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Literature as an anti-memorial – Amy Waldman in interview

Amy Waldman’s debut novel The Submission rightfully earned its way onto numerous ‘books of the year’ lists at the end of 2011, and was shortlisted for The Guardian’s First Book Award. Waldman, also a succesful journalist, talks to TMO about the novel, 9/11  fiction, and the links between literature and journalism.

Martin Amis noted, in his article The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, published in june 2002 (in The Guardian), that on September 12 2001 ‘all the writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.’ A common perception, in the immediate aftermath of the spectacular terrorist attacks of 9/11, was that this was an event beyond the imagination – a tragedy that, had it been represented in a book or film, would not have been believable, and so to make sense of it required journalism and hard facts. The novel, as an art form, was not up to the task.

And in the more than ten years that have passed, if one takes a look at the novels or stories  produced by our ‘great men of literature’, Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown,  Updike’s The Terrorist,  or indeed Amis’s ‘The Last Days of Muhammad Atta  it’s hard to argue that they do what ‘only the novel can do’ , or that they give us greater insight or understanding into our post 9/11 world than, say, a book like Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.

Of course this is nonsense though, because if you look past the ‘great men’, you’ll find plenty of fiction writers tackling the big questions raised by the World Trade Center attacks (and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq); one of the  best ‘9/11 novels’  I’ve read, has been Amy Waldman’s The Submission – a brilliant novel (it’s a shame, in fact, to label it as simply a 9/11 novel) because it sets out not with the task of explaining things, which perhaps is better suited to journalism, but rather with the intent to explore and ask questions. It sets out with an initial ‘what if?’, based in part upon the real controversy that happened when Asian-American Artist Maya Lin won the commission to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; what if the commission for a memorial for the victims of a 9/11 style attack was won by an American Muslim? What if his design was culturally ambiguous? What if tabloid journalism and political ambition collided with this commission?  The resulting novel is a powerful exploration of the limits to liberty, freedom of expression and cultural identity – and a compelling read.

Amy Waldman was kind enough to participate in the following interview, via email

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to write The Submission? It’s a brave move, for a first-time novelist to take on a subject like the 9/11 attacks – and to take it on so directly; did you suffer any doubts during the writing, where you thought that the subject might be too big, or too emotive?

Maybe I felt free to take it on because I was a first-time novelist. I wasn’t worried about how readers would react because I had no expectation that there would be readers. But I also don’t think that any subject should be off limits for fiction or art, so it never occurred to me that the topic was too big or too risky. If part of the point of the novel was to explore and probe what it means to deem land or an event “sacred,” I couldn’t feel impinged by that sacredness myself.
The seed for the novel – the scenario of an American Muslim’s design being selected – came out of a conversation with a friend about the 9/11 memorial competition and Maya Lin’s experience as an Asian-American winning the one for Vietnam. I never thought of myself as writing a “9/11 novel” — I’m not sure writers think in those kinds of categories. And I wasn’t interested in re-creating the trauma of that day, which we have all re-experienced so many times, but looking at where it led.

Interviewing journalist novelist James Meek, we asked ‘The differencesbetween journalism and fiction-writing are obvious: one discipline requires the writer to make things up, the other precludes this. What, though, are the similarities between journalism and fiction writing?’ As a respected journalist and novelist yourself, what do you think the similarities between journalism and fiction writing are?

As a journalist turning to fiction, I was more interested in demarcating the differences between them. So first let me point out another one: in journalism, you assemble your facts and know where you are going as you write. In fiction, it worked much better for me to discover the facts as I wrote — to not try to program everything in advance. It took me a long time to find that the best writing often came from surrendering to ignorance, to plunging ahead in the dark. I also think fiction allows for far more play with language — there are non-fiction writers who do this, but they are exceptions. In fiction the form of the writing, the choice and order of words, the patterning of language, can be as important in conveying meaning as the content is.
As far as similarities, I suppose both have the capacity to take you inside unfamiliar worlds, to alter or enlarge your understanding of the human experience. The best journalism often reads like a novel, although I don’t think the converse is true.

