Zadie Smith (2013) – The Embassy of Cambodia


The fact is that 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?

Two Warnings

  1. There are some distressing images in this blog
  2. This blog is longer than others because this quote really got me thinking and I ramble without any conclusion

Nations and Drawing Circles

I have been trying to get to grips with Derrida’s work On Hospitality when considering the ethics of immigration and nationality.  The picture he paints of hospitality is monstrous and violent as he questions and deconstructs the notion of host and guest.  This is my simplistic understanding of Derrida’s take on the paradox of hospitality:

To be hospitable means having the power to host and to designate others as guests.  But to control guests, to say who is welcome and under what circumstances is also the power to be inhospitable; it leaves guests powerless.  Absolute hospitality means being open to the unknown, including the violent and the monstrous.

However, as an ethic of working with other people, Derrida’s absolute hospitality is also immensely generous in its call to end our current obsession with boundaries.

We must be able to rediscover a taste for living in a culture, a language and a country in which hospitality is no longer a criminal offence (Derrida, 2002: 140 cited in Tataryn, 2013: 184)

This makes my head hurt.

So, I turn to literature for a break. I love Zadie Smith.  Her writing is clear.  Her observations are astute.  Her ear for dialogue is poetic.  Her imagination dances.  The opening quote is taken from Zadie Smith’s novella – The Embassy of Cambodia.  A slight book, a quick read.  But despite its brevity, it manages to show the complexity of how borders and boundaries pose a difficulty for contemporary life.  The background of the shuttlecock rising above the walls of the Cambodian Embassy suggest that even high walls cannot stop glimpses into others lives.  Can we really draw circles around our attention and remain within that circle?

As with most of Zadie Smith’s writing this book focuses on a small area of North West London, renowned for its multi-cultural mix.  Therefore, it is hard to ignore that circle-drawing can be translated to mean boundary marking, in particular, national boundary marking.  There is a central character, Fatou – a West African domestic worker, who decides she is not a slave despite her employers keeping her passport and little evidence of wages.  Has she really made it into the national boundary?  Is she part of a circle?  Does she form a part of our attention?

As she loses her job, for being a dutiful person, who crosses an unnamed boundary, the paradoxes of Derrida’s hospitality return.

migrants at sea

I am also reading this at a time when general election looms and the monster of immigration is being evoked by politicians to say something about Britishness and something else about non-Britishness, in particular about African-ness.  I am made aware that there is something inherently violent about the desire to draw boundaries, especially national boundaries.  This makes its point most obviously in the image of African refugees left to perish in Mediterranean Sea.  I spot this image on Twitter (or one similar) and it appals me to the point that I cannot look. This is the reality of refusing to rescue the desperate. I don’t want this to be in my circle of attention.  I don’t want this at all.

Drawing Circles and Disciplines

I try to be an hospitable academic.  I need to stop drawing circles around my discipline.  I use literature to understand social policy.  I use sociology to critique psychology and vice versa.  But I have to be careful, because I run the danger of being too hospitable, of not having a focus.  I need to draw a circle of attention.  So, I call this circle “welfare” and use study to understand why some people thrive and others struggle. There are problems with this circle because it is already claimed by sociologists, medics, psychologists, criminologists, etc., etc., and I am not always a welcome guest.  I don’t have the power to host.  After a few years within a university I am still flummoxed by the need to specialise weighed against the need to work in an inter-disciplinary way.

Then there are the circles I draw within the circle – the categories I use to explore social justice – women, men, BME communities, class, disability, etc., etc.  There is something unjust in these categories, in these attempts to separate out identities, to draw circles around one aspect and force this to be the circle of my attention.

As a black, lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self (Lorde, 1980: 120)

Drawing Circles within Practice

But surely we need circles, we need boundaries and specialisms within practice?  We cannot be all things to all people.  Perhaps, but what happens at the edges of those circles?  I used to work with adults with learning disabilities.  I did not work with children with disabilities.  What happens to the adolescent with learning disabilities?  Which service do they require?  Are they still children dependent on a parent?  Are they adults, independent of their parent’s concerns?  The drawing of circles in this way produces boundaries that appear impossible to bridge, that can produce floating, risky, difficult subjects. (Follow LBBill on Facebook and hear about the state treatment of such ‘difficult subjects’.  Prepare to be appalled.)

