-2: 69). While this last mode may sound like a classic case of heterodiegetic narration, Smith’s story has a homodiegetic narrator who is disturbingly omniscient. Some scenes—set at Fatou’s employer’s home or at the swimming pool she frequents on the sly or in the Tunisian café to which Andrew takes her on Sundays after Church—clearly take place outside of the narrator’s visual field, while describing in detail what is happening. Even more problematically, at least for a narrator who is part of the diegesis, s/he frequently tells readers what Fatou thinks, while hinting that her thinking might be flawed, biased or based on wrong or incomplete information: “She had an idea that Oriental people had their own, secret establishments and shopped there. (She believed the Jews did, too). She both admired and slightly resented this self-reliance, but had no doubt that it was the secret to holding great power, as a people” (0-8: 81-82). Internal focalisation such as this is, of course, common in heterodiegetic narration. However, with a homodiegetic narrator, it is not only rare, but has serious consequences. After all, a narrator who is also a character in the narrated world, yet never meets the protagonist or talks to her—in fact, a narrator who does not even seem to leave her/his room—has no way of knowing anything that goes on inside the protagonist’s mind. Section 0-8 really drives this home, as the narrator keeps mentioning what the protagonist “believed” (81), whether certain terms “mean anything to Fatou,” that “Fatou was curious,” that she “found [something] a little mysterious” or that something “surprised her” (81). When this narrator suggests that Fatou “had an idea” (81) or “wondered” (82), or that she “had long ago decided” (83) something, or describes anything else that transcends anyone’s capacity for observation, it installs him/her as fundamentally and inescapably unreliable. Consequently, it is not feasible to read any of these formulations as anything but the narrator’s projections onto Fatou. They may correspond to what Fatou is actually thinking, or they may not, but there is no way open to us, as readers, to confirm what is accurate or to debunk what is false. For better or worse, large parts of the story’s plot thus have to be understood as an elderly northwest Londoner’s fantasy about a young black woman s/he has apparently never met but decided to call “Fatou” and observes from a distance.7 This brings us to what it is that this narrator imagines, as s/he regularly watches “Fatou.”

Fatou’s Story

9Fatou, whose Swahili name—derived from Arabic—means “the one who abstains” (Hanks et al.), is the vulnerable as well as resilient protagonist, focaliser and auscultator of large parts of Smith’s short story. Having crossed several borders, she is, in Stephen Clingman’s terms, a person “who has been translated” (Grammar 12) and learned to fend for herself. Originally from a village in Ivory Coast, where jobs disappeared when a Chinese company took over the local mine, Fatou leaves with her father for Ghana, to find work as a chambermaid. Having been raped by a Russian tourist at the hotel where she was employed, she migrates, now on her own, through Libya and Italy, where she comes across traces of a violent incident, which victimised a Bengali street artist, and finally to the United Kingdom. At the story’s point of attack in 2012, the action is set in London, where Fatou works as a live-in cleaner and home help for the Derawals, well-to-do, first-generation Pakistani immigrants. They live with their three children in Northwest London, treat Fatou with contempt and, for the longest time, confiscate her passport. The protagonist’s sneaked weekly swimming—a skill she taught herself in the sea and which thus points to her ability to survive, as well as to work environments that exclude members of her class from hotel and club pools—helps to keep her sane in the difficult situation of dependency created by her unfriendly and sometimes openly hostile employers. Fatou’s trips to the pool, made possible by guest passes she nicks from a forgotten pile in the Derawals’ entrance hall console, take her into the narrator’s field of vision and past the Embassy of Cambodia, behind the high wall of which Badminton matches between unseen players are in progress every Monday morning.

