This interview, by Eve Gerber, first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen, and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.
Amy Waldman reported for The New York Times for eight years. She won an Overseas Press Club Award for her work from South Asia and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the “Portraits of Grief” series. She was also a correspondent for The Atlantic. Waldman is a graduate of Yale and was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. The Financial Times called her first novel, The Submission, “the best 9/11 novel to date.”
The Submission, your kaleidoscopic novel about post-9/11 life in New York was informed by your work for The New York Times in the wake of attacks. Please tell us about the experience of reporting on the aftermath of that awful morning.
I spent about six weeks in New York reporting on different aspects of the aftermath—a whole range of stories including ones about children who lost parents, families being notified of confirmed deaths, people sorting through the debris and “Portraits of Grief.” Then, after that, I went abroad to report—first from Afghanistan.
Although you contributed to the “Portraits of Grief” series—part of “A Nation Challenged," which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service—profiling each of the people that died at the World Trade Center, you said you didn’t look back at it while writing The Submission. Why?
As a novelist, I didn’t want to raid details of people’s lives for material. But also, as a reporter, I felt ambivalent about the “Portraits of Grief." The word count left no room for complexity. The project made me ask, how do you avoid reducing the dead to thumbnail profiles? People are much more complicated than can be represented through daily journalism. They deserve to be portrayed and remembered in all their fullness.
What else made you decide to filter the experiences of 9/11 through fiction?
After the attacks, I was constantly shifting perspectives. Reporting from New York was a very intense experience and then suddenly I went overseas to Afghanistan and a lot of other Muslim countries. It was hard to relay competing perspective in an article. And as journalists we look for differences—differences between countries, cultures, classes, and communities. We’re very sensitized to difference, but it’s much harder to write about similarities across countries, cultures, classes, and communities. I felt that was something that could never be captured in nonfiction or in journalism.
Also, I was interested in exploring ambivalence through fiction. As a reporter you tend to seek coherence from your subject or your source—it all needs to add up and make sense. In truth, in reality, there’s often a great deal of murkiness and muddiness, confusion and contradiction.
I felt drawn to explore through fiction the different perspectives and deeper truths of the attack’s aftermath but, on the most literal level, the reason I decided to write the book was because the scenario just occurred to me in 2003. I was talking about the September 11 Memorial competition, which was ultimately won by Israeli-American Michael Arad, with an artist friend who mentioned that the backlash against the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was partially fueled by the fact that the designer, Maya Lin—who was selected through a blind competition—was an American of Asian descent. That got me thinking about what would ensue if there was an anonymous competition to design a memorial for 9/11 and the winner turned out to be an American Muslim. That’s how I got the idea, more than five years before the controversy over the construction of an Islamic community center close to Ground Zero.
Now to the books of others. I read that, according to Bowker’s Books in Print database, more than 150 works of fiction and nearly 1,500 works of nonfiction have been written that draw their subject matter from 9/11. Of those, you’ve chosen three novels, a memoir and a collection of poetry.
I wanted this list to replicate the multiple perspectives of my novel—Marian Fontana’s memoir gives you a look at loss and attempted recovery; Galway Kinnell’s poems channel our collective horror and grief and place 9/11 in historical context; Harbor uses plot to make us rethink where the emotions of 9/11 led us; Hamid and Cole, both of whose narrators are, in some sense, outsiders, cast a complicating eye on 9/11’s implications. If you read all these works you’ll be pulled from one point of view to another.
Harbor by Lorraine Adams
Harbor is a beautifully written book about a group of illegal Algerian immigrants in the US, indelible characters. It cuts back and forth between Algeria and the U.S., telling the story of what their lives are like as they come under suspicion of being part of a terror plot.
I consider it a 9/11 novel for a few reasons. It’s a great portrayal of how we often look for terror in the wrong places. Its plot shows how its characters get caught up in the terror dragnet. Partway through, the perspective shifts to the federal agents investigating them. Suddenly seeing things through their eyes allows us to understand how we misread others.
Adams once reported from Algeria for The Washington Post, where she was a working journalist for many years. It seems like both of you are able to exercise the empathetic imagination that made you good reporters to create great fiction.
What enabled both of us to be reporters is this driving desire to get inside a culture or a community or a person’s mind. Fiction allowed us to go deeper.
The Reluctant Fundamentalistby Mohsin Hamid
Let’s talk about your next selection, which also concerns how life changed for Muslims in post-9/11 America. But the protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist starts his American life in Princeton, instead of in Boston Harbor.
You’re right—the protagonist has a completely different profile from the humble one in Harbor. Changez is from a prestigious Pakistani family, but one without a lot of money. He comes to the United States to attend Princeton on a scholarship and then is recruited into the corporate world. The whole novel is a monologue. This character, in a café in Lahore, is talking to an unidentified American, telling his story about the life he led in the United States. How he was enamored of New York, yet smiled as the towers fell and grew even more embittered toward America in the wake of the attacks. The structure is original and well executed.
It’s a window on the conflicted feelings that I encountered in reporting about America, at home and aboard—and what they grow out of. At the same time, it raises questions in the reader’s mind about who should be suspicious of whom and why.
The author of this book recently told the BBC, “Fiction re-complicates what politicians wish to oversimplify.” Do you agree, and is that why you were drawn to fiction?
Definitely. A lot of political discourse is designed to force simple answers where there are none, or force people to take stark positions. In The Submission I wanted to re-complicate reactions to 9/11 so that even if you think you know what you think you still might find yourself switching your point of view.
To continue reading the interview with Amy Waldman about her favorite books on 9/11, visit The Browser.