Imagining Fear and Anxiety in Post-9/11 New York

It’s just a few days until the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. As a New Yorker (not by birth, but by choice), I often think about how close the day seems, and yet how much the memory’s receded, blurred, been confused by everything that’s happened since. Being a Muslim as well, the memory is more complicated, and more fraught.

That was especially true after last summer, when the possibility of a so-called “victory mosque”—taken to stand for everything bad about Islam—became the most talked-about topic, not only the United States, but in much of the rest of the world as well. It didn’t just capture the news for days, or weeks, but for months. We felt the awkwardness of identity, of sharing faith in the face of brutal attack.

Many, like our president, who defended the right of Muslims to worship anywhere they wanted still weren’t quite sure Muslims should be allowed to worship so publicly and noticeably near Ground Zero. And since New York City is home to the largest Muslim population in America (probably well over 600,000, or close to ten percent of the city), a number of uncomfortable questions came to the surface.

In her debut novel, The Submission, journalist Amy Waldman manages to predict, prepare for, and parse, many of them. 

We open with a September 11 widow persuading her fellow committee members to vote for one of two remaining designs for a memorial garden, leaving the reader to wonder whether they side with her out of aesthetic agreement or uncomfortable guilt. But when they choose her preferred design, a symmetrical walled garden, filled with metal and real trees, we feel the excitement in the air as the name of the designer is revealed. Submissions had been anonymous up to that point, discussed and promoted by a jury selected to represent (some parts of) New York City.

The excitement turns to tension, then to panic. The selected design has been produced by a Muslim, an American Muslim architect of some renown named Mohammed Khan, and the committee is flabbergasted. How can they present a design proposed by a Muslim to officially remember 9/11? But on what basis can’t they? Beginning with this disastrous victory we are dragged into the lives of wonderfully rendered New Yorkers struggling to make sense of an event whose contested meanings and long-term implications elude them.

It’s a fantastically crafted, painful, insightful, and at times sublimely spiritual work; one which I would not hesitate to recommend. Not least for its concluding chapters, for the delicate insights, painful glimpses, and brief illuminations that highlight how the attacks still manage to drive us apart—and make remembering so terribly difficult to speak of.

A year after the media circus of the mosque near Ground Zero, questions remain about how to remember, what place to accord American Muslims, and how much America has or hasn’t changed. But for anyone who needs to understand, there are few better places to start than with The Submission

At the point when we learn that an American Muslim has sent in the winning submission, I was of course reminded of last summer’s debate over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. Seems like you had a good deal of prescience on the question of American Muslims.

I had the idea for the novel in 2003 and started writing three or four years later. I did feel prescient, if inadvertently so, when the controversy over the mosque erupted, but it was also disconcerting to see how raw the passions and confusion around Islam remained. The book was mostly done by then, or so I thought—the mosque furor, among other things, prompted quite a bit of rewriting. It’s challenging to write a novel that plays off reality yet doesn’t read like a transcription of it.

The novel seems to intertwine tragedy and how we remember tragedy. It’s a very American story, obviously—but the aftermath of September 11 has affected the whole world. Do you think audiences outside America can connect with your story?

I do. As you say, what happened to America has affected so much of the rest of the world—both because of America’s response, and because of the debates about and within Islam that September 11 prompted. America, and the ideals it’s meant to represent, obviously cast a disproportionate shadow globally; and even though the novel is a fictional portrait of the aftermath of 9/11, I think it will resonate with all of the non-Americans who have followed the real-life version.

And many of the novel’s questions are universal: how do you decide what you believe, and how do you act on that? How do you balance loyalty to the dead and the living, to family and country, and to yourself? How do private histories or personal insecurities shape public dramas—and thus the course of history? The Submission is about all of that.

You were co-chief of the New York Times’ South Asia bureau. How did your work over there affect your view of New York, of how we remember September 11—and what’s happened since?

A novelist is, in some sense, always an outsider—and being abroad, being a geographic outsider, was very helpful in seeing what had happened to America in the wake of 9/11. Not being immersed in the fear, the anxiety, that a lot of Americans experienced made it easier to observe and reflect on it.

