Cosmopolitan Empathy and Local Hospitality

For those who travel, cosmopolitanism may involve an increased ability to cope with newness and uncertainty [... ] for those who remain at home it may entail a growing ability to coexist in their habitat with newcomers and strangers (Hannerz 2007: 77).

The narrative introduces Leah Hanwell in the garden of her Caldwell flat, ‘[fjenced in, on all sides’ (3). She is subject to a cacophony of other voices impinging on her daily life, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of otherness from the outset. Leah, a woman of Irish descent, shares her flat with her French-Algerian partner, Michel, who longs to escape the squalor of Willesden and improve his financial situation: ‘[i]f we ever have a little boy I want him to live somewhere - to live proud - somewhere we have the freehold’ (25). He is well aware of the inequalities within London, accepting it as a fact of contemporary life: ‘Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion - [Leah] doesn’t share it’, and despite his transnational parentage, feels no empathy for other cultures: ‘I’m not like these Jamaicans’ who ‘still [have] no curtains’ (3, 26). A social sense of moral responsibility and accountability is instead reflected in Leah’s localised engagement. By demonstrating a commitment to her area, working for a non-profit charity organisation helping local communities, Leah positions cosmopolitanism to require individual agency and performative acts of socio-cultural engagement. The initial chapter, ‘Visitation’, involves the unexpected appearance of a distressed woman named Shar on Leah’s doorstep, who claims to need money to visit her ailing mother in hospital. Leah accepts Shar into her home (the threshold of the doorstep signifying the invisible boundary between detachment and commonality), following Shar’s claims of being ‘local’ and sharing mutual acquaintances from Leah’s past. Immediately, then, the narrative also brings into play Jacques Derrida’s notion of cosmopolitan hospitality: ‘a hospitality invented for the singularity of the new arrival, of the unexpected visitor’ (2000: 83). Opening the door to the ‘other’ evolves into an act of cosmopolitan solidarity, widening one’s capacity for empathetic identification. The incident serves as an analogy for global hospitality at the most micro-level, suggesting the limits of neighbourliness when living in close proximity to others, and drawing Leah out of her initial isolation.

Moreover, Leah’s engagement with Shar reflects a narrative hospitality that permeates throughout the novel. Paul Ricoeur argues that ‘narrative hospitality’ demonstrates a sense of mutuality, reciprocal exchange of perspectives, and empathy for the lives of others (1996: 8).4 Leah and Shar exist in an urban environment where they can be strangers to one another, yet still belong in their shared home. The encounter represents a movement away from postcolonial forms of relationality towards Appiah’s positive, forward-thinking ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ (also referred to as cosmopolitan patriotism), which argues for the promotion of local cosmopolitan ethics (involving the inner circles of our family and community) to be broadened and implemented more globally (1998: 91).5 In this way, Leah demonstrates that she is ‘as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries’ (5). Leah’s devotion mirrors Smith’s own allegiance to north-west London, having defined her own fiction as: ‘writing obsessively about two miles of town [... ] It’s just love, right? You write about what you care about’ (2012b: n.pag.). The empathy practised by Leah in offering Shar both money and hospitality is an act of cosmopolitan patriotism that recognises the necessity for locally relational forms of belonging and interaction in order for cosmopolitan ideals to be transferred externally and globally. As Seyla Benhabib argues, acknowledging the necessity of cosmopolitan ideals does not entail ‘eliminating local differences or dismissing attachments to these to those nearest to us; it means enlarging the compass of our moral sympathy ever wider so that more and more human beings appear to us as “concrete other” for whose right as “generalized others” we are willing to speak up and fight’ (2011: 193). The incident also demonstrates that cosmopolitan dispositions may be fostered without mobility, distinguishing cosmopolitanism from acting as a synonym for transnationalism. The cosmopolitan sensibilities inherent in the narrative, therefore, move beyond what John Clement Ball would term a displacement of ‘roots to places’ in favour of ‘a more dynamic focus on routes among places - a more pluralized and relational concept of place-identity’ (2004: 69).

Leah’s empathy is nevertheless at odds with that of her community. Shar’s lament - ‘I’m saying help me - no one did a fucking thing’ - affirms the absence of communal affinity in Willesden; the majority of the community ‘wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire’ (6, 12). The relevance of opening the narrative from Leah’s secluded garden becomes apparent, being emblematic of the community in which she resides. Willesden’s residents may ‘live communally but she is the only one who thinks communally’ (67). The ‘ivy from the estate’ smothering all other vegetation reflects the absence of communal ethics in London society at large, but the apple tree in Leah’s garden ‘grows despite them all, unaided’, demonstrating how an absence of communal solidarity fails to dampen her cosmopolitan empathy (67). Smith’s omniscient narrator is aware that in London ‘kindness is rare’ and that ‘[t]his is not the country for making a stranger tea’ - yet due to citizens like Leah ‘[t]here is goodwill’ (8). By focusing on the similarities she shares with Shar, rather than the differences, Leah bridges the socio-cultural divides permeating London society. Further, her kindness demonstrates that cosmopolitan engagement is often more realisable through the banal associations of day-to-day life. Therefore, while still demonstrating a localised form of cosmopolitan engagement, this specific encounter falls most precisely into Gilroy’s conception of ‘a “vulgar” or “demotic” cosmopolitanism’ from below, through which ‘cosmopolitan attachments’ find ‘ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness’ and which ‘glories in the ordinary virtues [... ] that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding’ (2004: 75). The incident also indicates that achievable cosmopolitan ideals should enable the development of mutuality, often even through superficial engagement, rather than a transformation of social relations and interaction.

