My post for Amazon’s blog: http://www.omnivoracious.com/2011/08/amy-waldman-on-the-submission.html
I was in New York on September 11, 2001, working as a reporter for The New York Times. In the days and weeks that followed, I wrote about children who had lost parents; families being notified of confirmed deaths; ashes poured into urns. Then I went overseas to cover the world’s — and our — response to the attack, notably in Afghanistan. If I thought about the tenth anniversary then, which I doubt I did, it was probably to imagine revisiting, as a journalist, some of the people and places I had written about a decade before.
Instead, I am publishing a novel, my first — one that never uses the words 9/11 or Ground Zero but that is clearly about the aftermath of the attack. It tells the story of a blind (and obviously fictional) competition to design a memorial for the victims of a terrorist attack, and the American Muslim -– Mohammad “Mo” Khan — who wins it. The suspicion of him only grows when questions arise about whether his design, a garden, is actually an Islamic paradise.
What made me turn to fiction? On the simplest level, it was having the idea for The Submission. I wanted to know how things turned out not just for Mo but also for the family members, journalists, and even fellow Muslims in conflict with him. But I also had come to feel that journalism didn’t offer the language to explore the uncomfortable questions and uneasy emotions that lingered in the years after the attack. The more we learned about Islam, the more confused we became. Who should we fear? Who should we trust? I had never thought so much about what it means to be American, what kind of country we should be, as I did in those years. And in South Asia and elsewhere, I was reporting on Muslims asking similar questions about their religion. These were parallel, if very different, identity crises, and they seemed ripe for fiction. Maybe I just wanted to be in a quieter space, where I could explore this recent, raw history without being assaulted by the din of the news, or where I could let my imaginary characters explore it for me.
It was those characters that sustained me through the nearly four years of writing the novel. Mo himself, arrogant, ambitious, and stubborn; Claire Burwell, the privileged, rational widow who battles her own doubts; Sean Gallagher, the hotheaded brother of a dead firefighter who seizes on the controversy as a chance to prove himself; and Asma Anwar, the Bangladeshi immigrant, also widowed in the attack, who experiences the controversy, like so much else, as an outsider.
I read somewhere a brief parable about a pilgrim and a gardener. The gardener asks the pilgrim what he saw on his travels; the pilgrim asks the gardener what happened in his garden while the pilgrim was away. A reporter is perhaps the ultimate pilgrim, the novelist a gardener. Each, in their own way, has news to report.