At the center of Amy Waldman’s beautiful novel, The Submission, lies a dilemma—a dilemma so haunting, so ironic, and so painstakingly plausible that it blurs the line between what actually happened in the fallout of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the stuff of fiction. Waldman’s first book is written with grace and guts, and accomplishes the feat of being factually fictitious, yet accurate in all the details that matter most.
Waldman, a former reporter for the New York Times, sets her story in 2003— though her book was written just before the 2011 Park51 ground zero Islamic Community Center debate and published shortly after. The author stokes a political fire by projecting what would happen if a New York jury in charge of selecting a 9/11 memorial were to choose, from among hundreds of anonymous submissions, a structural design that is created by a Muslim-American architect named Mohammed Khan.
What she imagines is a chaos that is all too familiar: the families of victims are aghast, the media descends, the Muslims defend, and the bigwigs try to compromise.
The author serves as a mediator between all parties involved. She fluidly moves from a local Bangladeshi grocery store in Brooklyn, to the ritzy martini bars of Midtown, to a quiet Chappaqua home of a widow and her two young children, as if the author, too, were leading readers down a path of stones meant to guide the lost home.
Yet Waldman proves that home is not so easy to find, particularly for Muslim-Americans, such as “Mo,” and other minority immigrants. She raises and grapples with relevant, pressing questions such as, What does it mean to be American? Who is the real enemy? And, how does a wounded nation heal and move forward? Her answers to these questions reveal the complex interconnectedness of politics, religion, and emotion.
They also reveal an aggravatingly neat and clichéd ending in which the “Other” is defeated. Such tidy conclusions are irksome in a novel, but were it a work of non-fiction they could be sadly appropriate. Paired with seemingly shallow statements such as, “The problem with Islam is Islam,” which are sprinkled throughout the text, the ending actually offers a critique: the problem with Islam isn't Islam. The problem with Islam is how it is perceived in the U.S.
Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a multi-layered, thought provoking piece of literary architecture. It is a must read in a post 9/11 world.
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