I am, for want of a better word, a liberal, and I loved the book because although it pokes fun at liberals the underlying narrative, it seems to me, was exactly that – liberal. Do you think that’s a fair judgement , and how do you think more conservative (and in particular, conservative American) readers react to the book?

I avoid characterizing the politics of the book, because I think almost any characterization becomes an oversimplification, but also because I don’t want to color or prescribe readers’ responses. That said, I am probably a liberal myself, but one very interested in the limits of liberalism — why it has failed to connect with so many Americans, for example, which the book partly explores. And I am interested in the friction between political beliefs or abstractions and human behavior — hence the character of Mohammad Khan, whose recalcitrance and ambition, among other qualities, have proved very frustrating to liberals who want to sympathize with him.

From the title of the novel through to the rich metaphors found on almost every page, it’s clear that you weren’t just interested in telling a story, but also in the way that story gets told. How important is language to you as a writer?

Very important. Partly because, selfishly, that’s where so much of the pleasure of writing comes from. And I hope the pleasure of reading as well. But also because so much of the power of fiction comes through the inventiveness of the language. In lanugage is voice, in voice a way to convey the singularity of an individual. At its best, the rhythms of language have the power of music and the force of poetry, in which allusion, repetition, absence, work at an almost subconscious level.
I am as prone to cliché as any writer, but when a cliché comes into my head I love to somehow twist it, make it new — and that seems a kind of allegory for the way fiction can make you see the ordinary anew, or question the commonplace, or even the very nature of reality.

One of the central dramas of the book is Mohammed’s refusal to clarify his design and intentions, and it’s something that you seem to respect, in the sense that while there are indications of what he thinks you never force the issue, or let the readers have a complete inside track on it. It seems to me (and we asked novelist Tim Winton a similar question) that the novel as an artistic form is particularly suited to presenting mystery and doubt, in a way that film for example can not – would you agree?

Absolutely, although I wouldn’t agree that film doesn’t have similar power of mystery — I just think it functions in different ways. It took me a while to learn and respect the power of mystery — I had been so accustomed, as a journalist, to explicating everything. A lot of the rewriting I did with The Submission was stripping away, paring down, especially the interiority of the characters. With Mo in particular I came to believe a certain amount of mystery was essential, because in a novel partly about trust, it allows, or forces, the reader to enact the central drama of the book — to decide if they do or don’t trust Mo, and why. I was also interested in the idea of hollow secrets: the way, for complex reasons, we sometimes hide benign facts or truths, and the consequences of doing so. There are things in the book that are mysteries even to me.

Another impressive feature of the novel is how well you treat the ensemble of characters – creating a group of fully fleshed out people, not just placeholders for the various political positions surrounding the controversy. How do you view your characters? If we were to take a sporting metaphor, would you consider yourself more a fan (cheering them on), or a referee imposing rules neutrally? For example, did you have a favourite out of the characters?

Each character was a favorite at the time I was working on their particular sections, which I suppose makes me a fickle fan. I felt like my job as a novelist was to be fair to all of them and how they saw the world, this particular situation. I’ve had some readers express frustration because they felt like none of the characters (except maybe Asma) were likable. I’ve never sought or even noticed whether characters in the fiction I read were likable or not – I only care whether they are interesting, persuasive. Looking back, I think some characters are more successful than others, and it’s useful for me, thinking about my next novel, to consider why — that I probably did feel differently about them as I was writing, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Let’s talk a little bit about the ending, without giving things away! Again it’s an interesting and brave choice, to jump into the future – given that the novel is very much rooted in our current time; When you wrote ‘The country had moved on, self-corrected, as it always did, that feverish time mostly forgotten”, was it a hope or a conviction?

