Many books, fiction and non-fiction, have been written about the horrific events that took place on 11 September 2001. In this incredible book, Amy Waldman has used the physical space created by the absence of the towers as the bedrock around which the novel centres; and outward from there, she explores the political and emotional state of America two years after the attacks.
The novel opens with a jury deliberating anonymous submissions for the creation of a memorial at the Twin Towers site. This has been going on for four months and it has been whittled down to two designs – The Void, backed by Ariana, a famous artist, and The Garden, backed by Claire Burwell, the beautiful grieving widow who represents the families who lost people in the attacks. Finally the decision is made and The Garden wins.
Relief all round now that the decision had been made, until the head of the jury opens the envelope with the architect’s name, which turns out to be Mohammad Khan, an American Muslim. When the note is passed around, reactions vary from ‘Oh‘ to ‘Jesus fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim.”
So the first domino falls and the novel moves into the effects of the submission on different communities in New York. The head of the jury wants the Khan (Mo, as he is known to his friends) to withdraw his submission and drop out of the competition. Khan refuses to: he is highly ambitious, totally secular and wholly American. He is contentious, for example, he grows a full beard to test the American citizens. Claire supports his design in the belief that it could symbolise healing, others are unsure and some people are vehemently against it.
Divisive groups form: Save America From Islam; the Muslim American Co-ordinating Council, the Grieving Family Members, and different characters emerge around whom the novel builds. Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother in the attacks, becomes the unofficial leader for the families; he wants Khan to withdraw. Then there’s Asma Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi, who lost her husband in the attacks – he was a cleaner – but because they were illegal aliens, she is not sure who to approach. The Muslim American Co-ordinating Council backs Khan but only on certain conditions. There’s also the beautiful Muslim lawyer, Laila Fathi, with whom Khan has an affair; as well as a sharp, trouble-causing female journalist.
Khan won’t back down; neither will he answer questions in an interview on the intentions and influences behind his design. They would not be being asked if he were not American, he insists. His refusal causes further ructions and speculation amongst the groups.
It is an intriguing read – beautifully written with a sensitivity towards the subject, but with not glorifying it, not taking sides in any way. I have read other reviews where the reader has not liked it, but I think it is well researched and written. It has an underlying tension throughout, as though another attack could happen, or a murder. It made me think about the subject a great deal, and wonder whether America has become more tolerant in any way.
In reality, a similar method was adopted for submissions and, out of five thousand submissions, a man called Michael Arad won for his design of reflective pools. As he is Jewish, that caused a bit of a stink as well, so perhaps America hasn’t moved along much.
- Amy Waldman On Christmas In Afghanistan (thinkprogress.org)
- Book Review: The Submission by Amy Waldman (chalkthesun.wordpress.com)