The Challenges of Multicultural London in Zadie Smith's "The Embassy of Cambodia"

By Nayebpour, Karam | Interactions, Spring-Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

The Challenges of Multicultural London in Zadie Smith's "The Embassy of Cambodia"


Nayebpour, Karam, Interactions


Introduction

Zadie Smith's novels mainly concern life in a multicultural (London) society. She portrays cultural hybridity and ethno-religious identities in a multicultural context. Critics, however, disagree on the version of multiculturalism Smith offers in her works. Her debut novel White Teeth (2000) has mostly been heralded as a celebration of multiculturalism in London society. According to Michael Perfect, for example, Smith "offers a decidedly optimistic vision of the future of twenty-first-century multicultural London" in which the "tensions between Britain and its postcolonial migrants can ultimately be overcome and consigned to the past" (95, 79). Similarly, Nick Bentley believes, attempting "to offer a reframed model of national identity", Smith's first novel "offers a competing version of contemporary Englishness, one that emphasizes and addresses the multicultural make-up of late-twentieth/early twenty-first century England, and in turn is keen, on one level, to challenge concerns that Englishness and multiculturalism are mutually antagonistic concepts" (485, 495). Critics, however, identify a transformation in Smith's model of multicultural Englishness in her later works. As Kristian Shaw states, for instance, the interracial tensions in Smith's novel, NW (2012), are not relieved; and the novel "moves beyond the multicultural paradigms and postcolonial concerns of White Teeth to provide a more uncompromising and melancholic view of post-millennial cultural interaction" (3). According to Shaw, the problems related to cultural hybridity, as shown in Smith's narrative, are "everyday features of the post-millennial urban environment" (17).

While, in her earlier works, she presents homogeneity in early twenty-first century multicultural London as a unifying element of various ethnicities, in her later works, Smith portrays the heterogeneous and disconnected nature of a multicultural structure as the salient problem of multicultural space. In her short story "The Embassy of Cambodia" (2012), Smith presents multiculturalism and Englishness as two uncompromising and mutually antagonistic concepts. She recounts the hybrid state of a non-English immigrant young woman, Fatou, in Willesden, London, during the 2012 Olympic Games. The constitutive elements of the narrative plot include Fatou's curiosity about the dislocated Cambodian Embassy; her attraction to the embassy and the embassy's Monday morning badminton games; her relationship with the Asian British family, the Derawals; her conversations and interaction with the Nigerian young man, Andrew Okonkwo; and her representation by the collective first-person plural narrator. Smith's narrative shows how Fatou is excluded and disconnected from other races in the multicultural land, represented by her employers, and the natives, represented by the plural narrator.

The narrative setting in Smith's short story is closely associated with the multicultural time and place. While the 2012 Olympic Games were "heralded as both the triumph of multiculturalism and the triumph of patriotism" and were considered a "celebration of multiculturalism", Fatou's story "unveils reminiscences of that old Britain" (Perez Zapata 526) (emphasis original). The agents of the old order, represented by the collective first-person plural narrator and portrayed by the omniscient narrator, do not recognize Fatou's social status and identity. "Recognition", according to Nancy Fraser, "is a fundamental and irreducible dimension of justice, which runs throughout the entire social field" (87). As Fraser understands, the importance of "recognition" to social justice is equal with that of "redistribution" (9). Fatou is not only deprived of any social services, but also of any recognition except for that of her Church friend, Andrew. In a similar way, North London in Smith's works, as stated by Ulrike Pirker, functions as an "other" toward which Smith's approach "has shifted with each new work, partly due to the fact that it has occurred over a period which saw visions of a prosperous, multi-ethnic New Britain replaced by a culture of anxiety in response to terrorist attacks, war and a financial crisis that made the nation acutely aware of its social divide" (Ulrike Pirker 64-5). …

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