A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: 9/11 Literature
Where were you on September 11th, 2001? Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy was for a previous generation, it’s a landmark day in our shared history. I was a couple weeks into my freshman year of college and just getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate came back unexpectedly early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set on to a news station.
At that point it was completely unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls and academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. As I walked I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and ‘Big Sister’ from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear that no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our professor, too, was engrossed by the television footage being displayed onto the projector screen behind him. Overlaid onto the back of his head was a rippling montage of rubble and smoke. It was a moment in time that none of us would ever forget.
Reflections on tragedy are sometimes slow to filter through into popular culture. There is a certain hesitation: no one wants to cause offense by being too quick to pass comment; daring to speak out, especially with even moderately critical words, can be seen as insensitive. A sort of holy silence surrounds the event. But eventually, through what seems a natural progression of meditation and grieving, literature catches up with history.
Usually essays are the first responses to crop up, followed at a respectful distance (often of years) by novels. We’re still processing the Holocaust through literature, and probably always will; lately, I’ve also noticed books coming out about the December 2004 tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people in South Asia (for instance, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her parents, husband, and sons, and The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter).
Writing is one of the ways that we as the human race cope with our feelings of helplessness and loss, and the aftermath of September 11th was no different. Here are some of the works of 9/11 literature that I have found most helpful:
1. Writing in the Dust by Rowan Williams (2002)
Williams, then the Archbishop of Wales and soon to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican communion for ten years, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the ground shook and the air filled with dust and smoke, what could this man of the cloth do? The same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated the building, ensured that everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about violence, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
There is such profound wisdom in this diminutive tract (it’s not even 80 pages long) that I read it twice over. Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautions against responding in a simple spirit of retribution. We have the freedom to choose how we will react, he insists, and rather than allowing a natural vengefulness to take hold, we can look for ways of changing a culture of hatred and violence – of understanding Muslim rage and working toward peaceful solutions.
But prophets’ words are never welcome, and time has, of course, shown that Western policies of retaliation only make things worse. Still, this essay is not idealistic claptrap; it is essential reading for every citizen of a globalized society, with timely warnings about how we use language to create enemies. It is also, for those of a spiritual bent, a frank discussion of theodicy – the theological attempt to justify the ways of God to man. Can we justify God’s absence and inactivity – or is God, in fact, not the comprehensible, interventionist being we so often assume? Rather, Williams argues, “That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of Christian faith.”
Here are a few more of Williams’s inspirational words:
“We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination. The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
I can’t recommend this essay highly enough; think of it as training in how to face head-on our fear and suspicion, but then transcend them.
2. The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)
Waldman’s debut is a confident, hard-hitting contribution to the fund of post-9/11 New York stories. The Submission imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. Khan’s plan is considered placid and innocuous, at least prior to the revelation of his identity. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences, with intersecting canals lending a pleasing geometric symmetry and cypress trees and metal tree sculptures playfully blurring the boundaries between the natural and the artificial. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry.
As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines and historical tenets. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions and makes canny psychological explorations, only occasionally resorting to typecasting and stereotypes. Overall, the novel employs a sensitive approach to the inflammatory issues of religion and tolerance in post-9/11 America. Her after-the-fact prescience (if that’s not an oxymoron) works surprisingly well, and, like Jennifer Egan does at the end of A Visit from the Goon Squad, she has produced what seems an entirely plausible version of New York in the near future.
3. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)
On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice.
She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding that it live up to its democratic ideals. The end of that quote, by the way, attributed to Senator Carl Schurz in February 1872, is “if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
I’ve already featured it in my special on child narrators, but this novel is so central to 9/11 literature that I have to mention it again. Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.
Foer took some flak for this novel; some saw him cashing in on tragedy to create something consciously “important”: “Extremely Cloying & Incredibly False: Why the author of Everything Is Illuminated is a fraud and a hack,” wrote Harry Siegel of the New York Press, while the Huffington Post included him on their list of “15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” But I have always found his work to be playful, incisive, and honest. Great truth and emotion lie just under the surface of his fiction; he has an ability to cut right to the heart of what matters in life.
5. The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)
A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world. You can sample the first few pages of the title essay here.
I wonder if, like me, you find it hard to believe that we’re already 12 years on from 9/11. The images of that day are still so raw and fresh in the memory that, even a dozen years later, we’re still thinking about it as if it happened yesterday. Pain, awe, and regret remain present in equal measure.
Literature can provide a means of coping with life’s minor and major struggles, as the proponents of bibliotherapy have always known. Reading has been a perennial way for me to think about important issues and events, and September 11th is no exception. The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available for free here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] Our lives and our deaths count equally.”
I hope you’ll find one or more of these five books to be a useful companion in your thoughts this year. Let me leave you with a few more inspiring words of peace from Rowan Williams:
“This is nothing to do with excusing decisions to murder, threaten and torment, nor is it a recommendation to be passive. It is about trying to act so that something might possibly change, as opposed to acting so as to persuade ourselves that we’re not powerless.”