34 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

The Embassy of Cambodia

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Embassy of Cambodia” is a short story by British author Zadie Smith. Originally published in 2013 in the New Yorker, the story focuses on Fatou, a woman from the Ivory Coast living in modern-day domestic enslavement in London. The story follows Fatou as she navigates life and explores theological and philosophical ideas with her friend Andrew. The story explores themes such as The Consequences of Dehumanization and Stereotypes; Self-Reliance, Independence, and Agency; and The Pain and Suffering of Daily Life.

The story is set in the same Willesden neighborhood of Smith’s 2012 novel NW. Smith is best known for her debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000, and is a prominent voice in both contemporary British literature and postcolonial literature.

This guide refers to the 2013 hardcover reprint.

Content Warning: The source text includes racial discrimination and violence, sexual abuse, enslavement, physical violence, and child death.

Plot Summary

Fatou, a woman from the Ivory Coast, swims every week at the health center near the home of her employers, the Derawals. The house and health center are on the same street as the Embassy of Cambodia. Many residents are confused by the Embassy of Cambodia’s normal, well-blended appearance in the Willesden suburbs of London. There is often a silent badminton game occurring in the back garden of the embassy.

Fatou reads an article about a woman living in modern-day domestic enslavement in London and notes similarities between the woman’s story and her experience at the Derawals’ home. She decides that she is not enslaved because she is allowed to leave the house to do the shopping, visit the health center using the Derawals’ guest passes, and visit her friend Andrew Okonkwo.

Andrew and Fatou go to church and then get coffee at a local Tunisian cafe. Fatou likes to ask Andrew philosophical and complicated questions because, as a college student, he has access to the internet and greater information. During one coffee meeting, Fatou and Andrew talk about genocides in different countries, and Fatou wonders if people from African countries are more likely to suffer than people elsewhere. Andrew tries to reassure her that God is looking out for all of his children, but Fatou counters that the Devil is present to make people suffer.

It is raining, and Fatou is late returning to the Derawal home. She immediately gets to work, collecting the laundry from each of the family members’ rooms. Asma, the youngest Derawal daughter, tries to get Fatou’s attention because she is choking on a marble. Fatou performs the Heimlich maneuver and dislodges the marble. She takes a crying Asma downstairs to the rest of her family. Mr. and Mrs. Derawal are grateful Asma is safe and thank Fatou but are unable to look her in the eyes.

Fatou and Andrew continue meeting and discussing theology and philosophy. Per Fatou’s request, Andrew looks up statistics on the Cambodian Genocide. Fatou, wanting to learn more about who Andrew is as a person, invites him to go swimming with her at the health center. At the health center, Andrew is an unconfident swimmer, but he enjoys watching Fatou swim.

When Fatou returns home from swimming, Mrs. Derawal fires her, claiming that Fatou is spending too much time with the children. Fatou requests her passport, which Mrs. Derawal denies having. Later, someone slides her passport under her door. Fatou calls Andrew, who says he will provide Fatou with a job in his office and a place to stay. They agree to meet later in the day. Before leaving the house for the last time, Fatou takes all of the Derawals’ guest passes to the health center.

Fatou goes to swim one last time at the health center. She then sits at the bus stop outside the Embassy of Cambodia and watches the ongoing badminton game.

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