“[...]The attack made everyone afraid of appearing unpatriotic, of questioning government leaders. Fear has justified war, torture, secrecy, all kinds of violations of rights and liberties. Don’t let it justify taking the memorial away from Khan. Everything these past couple of years has been about abdications. Don’t succumb to the fear; don’t mistake the absolutism of Khan’s opponents for morality…” -from The Submission, page 226 -
Two years after the 9-11 tragedy, a group of jurors has been selected to choose a memorial design to occupy the space where the twin towers once stood. The jurors include art critics and one family member still reeling from the death of her husband. The submissions are anonymous to the jurors – they have only the designs and no names to make their final decision. After a contentious process, one design is finally chosen and the name of the designer is finally revealed…Mohammad Khan, an American born Muslim. Khan’s selection ignites a firestorm of protest. Should a Muslim be allowed to design this memorial which touches the hearts of so many Americans? Does one’s religion define who they are? Thus begins Amy Waldman’s provocative and deeply emotional novel.
Told in multiple points of view, The Submission takes a searing look at one of the most traumatic events in American history and examines our prejudices and fears seated in religious ideology, patriotism, and collective grief. Claire Burwell, the lone family member on the jury, is a complex character who initially fights for Khan’s design. But political pressure and media propaganda work on her emotions, making her doubt her convictions. Khan himself is an enigmatic character – a man who doubts his religion and then discovers it matters not what he believes so much as the label attached to him.
What was he trying to see? He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But he had never felt violent toward them, as he sometimes had toward that awful Verizon building on Pearl Street. Now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time. – from The Submission, page 32 -Waldman includes several engaging characters including a rabid journalist who is willing to twist the truth for a story, a power-hungry politician who finds the controversy is very good for votes, a radical anti-Islamic extremist, and a Muslim woman who is in America illegally and who is mourning her husband who worked as a janitor in the doomed towers.
This is an affecting novel which uses one question to propel its complicated plot. I found the title itself to be fascinating as it alludes to not only the design which is “the submission,” but also examines the process of judgement and the struggle for a common ground which unfurls throughout the novel. Synonyms for the word submission include: appeasement, assent, backing down, giving in, humility, resignation, and surrender. And, indeed, these are words which resonate in the story. Khan is forced to examine his motivations for submitting his design in the face of pressure to step down and give up the commission.
Waldman also explores creative inspiration. From where do our artistic renderings come? Is inspiration a simple process, or does it encompass experience, ideology and something less tangible which is difficult to define? Some characters in The Submission insist on labeling Khan’s design as anti-American and read intent where none may exist. Khan himself seems, at times, to wrestle with the origins of his work – what exactly was the inspiration?
The Submission is compelling fiction and would be a terrific book club choice. It was recently nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and I believe it deserves that nomination. Waldman writes with clarity and passion and challenges readers, especially Americans, to look deep within themselves about essential questions related to religion, politics and fear.
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