10Fatou’s central personal relationship in London is with Andrew Okonkwo, a Nigerian immigrant, who encouraged her to convert to Catholicism. Meeting after Church every Sunday, they frequent a Tunisian café to discuss questions of collective suffering over coffee and cake. Fatou considers Andrew as a possible erotic partner but leans towards rejecting him. However, when she is unfairly fired by Mrs. Derawal and calls Andrew, he promptly offers to take her in and help her find a new job. The story’s open ending, which leaves Fatou in transit once again—seated opposite the Embassy, “watching the shuttlecock” (0-21: 117), while waiting for Andrew to pick her up—does not exclude the possibility that she might reconsider their relationship. Before offering an intersectional reading of two scenes in Smith’s story that show how race and gender, on the one hand, and how race and class, on the other, are intertwined to the protagonist’s detriment, a little background information on the understanding of intersectionality which will be drawn upon in this article seems called for.

Intersectionality… as Method

11When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, she did so in specific circumstances with a particular goal in mind. In order to expose a general “failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness” (167), she described US-American legal cases which illustrate that courts tended to fail recognising the claims of black women, whom existing anti-discrimination doctrines (put in place to counter sexist practices of hiring and firing, on the one hand, and racist practices of hiring and firing, on the other) proved insufficient to protect. Crenshaw bases her argument on the understanding that “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated” (140). Building on this, her core contention is that any “single-axis framework” of discrimination easily forgets about those who are “multi-burdened” because it structurally “obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of marginalisation” (140). In effect, Crenshaw presented “intersectionality” as an epistemological tool that i) enables those interested to see exclusion and discrimination as often multi-axial phenomena, and ii) potentially empowers them to tackle exclusion and discrimination more effectively.

12As Reni Eddo-Lodge lays out in the chapter of her best-selling Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race dealing with “The Feminism Question,” not all reactions to the term “intersectionality” were positive. One of the less harmful criticisms, namely the contention “that the word ‘intersectional’ was utter jargon—too difficult for anyone without a degree to understand—and therefore useless” (160), which Eddo-Lodge shows to be alive and kicking in 2012, was laid to rest three years later when the sociological use of “intersectionality” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. A much more damaging reaction to the term was to accuse black feminism of using intersectionality as a hammer to beat non-white feminists over the head with. As Eddo-Lodge shows, this portrayal of black feminism as “nothing more than a disruptive force” seems cut from the same cloth as “broader stereotyping of black communities by the press” (164). In her chapter, she not only summarises how intersectionality was received in Britain—by the Right, by the Left and by “white feminists”—largely with hostility, she also offers a definition of “white feminism”: “It’s not about women, who are feminists who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness, which at its core are exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist” (170). In this characterisation of “white feminism” Eddo-Lodge also, if only implicitly and in passing, marks a problem that haunts some of the work done by critics who had decided to embrace intersectionality and include it into their critical thinking.

13Apart from breeding resentment that seems all too ready to draw from the same wells as racism, the increased currency, indeed growing popularity, which intersectionality has been enjoying over the last decade sometimes seems to come at the price of simplification, with the term being reduced to a mere adding-up of categories of identity. This problematic simplification even slips into texts produced by experts, such as the United Kingdom’s Equality Challenge Unit, responsible for Higher Education. In 2017, it published an information sheet on “Intersectional approaches to equality research and data,” which was headed by the following:

Intersectionality recognises that people’s identities and social positions are shaped by multiple factors. Among others, a person’s age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion and belief, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background contribute towards their unique experiences and perspectives. (Christoffersen 1)

14What this brochure teaser testifies to is how easily intersectionality is reduced to a merely additive process that i) ignores the interconnectedness of the axes which purportedly overlap in it, and therefore, ii) excludes the question of how they mutually influence each other, and iii) forgets to enquire in what way the interconnectedness/mutual influence is a product of existing power structures. Yet, just as white feminism is “not about women, who are feminists who are white” (Eddo-Lodge 170; emphasis mine), intersectionality is not about stacking up categories, but about exploring all those politics that have exclusion and discrimination at their ideological centre, and about interrogating the structures built to defend them.

