Monday, March 31, 2014

Beautiful memorial or martyr's paradise?

Amy Waldman's The Submission
I have had Amy Waldman's book, The Submission, on my radar since it first hit the shelves a few years ago.  But I somehow always veered away from actually reading it.  Maybe because 9/11 will always seem too close and raw for many of us.  I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but I remember the event and its aftermath - and we all continue to feel its effect - vividly, and I just never wanted to re-immerse myself in that time again.

But the premise of The Submission is so fascinating, and finally, I buckled down and read it.  The book takes place a few years after the 9/11 attacks happened.  A group of people - artists, civic leaders, and one woman who was widowed by the attack - are choosing the winning submission in a contest to design the 9/11 memorial.  The entrants are anonymous, and when one design - a walled garden - wins, and the name is announced, everyone is shocked.  The winner is a man named Mohammed Khan.

What follows is a thoughtful, empathetic novel that encompasses so many points of view as a nation reels, reacts, stumbles, and tries to right itself in the wake of this news.

There is the garden itself, its personality morphing as the book continues.  First, it is a beautiful memorial garden, with reflecting canals and trees, and paths for contemplation.  Then, as Khan's name makes the news, it becomes a "martyr's paradise."  It fits the description of gardens described in the Qu'ran.  Does that mean that Khan designed it as a way to commemorate the terrorists?  And would anyone assume this was the case if Khan had not, in fact, been Khan, but had the name John Smith?

Mohammed Khan, the architect, has never identified with Islam.  He insists that he has the right to win the prize because he is American, and he feels the grief of 9/11, too.  And he does not want to be defined by his religion or his race.  But everyone else defines him that way, and how long can you fight to define yourself in one way when everyone else defines you in another?

Claire Burwell is the beautiful, wealthy widow on the selection panel.  She originally fell in love with the garden design, but as she learns more about it and Mohammed Khan refuses to answer her questions about its inspiration, she begins to have second thoughts.  Does this make her racist?

Sean Gallagher lost his brother, a fireman, in the attacks, and now leads a virulent anti-Muslim group that fights against the garden memorial.  But he isn't sure if he really does hate all Muslims, and wonders if he is in the fight for the right reasons.  Does he just miss his brother, or is he trying to make up for his shortcomings to his parents?

And Asma Anwar is an illegal immigrant whose husband also died in the attacks.  But as he was a Muslim illegal immigrant, he doesn't fit the profile of the victims of 9/11.  Asma comes out and makes a passionate plea for the garden design.  Don't assume that all Muslims are terrorists, she says.  Many of us want to get to a paradise of peace and kindness, and we will get there by being peaceful and kind here on earth.

Waldman does not pick sides in this debate.  She just delves deeply into each person's psyche to give us their flaws and doubts and assurances.  And shows just how much miscommunication can exacerbate a situation, and how even when we try so hard to be good, to be better than we are, we can fail.  Racism now is so much more subtle than it used to be.  People know it is not right to be racist, so they couch it in different terms, or they catch themselves thinking horrible thoughts but won't say those out loud.  And then there are people on the receiving end of racism, who then always second-guess anyone's reason for acting in a certain way.  It becomes a tangled and painful web, and it is hard for even the most well-meaning of people to make their way out of it.  Waldman brings that to life in a masterful way.

I don't think this was a fantastic novel, as there wasn't so much a plot as there was a premise and some of the characters were clearly meant to symbolize and stand for whole groups rather than be fleshed out themselves.  But I loved the way Waldman presented all the sides without taking a side, and how she forced her characters to face thoughts and actions that many of us would feel uncomfortable talking about.  Highly recommended.


  1. Like you, I've always stayed away from 9/11 books. This one does sound compelling, but I still can't quite see myself reading it.

  2. Anonymous3/31/2014

    I had this out of the library but did not get to it (I don't seem to get to any books lately). Now I regret not being able to read it even more!

  3. I avoid 9/11 books, too. I think a lot of that, for me, is that everyone was working the event into their fiction following the events and I just didn't want to bombarded with it.

  4. Anonymous3/31/2014

    I've stayed away from 9/11 books less because of feelings, and more because I think it's very hard to write about something so charged without it coming off as agenda-driven or else exploitative in some way. But I have heard a LOT of good things about The Submission.

  5. Like you, I have this book too on my shelves and need to make time for it. I don't read 9/11 books either, but this one just has something more beautiful and thought-provoking that it's hard to put this one with the rest of the 9/11 books.

  6. Anonymous4/02/2014

    I am more likely to read a 9/11 book than the movies and documentaries. I even have one of the movies but have never watched it. This does look like a fascinating look at the complexities of feelings and thought and I'm glad you found it praise-worthy.

  7. I really enjoyed this one too, though what you said about it not being the best novel is probably accurate... I chose it for book club after I read and loves it but even though they al said they liked it I think it had sort of a lukewarm response overall. Lots of important thinking points though!


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