This week Zadie Smith joined Tricycle Readers for the evening and read us her novella, The Embassy of Cambodia. The story is set walking distance from the Tricycle Theatre where we meet every Monday evening, the embassy itself squatting dumpily on the corner of Sidmouth and Brondesbury Roads, an ugly, part-pebbledash, thirties villa, half hidden behind a high wall.
Most embassies in the capital sit on wide avenues in prestigious suburbs, or are citadels at the city’s heart: they are elegant at least and grand at best. To site your headquarters in the distinctly unfashionable North West London suburb of Willesden, next to the sports club and just up from the bus stop, denotes a certain lack of care that does not go unnoticed by the prosaic locals. “I doubt,’ says the narrator of The Embassy of Cambodia, ‘there is a man or woman among us, for example, who – upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time – did not immediately think: ‘genocide'”
Smith is rare among writers: she reads her own work brilliantly. I remember a reading of her celebrated first novel White Teeth (also set in Willesden) where the audience literally cried with laughter. Her performance on Monday night was equally enchanting, but there is little humour in a tale that centres on the Embassy but is in fact the story of a young woman from the Ivory Coast who, like many refugees, is at the mercy of the merciless couple who keep her as a near-slave.
I first met Zadie Smith when she was 17 and a sixth-former, working with a teacher to set up a project supporting refugee students. Years later her brother ran the refugee centre at my daughters’ primary school. On Monday she’d spent the afternoon talking to refugees in Cricklewood. Asked from where that interest stemmed, she told us that at school she was tasked with showing round a Somali girl who was teased about her hair and strangeness. “One day sitting with me in a lesson, she started banging her head on the desk again and again until it split open and none of us knew why.” It was the incident that led to the setting up of that school refugee project.
The discussion that followed was informed, challenging, and lively, and our guest stayed on to continue chatting with us. The gossip from the evening is that the Smith and her husband (the writer Nick Laird) are turning The Embassy of Cambodia into a film, and are writing the script together on Fridays. It was much easier to write with your spouse, she said, because you know each other so well you can get the arguments out of the way quickly and get on with working!