"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss” was one of the mottoes of the Khmer Rouge. It referred to the New People, those city dwellers who could not be made to give up city life and work on a farm. By returning everybody to the land, the regime hoped to create a society of Old People—that is to say, of agrarian peasants. When a New Person was relocated from the city to the country, it was vital not to show weakness in the fields. Vulnerability was punishable by death.
In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou, were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. 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. I could say, “Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!” But the reply would be swift and damning: “Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense. We see you standing on the balcony, overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia, in your dressing gown, staring into the chestnut trees, looking gormless. The real reason you speak in this way is because you can’t think of anything better to do.”--Zadie Smith (2013 The Embassy of Cambodia.
The implied narrator of Smith's story is the old (presumably retired) lady standing on the balcony overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia in Willesden. (There really is an embassy there on Brondesbury Park.) It's possible there is a second implied narrator who is never mentioned but who has a knowing perspective on Fatou's life (this narrator sometimes shares Fatou's thoughts). But it's more likely* that we're supposed to imagine that the nameless old lady on the balcony is herself imagining the details of Fatou's life constructed out of a few glimpses of seeing the African-born young woman walk by occasionally. She does so by imaginatively (or sympathetically) projecting herself into Fatou's circumstances. Thus, she is very much akin to not just an impartial spectator, but also a novelist.
It's one several reflexive moments in this compact story. And we are forced to ask the political-poetical question: with what 'right' does somebody (the 'author' not to be confused with Zadie Smith) speak on behalf of another (let's call her 'the represented'), especially when the represented are not even a minimal unity (they are multiple peoples). [Notably, a viable option, a federation, in which multiple peoples form a unity, is overlooked; the implied narrator, who has an obsession with world, political history, especially genocidal history (in addition to the Khmer Rouge, Ruanda, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust are all mentioned in passion), is evidently not a political philosophy.] It's clear that the represented did not elect the author. Even so, the author was chosen. The nature of this being elect is left a bit vague: at first it seems chance (the vagaries of being born at a particular place), but in a further imaginary dialogue this is explicitly rejected -- being born at a specific gives no special title -- it may also be thought fate or necessity or (God's) providence, although the author presents the represented as suggesting that the whole thing (the author speaking for the represented, etc.) just is nonsense. In the presence of nonsense, representation does not get off the ground.
The represented are presented as suggesting that the author is chosen because she herself lacks the imagination to do something else. (This is the first charge) That is the author is taken to lack that very quality (imagination) which, in fact, is the core of her skill (and, when lucky, the source of her possible sustenance.) We may say, then, that the author presents the represented as charging her in addition, with lack of social utility (nothing "better to do"). These two charges seem to go unanswered. That is, Zadie Smith is giving the prosecution against (at least part of) her art a full hearing.
I write a 'part of' because it is explicitly denied that we're dealing with poetry:
When the Embassy of Cambodia first appeared in our midst, a few years ago, some of us said, “Well, if we were poets perhaps we could have written some sort of an ode about this surprising appearance of the embassy.” (For embassies are usually to be found in the center of the city. This was the first one we had seen in the suburbs.) But we are not really a poetic people. We are from Willesden. Our minds tend toward the prosaic. I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide.”
Here it is suggested (it's an earlier chapter than the one quoted above), that there is a unity, a we, a people in Willesden. This people(the represented) is unimaginative (prosaic) not poetic. One may wonder how a unity, such a we, is possible without poetry.
Genocide is understood as a purification that is romantic in spirit. It's not about progress, but about a return to a more authentic and strong lifestyle in which there is no space or place for vulnerability.
To speak for the represented one must be receptive to some such vulnerability and possess a willingness to sympathize (or empathize) with others. Yet, throughout the short story the limits of sympathy are shown and discussed by the author:
The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?
Time and attention are scarce goods, and sympathy places a heavy demand on both and so generate huge opportunity costs. To much sympathetic care for others would swallow up "our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures." The art of living requires limits to the moral and sympathetic imagination even if it is only invoked in a spectatorial fashion (to follow the history of another is not to participate in it). And here we have the damnest charge against the author (and Smith's craft); she is a passive witness to just bits of the lives of others (in this case Fatou, who lives a life of near modern slavery, and reflects on this fact).
The metaphor of this authorial passivity, is the embassy's wall, which occludes a garden from view; in this garden there is a regular, almost eternal game of badminton in which "violent conclusion" and "hopeful return" are alternated; this game is represented by the shuttlecock whose movements is -- like the shadows in Plato's cave -- partially visible above the wall.
I am running out of space here to discuss the ways in which the little story meets the charges against an author who through her craft and imagination gives voice to those who are generally kept voiceless in our polities. But I close by noting that the whole story treats the very narrow circle of friendship as the superior alternative (to the caring or moral spectatorship). It's friendship (not family) that activates kindness and generosity. Even when the friendship is not pure nor equal (there are motives of conversion, sexuality, possession, and need), it can motivate actions that counterbalance some of the worst that humanity has to offer. And, whatever else Zadie Smith is showing us, the author is a friend to no one, not even to the represented.
*I thank Niña Weijers and our undergraduate students in our current seminar on Zadie Smith for helpful, inspiring discussion.