Three PlanetsAnother area of study and practice that interests me is Domestic Violence.  Marianne Hester (2011) outlines the problems with boundaries and circles of interest within practice here, in her three planet model.  Different histories, cultures and focus of practice result in three separate circles potentially negating each other’s attempts at justice.

So every time he came ‘round and kicked the door in . . . I’d hit the alarm. Or when he did something I hit the alarm. And [children’s services] used it against us in court to prove how many times he’d been to the house and to take the children (Interview with mother in Williamson and Hester, 2008).

Rambling Conclusions

Zadie Smith plays with the idea of fitting in between the circles.  She has written neither a short story nor a novel.  She has provided just enough information about her characters to engage, but not enough to understand.  The Cambodian Embassy challenges us to think about genocide, unknowable lives, boundaries and vast-reaching state power.  Whilst her main character believes in independence, travelling across boundaries and self-sufficiency.  Her narrator, however, floats above this from the balcony from a residential unit for older people.  It is this narrator that asks:

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?

Drawing circles, marking territory, delineating boundaries all appear to cause injustice.  And yet, I am still left with the problem of specialism, of having a circle of attention.  I want to ask, instead of how large the circle should be, how porous should it be?  Or may be, I should continue to battle away the idea of circles and work with what Nash (2008) calls the “murkiness” of intersectionality.


Hester, M. (2011) “The Three Planet Model: Towards an understanding of Contradictions of Approaches in Women and Children’s Safety in Contexts of Domestic Violence” British Journal of Social Work 41: 837 – 853

Lorde, A. (1980) “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women redefining difference” in Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches New York: The Crossing Press

Nash, J. (2008) “Rethinking Intersectionality” Feminist Review 89: 1 – 15

Smith, Z. (2013) The Embassy of Cambodia London: Penguin

Tataryn, A. (2013) “Revisting Hospitality: Opening doors beyond Derrida towards Nancy’s Inoperativity” Law, Text, Culture 17: 184 – 210

Williamson, E. And Hester, M. (2008) Evaluation of STDAPP Bristol: University of Bristol

4 thoughts on “Zadie Smith (2013) – The Embassy of Cambodia

  1. Great read, as usual. But since my cultural consumption is more Gavin & Stacey than Tristan & Isolde, I mostly don’t feel like I can contribute anything interesting.
    Anyway, not sure this is different today, but the picture of drawing circles in connection with intersectionality and identity is intriguing. I wonder whether we (the left) are maybe drawing too many circles nowadays. I clearly don’t know enough about identity and intersectionality to make a competent assessment, but I have a feeling these two concepts might not always be helpful. My concern is that we tend to foreground inequality based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. and neglect. economic inequality that is in a sense the most powerful factor and the basis of any discrimination. Of course I’m not advocating pitting one against the other, but from my perspective, postmodern identity politics risks winning cultural battles, but losing the economic war (the last bit is a quote – sort of – don.t remember of whom).
    Alright, back to your post. I guess my argument is that by drawing too many circles and recognising what shapes our individual identity, we might lose the bigger picture (of capitalist exploitation).
    I might be missing the point, but I’ll post the comment anyway. b x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment Bernhard. The balancing of economic inequality with cultural recognition is exactly what Fraser and Honneth try to battle out and I am still trying to work with those ideas too. As for intersectionality, I think it is trying to stop us drawing circles and putting boundaries on people’s identities, to stop us trying to make one issue more important than another. It could be argued that taking an intersectional view could help us see the different ways that capitalist exploitation can work with racism, sexism and colonialism. Glad I’ve given you something to think about, because you’ve made me think. Plus I love Gavin and Stacey too.


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