15Catharine A. MacKinnon—although a woman who is a feminist who is white—is the very opposite of what Eddo-Lodge might call a proponent of “white feminism.” Not only does MacKinnon not “espous[e] feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness” (Eddo-Lodge 170), she also builds on Crenshaw’s original concept in an attempt to put intersectionality to work as more than a tool, which enables the performance of one particular task. When MacKinnon, in an article published in 2013, describes intersectionality as a method, she stresses that what Crenshaw brought to the table in the late 1980s was more than a term or even a concept. To clarify, MacKinnon distinguishes the objects of intersectionality (namely “the realities of multiple inequalities”) from the way in which its method goes about producing valid knowledge about them, which is characterised by its “think[ing] about ‘the interaction of’ those inequalities in a way that captures the distinctive dynamics at their multidimensional interface” (MacKinnon 1019). Next, MacKinnon warns against two dangers. First, she cautions against thinking that intersectionality, which started with Crenshaw theorising how gender and race interact, is necessarily or exclusively about gender and race, thereby implying that three or more categories could intersect, two (or one or none) of which might or might not be race or/and gender. Then, she warns against what might “violate intersectional method” by ignoring the specificities or “concrete particulars” (MacKinnon 1019n2) of any interacting inequalities that may come under scrutiny. By combining a definition of intersectionality as method with this second caveat, MacKinnon, while continuing Crenshaw’s tradition of looking “from the perspective of the bottom up” at (possibly multiple) “overlapping systems of subordination,” eschews any misconception that intersectionality “simply add[s] variables” (1020). It is MacKinnon’s reformulation of Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality that will now be drawn upon to analyse in what way Zadie Smith’s short story uses Fatou as a figuration of an immigrant’s experience.

Reading Intersectionally

16In “The Embassy of Cambodia,” Smith offers Fatou’s story as a tale of border crossing and transition. And while it may be tempting to describe the character with the help of labels derived from the circumstances of which she seems to be a product (namely as a black, poor, African, ill-educated, young, female, rape-surviving migrant), MacKinnon’s push for intersectionality as method makes it important to resist this urge. Instead, “from the perspective of the bottom up” (MacKinnon 1020), that is, starting from three scenes in Smith’s story, this article will provide an intersectional reading of Fatou, while she finds herself at the receiving end of two or more “overlapping systems of subordination” (MacKinnon 1020). The contrast of the two scenes set in Ghana will hopefully help demonstrate how gender and race intersect to doubly put Fatou in a vulnerable position in which she would not find herself were she either a black man or a white woman.

17While Fatou works in a hotel in Accra, she witnesses how a couple of young black men prostitute themselves with two guests, “old white women from England—red women, really, thanks to the sun, each of them as big as two women put together” (0-14: 97). There is no judgment in the third-person narrator’s voice, nor in Fatou’s focalisation, here. Still, the experience of Kweku and Osai, who presumably change their names to Michael and David not only for the Western women’s convenience, but also to split off more easily their exchange of sex for money from the rest of their lives, differs markedly from Fatou’s own sexual encounter with a Western guest, and it does so because of her gender:

But the Devil was waiting. She had only a month left in Accra when she entered a bedroom to clean it . . . and heard the door shut softly behind her. . . . He [the Devil] came, this time, in Russian form. Afterwards, he cried and begged her not to tell anyone: his wife had gone to see the Cape Coast Castle and they were leaving the following morning. Fatou listened to his blubbering and realized that he thought the hotel would punish him for his action, or that the police would be called. That was when she knew that the Devil was stupid as well as evil. She spat in his face and left. (0-14: 99)

18In Smith’s story, black men and women alike have sexual encounters with white tourists that are described as repulsive, and it is safe to say that the reference to Cape Coast Castle, one of Ghana’s most infamous slave forts, is no coincidence here, suggesting that a fundamental and insidious power imbalance persists, centuries after slavery has been abolished, that makes African bodies (sexually) “available” to Europeans. Still, while the two young men retain some agency, and take steps to protect themselves from the detrimental effects of their sexual encounters, for which they are being paid, Fatou, being raped, has no agency, nor is given remuneration. When MacKinnon writes that intersectionality as a method helps foreground “the neglect of Black women by the law” (1021) in the case of rape litigation, she is discussing the legislative context in the United States just as much as Crenshaw is when pointing out the following gap:

When Black women were raped by white males, they were being raped not as women generally, but as Black women specifically: Their femaleness made them sexually vulnerable to racist domination, while their Blackness effectively denied them any protection. This white male power was reinforced by a judicial system in which the successful conviction of a white man for raping a Black woman was virtually unthinkable. (158-159)

19Although the “concrete particulars” (MacKinnon 1019) for both Crenshaw and McKinnon refer to the United States, their observations hold for the rape scene in Smith’s short story as well. While the Russian tourist who rapes Fatou is “stupid as well as evil” (0-14: 99) because he fears he might be held accountable by the hotel, and possibly prosecuted under Ghanaian law, Fatou is fully aware that neither her employers nor the police, nor her host country’s legal apparatus, care enough to grant her justice and punish the perpetrator.

20Another couple of scenes from “The Embassy of Cambodia,” which Smith uses to shine a light on racist behaviour displayed by members of an ethnic minority, merit an intersectional reading that takes a look at how class/wealth, age, race and gender influence each other to Fatou’s disadvantage. While she is in London, the Pakistani family for whom she works clearly looks down on her. The family’s children do so for straightforwardly racist reasons that are unabashedly voiced. That they look down on their black live-in domestic help because they equate black skin with a lack of intellect, becomes obvious as they taunt each other with “You’re as black as Fatou,” “You’re as stupid as Fatou” (0-7: 78-79). Their parents, far from checking these taunts or attempting to correct their children’s ignorance and bigotry, buy into the same racist world view. However, they first and foremost derive their sense of superiority from a higher position in the (racistically underpinned) economic and social hierarchy, while exploiting Fatou, who keeps wondering whether she, too, is a modern slave of the kind she has read about, unashamedly:

[N]obody beat Fatou, although Mrs. Derawal had twice slapped her in the face. . . . On the other hand, just like the girl in the newspaper, she had not seen her passport with her own eyes since she arrived at the Derawals’, and she had been told from the start that her wages were to be retained by the Derawals to pay for the food and water and heat she would require during her stay, as well as to cover the rent for the room she slept in. (0-7: 79)

21Violence, this time, is inflicted on the protagonist by an older woman, who is unlikely to have slapped Fatou, had she been a young man. It is equally doubtful that the Derawals would have withheld their help’s passport, had they regarded her as their social equal. Yet, Fatou is both darker and considerably poorer than the Pakistani employers. Shortly after Fatou saves the family’s youngest daughter from choking to death by performing a timely Heimlich manoeuvre, Mrs. Derawal fires her for no good reason. Fatou sees this coming: “since Sunday night, neither of the adult Derawals had been able to look her in the eye” (0-17: 104). Neither she nor the narrator offers a motive, but the most plausible, if revolting, explanation seems to be that Mrs. Derawal is unwilling or unable to be lastingly grateful to someone she perceives as essentially below her. Put differently, since it is inconceivable to her that she treat a black, poor person with respect, and since she detests being obliged to her for saving her daughter’s life, she sacks her. When Fatou asks for her passport, thus reminding Mrs. Derawal that she and her husband had confiscated it for no good reason, she provokes a reaction of hatred:

At last, Mrs. Derawal looked at Fatou, right into her eyes, but her face was twisted, as if Fatou had just reached over and slapped her. Anyone could see the Devil had climbed inside poor Mrs. Derawal. He was lighting her up with a pure fury. “For goodness’ sake, girl, I don’t have your passport. What would I want with your passport? Is that my job now, too, to look for your things?”

Fatou . . . packed her things. . . . While she was doing this, someone pushed her passport under her door. (0-21: 115)

  • 8 There is no reference in the story that Fatou adhered to any faith before she converts, under Andr (...)

22The reversal of power in this scene links Mrs. Derawal to the Russian who raped Fatou as much as the explicit reference to the Devil does:8 in the end, it is the tourist who weeps after the rape, while contemptuous Fatou keeps her composure; and Mrs. Derawal’s furious irony is met by Fatou with impenetrable coolness.

