The Books Interview: Amy Waldman

The author of The Submission talks about the 9/11 novel.

In Amy Waldman's novel "The Submission", the members of a jury convened to select a memorial to the victims of the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001 discover that the architect of the winning scheme is a Muslim. The novel uses the controversy aroused by that choice to examine what became of America, and America's sense of itself, in the decade following 9/11. On Friday, I spoke to Amy Waldman on the phone from New York.

You've said that you came to feel that journalism didn't offer the language to explore uncomfortable questions and emotions that lingered in the years after the attack. Why turn to fiction?

Fiction just has a lot more room for ambivalence and internal conflict, contradiction, and for me that sums up so much of what people felt after 9/11 - confusion even. And I think that's hard to capture in journalism.

But that ambivalence didn't really make it into public discourse in the immediate aftermath of the attack did it?

No, and I think in general it rarely does because people want to present coherent selves and want to draw coherent answers. And so it's just not a form that lends itself to that.

Was it always your plan to have the story told in the novel from multiple perspectives?

It was my plan from the beginning. After 9/11 I had an atypical and unusual experience in being sort of catapulted from perspective to perspective. I was in New York for six weeks after 9/11, reporting for the New York Times very intensely on the aftermath and the grief and all of that, and then suddenly I was overseas in places like Afghanistan, where your perspective broadens out to include from how we as a country were reacting to it to the cost of the war we were waging.

I had a sense very early on of the victims' families containing so many perspectives, even though they were often talked about as a monolith. And so, it felt like it was something that fiction could do. And it is a moral choice in the sense that I know many readers, just like writers, have have many positions or preconceptions, but I wanted to try to force people outside of that pre-existing position and to inhabit, however briefly, these different perspectives.

There are moments in the novel when ambivalence itself becomes an explicit theme: for example when you show liberal New Yorkers wrestling with some fairly atavistic feelings towards Muslims and towards Islam in general - feelings they were uncomfortable admitting to having.

I knew from the beginning that that was something I wanted to capture, probably because it was so much of what I encountered. I finished finish a full draft of the novel before the controversy last year around the proposed mosque or community centre near Ground Zero, but I definitely did quite a bit of work on it after that. The most surprising thing was not the virulent opposition to the project but talking to liberal friends who, one minute, were saying "of course they have the right to build it there", and in the next conversation were saying "But I kind of just wish they wouldn't, it would make me uncomfortable" or "But maybe it would be better if they moved it 12 blocks away". And often they didn't even recognise those were contradictions.

In the novel you use a fictitious New Yorker comment piece to articulate that ambivalence.

I was very interested in the New Yorker and the Iraq War and the internal wrestling that you could see going on. I think when the editor came out for the Iraq War it was really interesting because there'd been so much of that back and forth, what I call "switch back" in the book. There's the idea of who and what we think we should support and what we find ourselves believing and supporting. That whole internal mental process was what I was trying to capture.

You mentioned in the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque. When that blew up, how did you feel? You said you'd finished a draft of the novel already. There's the famous Philip Roth line about the American actuality always outdoing what you can do as a as a novelist . . .

I definitely felt some of that! For me, it was ironic, if that's the right word, to have left journalism to go to fiction only to find myself overtaken by reality. On one hand I felt prescient, and more just that the novel was touching on what was a very live nerve in American society. For a couple of years before, I actually had started to doubt if it would really be big deal if this guy won. But when the Ground Zero mosque controversy exploded, I thought, "no, I'm right". And I think seeing that, it just gave me a much more vivid sense of the way something would play out.

Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times review of The Submission said it's as if you "had embraced Tom Wolfe's famous call for a new social realism", but that seems to get things the wrong way around. It wasn't as if you were thinking the novel has to match up to reality, but rather that you were going to the novel for resources that you couldn't find in straightforward journalistic prose.

Yes, that's exactly right. That Tom Wolfe thing has been invoked so often and I'm sure that on some level I'm influenced by him. But it was more about actually how to write away from reality, or spin-off it somehow, to make us see it in a different way.

We talked about your decision to make this a multiple-perspective novel. Did you find some perpsectives more difficult to write from than others?

