About The Author
Amy Waldman was co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in The Atlantic and the Boston Review and is anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. She lives with her family in Brooklyn. The Submission is her first novel. Bound to spark debate and controversy, her timely novel looks at what happens when the winner of an anonymously entered competition to build a memorial on the 9/11 site is found to be an enigmatic Muslim-American architect, Mohammad Khan, who feels no need to speak for those who share his faith, or to represent the beliefs of anyone but himself. The ensuing public and media fallout rips open racial and religious wounds that have not been mended, only mutually ignored, and the stage is set for a very bitter, very public conflict. We talked to Amy about religious intolerance, the healing process and the pleasures of reading and writing fiction.
Questions & Answers
The memorial garden and fountains at the World Trade Center are just about to open to the public - but at what point in the process did you first get the idea for your book? Was it in direct response to the overturning of the first choice of the tower's designer in favour of Daniel Liebeskind?
I had the idea for my book in late 2003, which was roughly around the time the 9/11 memorial competition was underway. An artist friend and I were talking about that competition and others, including Maya Lin's selection as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial many years earlier. One aspect of the controversy then was her being Asian-American, which got me thinking: what would be the equivalent for 9/11? The answer, obviously, was an American Muslim winning, and the idea for The Submission was born.
Michael Arad, who designed the cascades and gardens in the plaza, has said that 'public spaces are the glue that binds society together' - but was it inevitable that the debate over what should happen to the site would tear people apart - both in your novel and in reality?
I would probably amend his quote to say that public spaces may bind society together, but only after the debates over them tear society apart. The memorial historian James Young put it well: "All memorial processes are exercises in disunity, even as they strive to unify memory." This is particularly so as the idea of what a memorial is meant to do becomes ever more contested, and there are so many competing constituencies laying claim to the site, whether grieving family members or traumatized neighbors or businessmen.
Do you think the 'new, ominous strain of intolerance in the land' that one of your characters describes in the book has retreated at all? Do you think it faces a resurgence as the anniversary of the attacks approaches?
That strain was certainly very strong in the U.S. last summer, when the controversy around the proposed mosque near Ground Zero exploded, but it seems much more subdued now. It's hard to know what will happen in the next month, but the mood now seems more reflective and contemplative.
Claire bemoans the fact that Picasso 'was so horrible', whereas her husband Cal maintains that 'you should judge the paintings as works of art, and Picasso as a man'. Was Mo Khan right not to try to engage with the American public, to justify or ingratiate himself, or do you think the situation demanded that he should?
I'm a big believer that so much of the pleasure of fiction comes from readers being able to, in essence, complete the work themselves --- using their own imaginations to fill in missing pieces or explain mysteries; using their own minds to answer questions like the one you pose. In many ways, it's the question at the heart of the novel, and I want to allow readers to decide for themselves.
The tabloid reporter, the opportunistic governor, zealots... practically no one comes out of this novel too well. Only Asma, a 9/11 widow struggling to raise her son in a foreign land, seems to have some kind of moral purity. Do you think there is more to despair of than to hope for?
Actually I'm a fairly hopeful person, and hopeful about America. But this has been a difficult period in our history, and the initial sense that 9/11 brought us together, and brought out the best in us, yielded to a more complicated reality over the past decade. The novel probably reflects a certain sadness at that.
You have a distinguished career as a journalist. What made you turn to fiction?
It was really this particular idea --- otherwise I don't think I would have had the nerve to try a novel! And for all the words I and other journalists and commentators wrote after 9/11, I did feel that there were aspects of it that could only be addressed, or maybe best addressed, through art. Once I started writing The Submission, I couldn't stop. It was very freeing and exhilarating to write fiction after adhering to the facts for so many years!
You have already published some short stories. Which form do you think you will adopt in the future - or does it depend on the subject?
I have an idea for another novel, and that's what I will work on next, probably with some short stories and pieces of journalism woven in for relief.