Zadie Smith's Short Story 'The Embassy of Cambodia' and How It Reflects the Modern World

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The Embassy of Cambodia is a short story written by the British and Jamaican novelist Zadie Smith. Set in the town of Willesden, London in 2009. The short story follows the life of Fatou, a young immigrant that works as a housekeeper for a white family in rural London near the embassy of Cambodia. Fatou struggles to fit in and till the end of the story does not feel welcome in this society. A setting familiar to Zadie Smith herself as she grew up in Willesden, a multicultural suburb in North West London. Smith tackles many themes such as the relationship between men and women, social class and the plight of modern day slavery. Through the use of the first person plural pronoun “we” and character developments, Zadie Smith denounces the cultural hegemony present in today's society. The author relies greatly on the use of the first-person plural pronoun “we” and character development to convey her message and parallels can be drawn between the story and today’s society. The dénouement delivers the ultimate message that the authors want to convey.

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In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony is defined as “the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and more—so that their imposed, ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm; the universally valid dominant ideology, which justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.” The definition of cultural hegemony suggests a divide between a dominant class and a dominated class. In Zadie’s short story, Fatou belongs to the dominated class and plays the role of the subaltern — Those who are excluded and outside the dominant power structure and thus denied political participation and voice —. It is seen throughout the book through her interaction with the author characters. For instance, after reading about the Sudanese girl kept as a slave by a rich man in London, she wonders if she too, fall into this category. She realizes that her situation is similar to as her passport and wages have been withheld by the Derawals. But “on balance,” Fatou convince herself that she isn’t a slave, given that she came to the country voluntarily, that she can speak English and that her employers have given her a transit pass. Fatou is not given a voice, this ongoing dynamics of cultural hegemony that prevents the subaltern from having a voice.

“We, the people of Willesden”, Zadie Smith uses the point of view of third person limited omniscient “we” to tell the story. This decision of the writer brings emphasis to the main character, Fatou. It also brings out her subaltern status as she is not given a voice and her thoughts are transmitted to the reader through a third person party. In her paper “ The rise of ‘we’ narrator in Modern American fictions” Maxey examines the use of the first-person plural narrative in modern American fiction and the implication of telling a story in such a difficult way. Maxey argues that this voice can suggest any kind of collectivity and can effectively create a divide, us versus them. The use of first person plural pronoun illustrates the social divides between the dominant and the dominated class.

In his paper “The challenges of multicultural London in Zadie Smith’s ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’” Nayebpour provides a thorough analysis of the book and how Zadie Smith’s portrayal of some of the problems of multicultural contemporary London is, in fact, more global problems. The people of Willesden are hardly aware of Fatou’s existence in their everyday life. She appears to them as an object that is part of their surrounding but that they don’t want to acknowledge, by fear of legitimizing it and breaking the dynamic of cultural hegemony. It seems like there exists a wall — just as tall as the wall of the embassy of Cambodia, a big symbol present in the book— between Fatou and the people of Willesden. We have seen more specifically with her relationship with the Delawares family that does not even wanna look at Fatou in the eye. Despite the fact that the family is also immigrants, they do not seem to have empathy for Fatou’s situation but in contrary take advantage of her. Notably, after the incident where Fatou saved their child that had swallowed a rock, thanking Fatou for her help “felt like a slap” as was described in the book. An interesting quote —“Gratitude was another kind of servitude. Better to make your own arrangements.”— helps us understand that once again they wanted to maintain their position of power over Fatou as they are part of the dominant class.

“Walking out of the cold grey, Fatou felt a sense of brightness, of being washed clean, that neither the weather nor her new circumstance could dim” It is on a hopeful note that Smith’s ends the story. After being fired and forced to move out of the Delawares household, it seems like Fatou’s turn to Christianity, interest in history, the practice of swimming, the pursuit of better-paid employment, Andrew’s acquisition of a business degree. It a way to tell us that in the wake a cultural hegemony in today’s society, there is still hope.

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