I'd say I found them all fairly difficult. They were all so different from me and so were very challenging. The one that took the longest to get right was Sean Gallagher, the brother [of one of the victims]. Figuring out who he was just happened in the writing. He would do something in a scene I wasn't expecting and that eventually became his nature. But in moving beyond the political position to the actual human being, he took the most work.

I guess the difficulty there, and this must have been true of all the central characters, is to avoid writing just a type.

Or an ideology. With Sean, it was a matter of figuring out as a person what made him tick, what was he battling against, and once I got to that place he was to me more satisfying than almost any of the other characters - because it was so hard to get to that place.

You've spoken about the Ground Zero Mosque; what about the 9/11 memorial?

To be honest I can't evaluate it as a memorial until I visit it, which I haven't done yet. Just because I think looking at drawings, it's impossible to tell what it's like to experience it. I am interested in our ever-growing instinct to memorialise on an ever grander scale. This idea of epic memorials - I'm not sure how I feel about that or what's driving it. So that complicates my feelings about this memorial. Just the very idea of it I haven't quite wrapped my mind around.

You allude to this in the novel - the fact that, since Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial, there's been this settled visual grammar of memorialisation.

It's really interesting to me. In Germany, you have a huge official memorial to the murdered Jews and then you have this artist who's been putting these stumbling blocks, these brass cobblestones, outside the houses Jews were taken away from. It's somewhat controversial and has met some resistance. And I think part of that is that we like having the memorial geographically confined in place you go to, leave and then forget about. But this, the cobblestones, you're always tripping over it. And so you can't stop thinking about it.

Where were you on 9/11?

I had just gotten to the New York Times building and was in the lobby. People were saying a plane had hit the World Trade Centre. By the time I got upstairs the second plane had hit. That whole day I was in the building taking reports from people who were down there.

After 9/11 you were dispatched by the paper to South Asia weren't you?

They were sending people overseas to gauge the reaction to the attacks in different countries. I went to Iran. Then I was told by me editor to cross the border into Afghanistan, which I did. I spent quite a bit of time there and then was posted to Delhi for three years.

How do you think the 10th anniversary of the attacks will unfold? It's taking place, after all, in a fairly tense and toxic political atmosphere, what with the rise of the Tea Party and so on.

I have to say I'm not a big anniversary person and by now the coverage is so excessive that I feel it's enough already. Some of it is just the media going into overdrive - politicians as well. Someone yesterday used the phrase "commemoration machine", but I don't know who created the machine or who's driving it. I do feel that there's this yearning to go back to that time because things were so clear. Right and wrong were very clear, our victimhood was very clear. A lot of things have a gotten a lot murkier in the subsequent decade. I keep encountering this nostalgia for that time ("there was so much unity" and so on), but when I think of that time, all I think about is horror. This weird yearning to go back to that moment says something about how uncomfortable we are with everything that happened afterwards.

That unity was shortlived wasn't it?

It was broken by the fight over the Iraq war. I was in the car yesterday listening to the radio and it was non-stop 9/11. I thought: "this is too much". I'm all for remembering the people who died, but it's too much.

How many 9/11 novels have you read? Did you read any 9/11 novels before you started writing your own?

I read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, I read Joseph O'Neill's Netherland - but to me, they're not 9/11 novels. In The Emperor's Children, 9/11 felt to me like a piece of the plot; the novel wasn't wrestling with what 9/11 meant. And Netherland felt the same way. I liked both books a lot but I don't see them as 9/11 novels. In any case, my interest [when writing The Submission] was not in the day itself but in the aftermath, our [America's] trying to figure out who we are. So I didn't read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I didn't read DeLillo's Falling Man.

It's interesting that you question whether a novel like The Emperor's Children counts as a 9/11 novel. The haste with critics label a book a "9/11 novel" is significant and interesting in itself isn't it?

Yeah. People make fun of me for saying this, but when I was working on my book I wasn't thinking of it as a 9/11 novel. I don't think writers think in those categories - you don't sit down and say, "here's my contribution to the 9/11 novel". I don't know why critics are so eager to label things in that way.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.