“The Grammar of Identity”

23Literary critic Stephen Clingman is not known for his work on intersectionality. In fact, in The Grammar of Identity: Transnational Fiction and the Nature of the Boundary (2009), he never uses the term. And when, in other places, he does, he is interested in the collocation of “fugitive/narrative” as “a point of intersection, perhaps the point of intersection . . . between narrative and the fugitive condition” (“Fugitive/Narrative” 1-2) rather than in practicing intersectionality as method. Still, two specific concepts he puts forward there appear to provide a useful backdrop for discussing what “The Embassy of Cambodia” has to teach us about the structural positions available to “the immigrant.”

24Without a doubt, Smith’s piece is an example of what Clingman calls “transnational fiction” throughout his book. While he denies that it is obligatory for a transnational text to have been written by “one of the writers who have travelled” (Grammar 7), this is of course the case for Smith. And while Clingman comes to the conclusion that being one of those “works that travel . . . as objects” (9) is not sufficient to establish a text’s transnationality, this as well is the case for “The Embassy of Cambodia”—both materially (from one continent to another, from magazine to book and audiobook) and linguistically (from its original language into translation). More importantly, Smith’s story also fulfils the criterion that Clingman actually deems essential. “The Embassy of Cambodia” is a transnational text because, in it, “form becomes content”; in other words, it is not only a story about “a way of being and seeing” (Clingman, Grammar 11), but through its central allegory it also becomes a way of being and seeing.

25In order to unfold this point, it is equally important to note that “The Embassy of Cambodia,” as a transnational text, also draws on what Clingman calls a “grammar of identity and location.” He explains what this implies as follows:

The aim is to keep a whole series of contexts in view: all the way from processes and possibilities within the individual, to relations between self and other, to larger questions of location and navigation in a wider world. The premise here is that there is a correlation between how the self is put together and how we navigate ourselves though space and time. It is this how that we can understand as a form of grammar, and movement is intrinsic to its constitution. (11)

26In “The Embassy of Cambodia,” “the larger questions of location and navigation in a wider world” take Fatou from Côte d’Ivoire to Ghana to Libya to Italy to the United Kingdom, while the problem of “how the self is put together” concerns exactly what has been analysed above, with reference to gender and race and class, by using intersectionality as method. What is still missing is the smaller-scale level, the one intimately connected with understanding the “how” at the centre of Fatou’s immigrant self’s navigation “through space and time,” to the constitution of which “movement is intrinsic.” To make this case, one could analyse her walking (from the Derawals’ flat, past the Embassy of Cambodia, to the pool and back), or her swimming up and down the lanes in the pool. The immigrant’s grammar of identity, however, is most prominently emblematised by the sport that is mentioned ten times in Smith’s story.

27As mentioned above, the sections that make up “The Embassy of Cambodia” are headed by numbers, which run from 0-1 to 0-21. Given that in a badminton match whoever wins 21 points first wins the game (Bischof), and given that this sport runs through the text like a red thread, it is tempting to read these paratexts as referring to the score of a spectacularly one-sided badminton game. Other paratextual elements offer proof that this sport is of importance for interpreting the short story:

28As far as the plot is concerned, the basic context of the badminton matches is the following: because an 8-feet-high brick wall surrounds the Embassy of Cambodia, the court, net and players are all hidden from Fatou’s view as she walks past. While she hears defensive lobs (as “pock[s],” 0-1: 67; 0-2: 70; 0-4: 72; 0-21: 117) as well as attack shots (as “smash[es],” 0-1: 67; 0-2: 70; 0-4: 72; 0-21: 117)—“first gentle, then fast, first soft and high, then hard and low” (0-4: 74)—all she and the narrator on his/her balcony can see is the top of the shuttlecock’s arch.

29If one accepts that these games of badminton are the story’s central conceit, and if one is prepared to take Clingman more literally, for a moment, than he foresaw or intended when he published The Grammar of Identity, the badminton games emerge as Smith’s way of encouraging readers to think through what it can mean to be an immigrant. To think it through, that is, in a purely structural manner, even before personal stories of trauma and suffering are taken into consideration. In this context a badminton match of the type partially witnessed by Fatou and the narrator offers four structural positions for the immigrant to occupy in its grammar of identity, from which four “roles” and—based on that—four interpretations follow.