Leah and Shar’s subjective differences should prove to be disjunctive, combative and conflictive, but instead their conversation produces a strangely neutralising effect in a dynamic social space of connection and interaction. They appear as ‘old friends on a winter’s night [... ] The door is open, every window is open’, positioning the mundane encounter as an act of cosmopolitan openness (11). Leah’s act of hospitality thus positions the cultural performance of tolerance and understanding as integral components of the ethically cosmopolitan subject. This private scene of openness and reciprocity is the catalyst for the emergence of related characters later in the narrative - Shar admits to still seeing Nathan Bogle in the area (neglecting to mention their connection revolves around the illegal sale ofdrugs) and recalls Natalie Blake as being ‘[u]p herself. Coconut’ (9). Such racial stereotyping and ethnic labelling in NW impede the development of commonality between individuals, and serves as the first indication of Shar’s anti-cosmopolitan tendencies. The practice of cosmopolitan empathy in the novel fails to engender the dissolution of prejudices and stereotypes, pointing to inherent cultural and racial divisions. Following the encounter, Leah fails to discern Shar’s manipulation, refusing to accept that Shar borrowed money from her for drugs, having fabricated the story about the hospital. Leah’s mother pessimistically claims that she should have had more children so Leah would possess ‘a better understanding of human nature’ (16). Only a week later, another drug addict appears on Leah’s doorstep to take advantage of her good nature, resulting in Leah’s beginning to question her sympathetic tendencies and regret her altruism, ironically doodling ‘I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY’ at work - an environment in which she constantly feels isolated and excluded (29).

In NW the tenets and values of cosmopolitanism are shaken and interrogated constantly. As Bianca Leggett argues, the novel emphasises that empathy itself is ‘a problematic guiding principle in the attempt to create a [... ] heterogeneous cosmopolitan society’ (2013: n.pag.). And yet, Beck emphasises that the ‘[recognition of cosmopolitan differences’ and ‘resulting cosmopolitan conflict’ from cultural encounters are constitutive of ‘the cosmopolitan outlook’, and should not destabilise the project of cosmopolitan empathy (2006: 7). Arguably, Leah’s initial acceptance of Shar is a temporally-framed embrace of otherness - inviting the other into the home based on the Derridean concept of hospitality - but not a practice that requires extension outside of this context. It is Leah’s continued efforts after the event that are indicative of her ethical nature. Notably, even after her exploitation, Leah encounters Shar again in the street and offers to help with her drug addiction. She is free to disengage herself from the temporary connection with Shar at any point but chooses not to do so. Although the encounter does not entirely cancel our sense of Leah’s estrangement, it suggests a relational process of social negotiation that allows her to be temporarily inclusive. Her concentration on developing cross-cultural commitments within an apathetic community, both in her public and private life, implies the belief that communities are formed by routine acts of individual agency, rather than existing as ready-made cultural constructions. While on a bus, ‘Leah stares at a red bindi until it begins to blur [... ] taking up all of her vision until she feels she has entered the dot, passing through it, emerging into a more gentle universe, parallel to our own, where people are fully and intimately known to each other’ (39). Her longing for interconnection and mutuality throughout the text reflects Smith’s own stated desire to experience a form of cultural transposability: ‘I urgently want to be everybody else all the time’ (2013c: n.pag.). Leah’s subsequent sighting of Shar in various locations around Willesden suggests the claustrophobic interdependence of lives in Willesden, evident in the mixing-up of Shar and Leah’s photographs at the pharmacy. As Beck notes, the formation of cosmopolitan empathy directly concerns this ‘interchangeability of situations (as both an opportunity and a threat)’ (2006: 7). Such multiplicity fractures the belief that individuals possess a singular and static identity, unaffected by external cultural influence. On this basis, Leah’s cryptic existential assertion that ‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’ acknowledges both an ownership of her identity and a need for the substantiality of self (3). Following Rapport’s reasoning on the nature of cultural identity in general, it can be said that Leah evinces ‘in otherness’ versions of herself, indicating the ‘mutualities of playing hosts and guests to one another’ (2012a: 208).

The narrative consistently indicates the limitations of socio-cultural agency or ethical idealism in relating to the lives of others. Leah’s acts of cosmopolitan empathy fail to empower Shar’s financial or physical condition, while the callousness of the city affects Leah’s belief in the merits of an ethical approach to her fellow neighbours. The calligram of an apple tree in the novel with its ‘[n]etwork of branches, roots [... ] The fuller, the more fruitful. The more the worms. The more the rats’, acknowledges Leah’s shifting and increasingly pessimistic view on cultural relations in the capital (24). While the life cycle of the tree possibly suggests the potential for change and reconciliation with herself and her community (‘[n]ew apples. Same tree? Born and bred. Same streets. Same Girl? Next step’), by beginning to desire reciprocity for her actions, she reveals her cosmopolitan engagement to be a form of conditional (rather than unconditional) hospitality, restricted by an acute awareness of the stark realities of urban life (24). With Michel’s help she eventually accosts a man they assume to be one of Shar’s drug-dealing friends in an attempt to reclaim their money. The man subsequently kicks and kills their dog, Olive. The brutal encounter denies Leah the cultural hospitality she herself espouses, and Michel is finally granted his wish of living a more isolated and wary life, avoiding the elements of London life which he considers unsavoury. Accordingly, from the perspective of everyday interaction and socialisation, the narrative reflects Rapport and Amit’s acknowledgement that cosmopolitanism in general ‘may be as much a pragmatic “making do” as an ethical stance’ (2012: xii). The initial act of cosmopolitan empathy by Leah has directly led to a less cosmopolitan approach to her local community, indicating the delicate balance of racial and socio-cultural tensions governing the capital’s urban spaces. The couple’s isolation is exacerbated following reports of Felix Cooper’s stabbing on an otherwise harmonious carnival weekend - a random occurrence that will connect the fates of all four protagonists together.

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