So much of the novel is set in such a compressed, feverish time, in which the characters are trapped. I wanted, at the end, to step out of that, and explore how time would and would not shift their perspectives. And to allow regret, or at least a sort of ruefulness, to seep in, which it inevitably does as we age. It’s an ending about loss — the first, most devasating, which gave rise to the novel and the events in it; but also was what lost – or thrown away — by all of the characters in the wake of that initial loss. There’s some redemption in the ending, but not a lot, and that has seemed the harder choice for some readers. It’s made me realize we want from fiction the happy, neat endings that so often elude us in life; I wanted an ending that felt more like life.
When it comes to America, I’m both a realist and an optimist. We continually go through phases where we try to narrow the definition of American, to exclude one group or another. And yet ultimately the idea of America – that anyone can belong, that it belongs to everyone – triumphs. I have no reason to believe this case will be any different. I’ve had a lot of readers focus on the time frame – that 20 years from the attack everything will be fine. I write fiction, not punditry, so I would argue against an overly literal reading! I do think it will happen with time.

How important do you think art and literature are to that process of moving on, of self-correcting? Ten years on from 9/11 what do you think of the artistic reaction, in terms of literature in particular?

I sometimes think of literature as an anti-memorial. Actual memorials frame not just absence, but history itself — in the case of 9/11, the memorial puts a frame around that day. I wanted to break that frame, to link what happened to what came after, and I do think that’s important to moving on, to the extent we ever can. I met with a Muslim book club not long ago, and they were talking about what kind of political actions they could take to improve the image of Muslims or lessen some of the suspicion. A young film-maker spoke up and said she thought the best response was a cultural one, and I agree. You can’t tell people how to think; but art can make them think about how they think.
I do think the search for the great post-9/11 novel, the War and Peace of our time, is perhaps misguided. There aren’t many Tolstoys walking among us, but also whatever literary responses emerge will be unexpected and original, as War and Peace was for its time. (Among the most powerful post 9/11 works I saw was the documentary “Man on Wire,” which isn’t about 9/11 at all. Gerhard Richter’s painting “September” I also find very powerful — at first glance it looks almost idyllic, until you realize what it is.) There will be a body of literature in response; it’s entirely possible that the whole will be more interesting or significant than the individual parts. I haven’t read many of the “9/11” books, and some of those given that moniker don’t wrestle with it in particularly interesting ways (which doesn’t mean they are not very good books for other reasons.) It’s possible as writers we need more distance; as a country I feel like we are still in the aftermath, partly because we are still at war, and partly because at home we’ve come to take the legal and political response for granted — we no longer see the compromises we’ve made.

The Irish writer Colm McCann in an interview with Rumpus magazine said “Every novel is a failure. You can never achieve what you truly want to achieve. That thing you dreamt on the riverbank is never the thing you achieve when you are back at the writing table.” As a novelist would you agree?

I do. There’s something heartbreaking – tragic! — about the whole process, the impossibility of building the perfect bridge from what’s in your head to what’s on the page. It’s like Jude in Jude the Obscure seeing these glimmering cities in the distance, then having them always disappoint when he arrives. My next novel is a city in my head – beautiful and perfect — so I’m destined to be disappointed. The only thing I tell myself is that readers have no access to my head — they will have only what is on the page. They may be disappointed, but likely for different reasons than me.

Three Monkeys is always curious about what kind of writers other writers read, so can we ask you about who some of your favourite writers are, and why?

My range is pretty wide, or scattered — Jospeh Conrad; Graham Greene; Joan Didion; W.G. Sebald; Alice Munro; Jane Austen; Wallace Stevens; Emily Dickinson. Katherine Boo, a journalist who writes like every novelist wishes she could.

Finally, what plans for the future? Is there another book in the works?

Yes, I am working on another novel, for which I am reading and making notes. It broadly has to do with the nature of memory and memoir; lies in war and marriage; and our involvement in Afghanistan.

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