30The first of these readings puts “the immigrant” into the position of the “player,” who is perpetually “defending” (“pock”), that is, who is constantly under attack from the “other side” of the “net,” and cannot help perpetuating this distribution of roles. The rules of badminton demand that, if the server scores a point, s/he will continue to serve. In other words, the burden of removing him/her from his/her position of privilege is put entirely on the receiver—the player is in the structurally “weaker” position. In Fatou’s case, one of these “attacks” is the rape in Accra; another is being fired unfairly in London. Inspired by Clingman’s idea to think subjectivity positionally, through grammar, this is the role of the indirect object in a sentence, which is at the receiving end of the action performed by a “verb,” in this case: “smash,” raping, firing. If one adopts this interpretation of the immigrant as the “defending” player in badminton, then the spectacularly one-sided score of 0-21 suggested by the short story’s section headings implies that, whatever happens in this part of the “game,” the immigrant finds her- or himself losing every single point.

  • 9 Thanks to Lotti Viola for translating the Hungarian original for me.
  • 10 Thanks to Manon Labrande for chasing this quote, taken from an interview with Marine Le Pen conduct (...)
  • 11 Thanks to Michela Borzaga for telling me about this quote. This statement formed part of an intervi (...)
  • 12 The original quote reads: “Wer das HALT an unserer Grenze nicht akzeptiert, der ist ein Angreifer. (...)
  • 13 The original quote reads: “In Anbetracht der Massenmigration aus der Türkei nach Europa droht auch (...)

31A second allegorical reading would position “the immigrant” as the “player” who is seen to be relentlessly “smashing,” and against whose dangerous strikes the host country—in this case England—needs to “defend” itself. Right-wing populist rhetoric constantly produces images along these lines. Nigel Farage, in the United Kingdom, proudly presented UKIP’s infamous anti-migrant poster, widely criticised as racist and sporting the caption: “Breaking point. The EU has failed us all” (Stewart and Mason). Viktor Orbán in Hungary maintained that “countries that don’t stop immigration will be lost” (Boffey) while pronouncing Europe to be “under invasion already” and following up with the fearmongering “If we let it happen, tens of millions will leave Africa and the Middle East for Europe within the next couple of decades. The western part of Europe is watching with their hands in the air” (Orbán).9 In France, Marine Le Pen, who only recently toned down her rhetoric, used to offer similes that compared “illegal immigrants” to violent home invaders, who “start to remove the wallpaper” and “would steal your wallet and brutalise your wife.”10 In Italy, Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord, while serving as Minister of the Interior, said in reference to migrants who crossed the Mediterranean from Africa: “seeing that human traffic has now been proven to be linked to the trafficking of drugs and weapons. These are not shipwrecked people, these are persons who pay an average of 3000 dollars for these organised trips with which they then buy arms and drugs.”11 Beatrix von Storch in Germany, when she was still one of the right-wing populist AfD’s deputy leaders, stated that “[he] who does not accept the ‘STOP’ at our border, is an attacker. And we have to defend ourselves against attackers” (“Beatrix von Storch will doch nicht auf Kinder schießen”).12 And in Austria, Norbert Hofer, leader of the FPÖ, which is still reeling from the Ibiza-crisis, only recently distinguished himself by contending that “[i]n the face of mass immigration from Turkey to Europe a new storming of the border also threatens Austria in the foreseeable future” (“FPÖ sieht Österreich ‘vor neuem Grenzsturm’”).13 In terms of a grammar of identity, right-wing propaganda like this casts “the immigrant”—especially if s/he, like Fatou or Andrew, is neither white nor has considerable financial means—as a hostile, inimical, aggressive “subject” that threatens to “smash” the respective host countries’ states.

