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.