The Fraught, Fictional Road To A Sept. 11 Memorial Amy Waldman's new novel, The Submission, centers on an anonymous competition to pick the design for a Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero — and the furor that erupts when it's revealed that the winning designer is an American Muslim.
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The Fraught, Fictional Road To A Sept. 11 Memorial

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The Fraught, Fictional Road To A Sept. 11 Memorial

The Fraught, Fictional Road To A Sept. 11 Memorial

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. The new novel "The Submission" centers on post-9/11 America. It's about an anonymous competition to pick the design for a memorial at ground zero, and the furor that erupts when it's revealed the designer is Muslim-American.

The novelist is Amy Waldman. She's a former New York Times reporter who covered 9/11 in New York and afterward, was based in South Asia. Here she is, reading from her novel the description of the winning memorial design.

AMY WALDMAN: (Reading) The concept was simple. A walled, rectangular garden guided by rigorous geometry. At the center would be a raised pavilion meant for contemplation. Two broad, perpendicular canals quartered the six-acre space. Pathways within each quadrant imposed a grid on the trees, both living and steel, that were studded in orchard-like rows.

BLOCK: That design was created by the character Mohammad Khan, an architect, a non-observant Muslim, an agnostic. Born in the U.S.A., he goes by the name Mo. And yet when the jury choosing the memorial discovers his identity, he faces intense pressure from all sides to explain his design, and to denounce the terrorist attacks.

As Amy Waldman explains, Khan stubbornly refuses to respond.

WALDMAN: From his point of view, he keeps saying he would never ask these questions of a designer who wasn't Muslim, so why should I have to answer these questions? I refuse to accept that I should be treated any differently than anybody else. I had nothing to do with these attacks. I'm not going to answer the questions.

From some of the jurors and from many Americans, they're coming back at him and saying, things changed with this attack and you do have to answer these questions. You do have to reassure us. And if you think these attacks were wrong, why won't you come out and say so?

BLOCK: There's also a building pressure on Mohammad Khan to withdraw; to say OK, I take myself out of this competition.

WALDMAN: Mm-hmm. Yes. There are a lot of people who take that position, including people very close to him and including some Muslim-Americans who say, this isn't good for us. We don't need this right now. We have sort of fought so hard to a place of normalcy or acceptability in the wake of this attack. The last thing we need is another controversy. So you know, if you really care about us, you should withdraw.

BLOCK: You know, this does sound a lot like the recent fight over what became known as the ground zero mosque in Manhattan, but the timing seems wrong for that. You would have had to have been working on this book for some time before that happened.

WALDMAN: Oh, yes. Yes. I was working on it well before that. I had the idea initially in 2003 or '04, and started working on it probably in 2007. It definitely put an interesting spin on things. I went back and did some rewriting only because the book certainly plays off reality, and I have no problem with that, but I didn't want it to feel like a transcription of reality.

BLOCK: What were some things that you decided you needed to rewrite, given what you were learning?

WALDMAN: Watching the sort of way that blew up and the kind of craziness, I think it opened out my imagination in the sense of thinking there were certain events in the book that were not in there before this happened.

The specter of violence was not in the book as much from both sides or all sides, but I think just the way that kind of crept up around that controversy, and the controversy that sort of bubbled up around the country. You know, the taxi driver who was stabbed in New York; there were desecrations at mosques; there were also threats from Islamic extremists. All of that kind of stuff, or the fear of threats, I started thinking about that more. And that found its way more strongly into the novel.

BLOCK: What questions about sort of the discussion, the debate in America right now, do you think you're trying to get at with this novel?

WALDMAN: I think in the wake of 9/11, like a lot of Americans, you know, we were all very traumatized by the attacks, traumatized in a totally different way by some of what happened afterward in response. And I think there have been these questions hovering in the past decade of, what kind of country are we? Who are we? What are we justified in changing because of this? What does it mean to be America, an American today?

And then looking specifically at Mohammad Khan even, who is an American - and so those kinds of questions were what I was interested in exploring.

BLOCK: And this conflict you're describing escalates well beyond this architect and this design for the memorial. There's a group that springs up, called Save America from Islam. There are incidents of headscarf pulling - people ripping headscarves off of Muslim women, and Muslim self-defense patrols that spring up. How did you start thinking about a scenario like that?

WALDMAN: Well, I just started thinking the way - in public controversies like this, one thing leads to another, leads to another and suddenly, it's out of control in ways nobody could predict or necessarily wanted. And some of that is fed by the media, but some of it is just individuals reacting and acting. And that's an entirely separate thread I was really interested in exploring in the novel.

I mean, if you look at this character of Sean Gallagher, whose brother was a firefighter who died in this attack, and he's become an activist but is also a little bit trying to find his feet in the world. And he really just pulls this headscarf out of impulse and rage, and all these conflicting feelings and frustration going on in him.

And it just unleashes all these copycats, and then the self-defense squads in response. And I think that is - I'm interested in how these things spiral and change through time.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Amy Waldman about her novel, "The Submission." How delicate a dance was it for you to talk about victims' families, and the competing pressures among the families in that community?

WALDMAN: It was delicate. You know, I didn't seek out victims' families and someone to talk to, probably because I didn't feel right asking them to offer up their experience for a novel. But also, I didn't want to be sitting there worrying, would they like this? Would they not like this? Would they be offended? Is this true to their experience? That would paralyze me as a fiction writer.

And I think, you know, if you look at the last 10 years, they are not a monolith, either. I mean, there are all kinds of opinions, all kinds of politics. They're human beings, like anybody else, and they've all reacted to this event and everything that's come afterward in very different ways. And I felt like it was honest to try to represent that.

BLOCK: Hmm. You know, coming up on the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and there will be the unveiling, the opening of the memorial at ground zero, I wonder if you'll sort of process that in a whole different way, given your immersion in this novel.

WALDMAN: I think I will. Somebody just asked me where I was planning to be on 9/11. And I hadn't thought about it, but I do know I want to be in New York.

And it's strange. I mean, the whole way the novel is sort of braided with reality, I think, will climax in some strange way, in seeing that memorial open. So yeah, it will be an interesting time for many reasons.

BLOCK: Amy Waldman, and her novel is titled "The Submission." Amy, thanks very much.

WALDMAN: Thank you, Melissa.

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