32A third reading of Smith’s badminton allegory denies both positions of action and reaction to “the immigrant,” by casting her/him as the shuttlecock. Perpetually hit violently from one side of the court to the other, the shuttlecock—an object; without rights; without feelings—stands for the passive “plaything” at the mercy of great opposing forces. Globalisation—for instance under the guise of the Chinese mining company Fatou names as the reason why she and her father left their village—springs to mind; or the ecological collapse of agrarian societies in the global south due to climate change; or the confrontation of opposing political discourses, such as right-wing populism in the global north that uses “mass” migration as the justification for its existence against the liberal Left that uses “good migrants” to make its case for multiculturalism. Thinking in terms of a grammar of identity, the position this implies for the immigrant is that of a sentence’s direct object.

33A fourth reading of the badminton game as Smith’s short story’s central allegory positions the immigrant where Fatou is sitting, waiting for Andrew, as the story ends: beyond the space where the actual game takes place, and shut out by a high wall that blocks her view and thus makes her, like the prototypical “immigrant,” unable to see most of what matters: the players and the moves they make, as small moments of defeat or success pile up to the final “score.” Just as this impeded witness’s position is, strictly speaking, not actually part of the game, it is not actually part of the grammar of identity in the narrow sense; because this position is that of a reader, whose access to the complete “sentence” or “text of the game” is barred.

34A complete badminton match consists of three games, and thus Smith’s short story implies that two thirds of Fatou’s story of border crossing and transition are still to come and that she might—in the end—still win the “match” that is her life with two-to-one games. She might, to stay within the allegory’s semantic field, enter onto the court; either as a witness with unrestricted view or—who knows?—as a player or umpire.

35This article has discussed Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia,” a piece of transnational fiction, told as a “fugitive/narrative” (Clingman, “Fugitive/Narrative” 1) by a markedly unreliable narrator, by thinking intersectionally (MacKinnon) about the construction of its protagonist (through gender and race and class) and the story’s use of badminton as an allegory that spells out the structural positions open to “the immigrant” in the grammar of identity (Clingman, Grammar). The deliberately un-determined, and (in his/her homodiegetic omniscience) not unproblematic, narrator, who may or may not speak for the “we” of his/her community, imagines the story of Fatou, a woman whom s/he never seems to have met, ultimately for the “us” of international readership. Through its story-within-the-short-story, Smith’s text offers a mode which allows readers to reflect on the cultural other figured as “the immigrant.” While the fantasising aspect of the story-within-the-story might have a disturbing effect, linked to projection, objectification and perhaps even appropriation, Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia,” as a fictional refugee tale, is also an exercise of compassionate imagination that puts the cultural “other” as immigrant at its centre rather than banning it to the margins. Successful literature (short or otherwise) is able to make readers accept a fictional character as a person, something which—in A.L. Kennedy’s words—is “a massively unsociopathic thing to do” (6). Because of this, stories like “The Embassy of Cambodia” help us imagine other real people, who embody the cultural “other” in our lives, as part of our communities. By facilitating our thinking up/of immigrants’ stories that differ from those pushed by the political right, texts like “The Embassy of Cambodia,” through their ethics of storytelling, give us back what right-wing policy-makers—who, for instance, deliberately constructed the United Kingdom’s immigration laws as a maze “designed to wrong-foot you” (F 146)—have been excising from political discourse.

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Bischof, Stan. “The Laws of Badminton.” Badminton World Federation 17 July 2019. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

Boffey, Daniel. “Orbán claims Hungary is last bastion against ‘Islamisation’ of Europe.” The Guardian. 18 Feb. 2018. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

Clingman, Stephen. The Grammar of Identity: Transnational Fiction and the Nature of the Boundary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

---. “Fugitive/Narrative: Some Starting Points.” Politics/Letters 12.28 (2018). Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1.8 (1989): 139-67. Print.

Christoffersen, Ashlee. “Intersectional Approaches to Equality Research and Data.” Equality Challenge Unit Brochure. 2017. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

Doughty, Louise. “The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith – Review.” The Guardian 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race. 2017. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Print.

