Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We Built It?

In her 2011 debut novel The Submission, Amy Waldman tracks ambition and anxiety over a proposed 9/11 memorial while challenging the monopolization of grief and liberal provincialism. The selection process sparks civic controversy instead of healing when the contest's anonymous entry winner is a second generation Muslim immigrant named Mohammad Khan.

A governor-appointed jury evaluates 5,000 blueprints before Widow-in-Chief Claire Burwell persuades her peers to pick The Garden design instead of an overbearing twelve-story granite slab called The Void. Burwell pleads that The Garden will create contemplation through rubble, and when Khan's name is revealed, the hyper-liberal committee immediately backtracks. They claim Middle America would not accept his submission, in essence "othering" the guilt and ensconcing their closed-mindedness.

Khan is not religious, drinks alcohol and prematurely broke his Ramadan fast with orange juice. Like any true American, he stabs his partner in the back to propel his career and create a name for himself in the architecture field.

His name is leaked to the press and the country is forced to examine questions of public memory, Muslims within the national fabric, and balancing civil liberties with national security imperatives. Waldman's examination of Muslim belonging is especially topical considering the failed plan to build an Islamic community center in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory two blocks from Ground Zero.

The strongest prose is Waldman's dissection of murky media ethics and contradictory liberal mores. Her experience as New York Times South Asia bureau chief gave her keen insight into the ideologically and religiously divisive debates on memorialization of public space after the 2001 terrorist attempts. Waldman presents conflicting progressive views by victims whose minds approve Khan's garden design but can't go through with it in their hearts.

Although most media attention in the novel is devoted to upper class and highly-educated whites, Waldman's inclusion of a Bangladeshi immigrant named Asma who lost her spouse in the attack, voices her views at a City Hall public hearing, and is later murdered in her Brooklyn neighborhood challenges white and Christian ownership of grief. To assume all victims were well-paid and socially prominent whites is an inaccurate picture, and the author presents a more nuanced and multifaceted view.

Regardless of social class, gender, or ethnic background, all the dialogue in this novel sounds strikingly similar. Still, this is a pertinent book that challenges exclusionary views of American belonging and emphasizes the importance of space.