At the same time, as a reporter in South Asia (and during a brief stint in Iraq as well), I was meeting Muslims of every political, religious, and demographic stripe. It made me much more interested in, and critical of, how Islam was being covered and explained in the American media, which rarely reflected the diversity or complexity or contradictions I encountered. I wanted to capture at least some of that in fiction.

I heard Timothy Garton Ash describe his annual visits to America as snapshots of a larger direction. You seem to be hinting at that, too. As someone geographically “outside” for quite some time, what do you make of where we’ve been going as a country? Certainly, The Submission speaks to the many questions we remain troubled by, including many we cannot articulate.

The questions are what interest me, and where I’m most comfortable, which is why I became a novelist and not a pundit. I think for the U.S. the aftermath of 9/11 has been like being in a car that’s just been hit: ten years later, we’re still spinning, which makes it hard to tell what direction we are going in. It’s that feeling—this particular moment in time, the constant swiveling between grief and anger at some of what followed, at what that grief was used to justify—that I was interested in exploring.

Throughout the book we sense the tension born of people who just couldn’t explain themselves to each other, which strikes especially as the novel builds to its conclusions. Do you see Islamophobia as a serious issue? Is it racism, or something beyond that?

It’s true that many moments in the book turn on words misrendered or misheard. People often assume that, based on the person they are dealing with, they know what the other person is saying. Sometimes they assume wrong.

I do think Islamophobia is a serious issue, but it’s different than racism. Putting aside people who have always hated Muslims, 9/11 created a whole new level of fear in many Americans. I am interested in the line between bigotry and fear—I think they are two different things, even though we call all of it Islamophobia. But at what point does that fear harden into bigotry? How do we decide who to fear, especially when there’s so much we don’t understand?

Some of the anti-garden characters have rationalized their reasons for not wanting that memorial; I appreciate the sympathy and honesty with which you convey the broad range of feelings and motivators, from raw emotion and outright racisms to a certain type of elite liberalism. You try hard to explain their reasons. Does this mean that there can be a rationalized and reasoned antipathy for Islam? For Muslims? How do we balance a disagreement with a culture and religion with our democratic norms and legacies of racial and cultural intolerance?

Antipathy is not always rational or reasoned, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. I do think liberalism over the years has not always heeded the place of emotion in people’s thinking, and I think 9/11, as well as the ground zero mosque controversy, were very interesting in this regard. Suddenly many liberals, among others, found their emotions in conflict with their principles, which is partly what The Submission explores.

I don’t think asking people to bury those emotions and pretend they are not there (witness the response to Juan Williams’ comments) is the answer. Americans convince themselves that if they don’t say certain things, they don’t think them, and whether it’s dealing with race or religion, that’s not always true. Every once in a while there are events, like the fictional scenario in the novel, that cause unexpected irruptions of feeling.

Interestingly, I think your question frames part of the problem. I don’t think we should approach it as having a disagreement with a whole culture and religion. We can disagree in a democratic framework with, say, taxi drivers who don’t want to carry alcohol-bearing passengers or women who want to cover their faces. That’s entirely different than confronting the threat of violence.

At the end you very movingly describe what becomes of the submission (and how else we can understand submission). What do you make of the existing September 11 memorial, under construction, and whether it accomplishes what your characters are convinced memorials should?

I can’t answer that question until I visit the memorial. Studying the design can’t convey what the actual experience will be like—in part because visiting a memorial is rarely something you do alone: your own reaction is likely to be shaped as much by the collective emotion you sense and observe among the living as by how the dead are remembered.

The novel is in part about how no one can agree on what a memorial should do, how hard it is to satisfy every constituency, and that will inevitably be true for the September 11 memorial. Even all of the family members may experience it differently, and for the rest of us, who didn’t lose anyone, it becomes a more abstract, and maybe more challenging, experience.

Beyond remembering the dead, which is at the heart of it, what should we take away? How will future generations experience it?