Zadie Smith on Imperfect Knowledge in Fiction

Recently, I've been flat out, seriously prone, lying on the day bed in my study with a mess of old lit journals and poetry collections and trashy mags. So, yes, I've been reading a lot, grabbing whatever I can reach, mostly the old New Yorkers and Oxford Americans strewn around the room. And that's how I came across a Winter 2013 New Yorker issue that was marked to Zadie Smith's story "The Embassy of Cambodia." The story involves Fatou, an Ivory Coast immigrant who works for a well-off Pakistani family in London's Willesden suburb and becomes curious about what - beyond the never-ending badminton game, shuttlecock continuously in motion - goes on behind the high brick walls of the Cambodian Embassy. Structured in 21 parts, the story, as Smith states in her "This Week in Fiction" interview with Cressida Treyshon, "is scored like a badminton game" and considers the idea of how "people win and lose in life."

The story reminds me of why I love Zadie Smith's writing: her aesthetic, her brilliantly honest characters, and her ability to paint the London world she loves to revisit with strokes that don't prettify and cover the truth, but uncover and examine it. In the interview she speaks of the origins of this particular piece and of how, when she's writing, "everything is basically spontaneous…  I have a vague idea one day… sometimes a tone, or a single image."  Within a smaller world, the curiosity about a wider one can open up the writing, creating something expansive for the characters involved. This question of how her characters reach beyond their own scope of understanding reveals how Smith strives for "imperfect knowledge" in her fictional worlds.

“The thing that can be challenging in fiction is allowing people to exist imperfectly. There is perhaps an added pressure if the author belongs to a group that feels itself burdened by what I want to call the responsibilities of representation. But if I believed that every time I wrote a Nigerian character that he carried the heavy burden of representing “The Nigerian People” in their entirety, well, I would find it hard to write a word. I’m sure there are readers who read in that way, but I can’t—won’t—write for them. I want to write without shame or pride or over-compensation in one direction or another. To write freely.”
— Zadie Smith

How incredible to read this, even in my seemingly endless horizontal state, to understand once more - this time through the words of an author from whom I continue to learn - the true responsibility of the writer. To get the words down; to create characters that ring true and have as many imperfections as, say, you or I; and to follow those characters into the unfolding story.

To write freely.