Elgot, Jessica. “Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ at heart of Windrush scandal.” The Guardian 17 Apr. 2018. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

F. “The Applicant’s Tale.” Refugee Tales III. Eds. David Herd and Anna Pincus. Manchester: The Comma Press, 2019. 145-50. Print.

“FPÖ sieht Österreich ‘vor neuem Grenzsturm.’” 19 Sept. 2019. Web. 15 Sept. 2021.

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1 To date, these are White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016).

2 Two volumes of essays have come out so far: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009) and Feel Free (2018).

3 In Austria, theatre director Jacqueline Kornmüller even adapted Die Botschaft von Kambodscha, translated by Tanja Handels, for the stage, or rather “the pool,” of Vienna’s Jörgerbad (Nussmayr).

4 For instance, the twenty-one essays collected by Nikesh Shukla in The Good Immigrant (2016), Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) or the three volumes of The Refugee Tales (2015, 2017, 2019) edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus.

5 This unorthodox page referencing is owed to the fact that the sections of “The Embassy of Cambodia” are numbered in a manner reminiscent of badminton scores. In the following, quotes will be referenced by both the section heading, from 0-1 to 0-21, and the cited edition’s page numbers.

6 Although Kaya Genç, in her review for the LARB, appears to be certain that the narrator is female, the text goes to some length to avoid any clear gendering.

7 In certain respects, this is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s short story “An Unwritten Novel” (1921), in which a narrator engages, after exchanging only a few words with an unknown woman in a railway carriage, on an elaborate fantasy about her life.

8 There is no reference in the story that Fatou adhered to any faith before she converts, under Andrew’s influence, to Christianity while in London. It is not unlikely, given her name and her country of origin, however, that she used to be a Muslima. And if this is the case, then the Devil, tellingly capitalised as the personification of evil or hostile forces in her life, is the one concept in which Fatou’s old monotheistic religion intersects with her new one.

9 Thanks to Lotti Viola for translating the Hungarian original for me.

10 Thanks to Manon Labrande for chasing this quote, taken from an interview with Marine Le Pen conducted by Mark Davis and broadcast by Australia Special Broadcasting Service on 8 May 2012.

11 Thanks to Michela Borzaga for telling me about this quote. This statement formed part of an interview conducted with Matteo Salvini by Serena Bortone during an episode of Rai 3’s political programme Agorà broadcast on 28 June 2019. A day later, Sea-Watch Captain Carola Rackete, after she had docked a migrant rescue ship in Lampedusa without authorisation, was arrested. Salvini’s original statement reads: “Visto che il traffico di essere umani ormai è provato è legato al traffico di droga e il traffico di armi… questi non sono naufraghi; queste sono persone che pagano una media di tre mille dollari per questi viaggi organizzati, con cui poi si comprano armi e droga.”

12 The original quote reads: “Wer das HALT an unserer Grenze nicht akzeptiert, der ist ein Angreifer. Und gegen Angriffe müssen wir uns verteidigen.”

13 The original quote reads: “In Anbetracht der Massenmigration aus der Türkei nach Europa droht auch in Österreich in absehbarer Zeit ein neuer Grenzsturm.”

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Sylvia Mieszkowski, « Compassionate Projection: Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” »Journal of the Short Story in English, 75 | 2020, 115-133.

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Sylvia Mieszkowski, « Compassionate Projection: Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 75 | Autumn 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 03 octobre 2023. URL :

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Sylvia Mieszkowski

Sylvia Mieszkowski is professor of British Literature at the University of Vienna. She specialises in texts from the 19th-21st centuries, gender studies, queer theory, psychoanalysis, cultural analysis, sound studies and seriality. As a member of “Women’s Tales: The Short Fiction of Contemporary British Writers” she focused on A.L. Kennedy. Now, as a member of “Intersections: Gender and Identity in the Short Fiction of Contemporary British Women Writers” (both headed by Jorge Sacido Romero and Laura Lojo Rodriguez and funded by the Spanish government), she works on Zadie Smith. From 19th to 21st September 2019, she hosted an international conference in Vienna on the topic “More Than Meets the Ear: Sound & Short Fiction.”

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