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Submission (Waldman)

The Submission
Amy Waldman, 2011
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781250007575


Summary
Reimagining 9/11 and its aftermath, Amy Waldman's provocative novel begins with a resonant scene: a jury gathers in Manhattan to choose a memorial for the victims of a devastating Islamic terrorist attack. After tense deliberations, they select the Garden, which features trees both living and made from salvaged steel. Then the jury discovers that the anonymous architect who created the winning design is an American Muslim.

The revelation triggers both fury and ambivalence throughout New York, making the designer the staunchly independent Mohammed "Mo" Khan a symbol of beliefs that seem foreign to him. His most visible defender is Claire Harwell, the only member of the selection committee who lost a loved one in the attack. Cool and eloquent, Claire grows increasingly frustrated by Mo as he stubbornly refuses to answer concerns about the origins or meaning of his design.

At the helm of the memorial project is Paul Rubin, a grandson of Jewish peasants who has risen to a position of influence and wealth. Paul's idea of America is rooted in tolerance, but he must also take into account the emotions of outraged, grieving family members who want him to quash Mo's design. Within the crowds, two powerful voices come to dominate the debate: the widow of an undocumented worker who cleaned offices champions Mo's design, while the brother of a fallen firefighter calls it the worst kind of disrespect.

As the emotional rhetoric escalates, The Submission becomes a mesmerizing meditation on the human experience. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Amy Waldman was a reporter for The New York Times for eight years. She spent three years as co-chief of the South Asia bureau after covering Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the aftermath of 9/11. She was also a national correspondent for the Atlantic, where her stories included this look at Islam in the courts.

She has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and at the American Academy in Berlin. Her fiction has appeared in the Boston Review and the Atlantic, and was anthologized in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2010. She lives with her family in Brooklyn. (From the author's website.)



Book Reviews
[N]ervy and absorbing…Writing in limber, detailed prose, Ms. Waldman has created a choral novel with a big historical backdrop and pointillist emotional detail, a novel that gives the reader a visceral understanding of how New York City and the country at large reacted to 9/11, and how that terrible day affected some Americans' attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


With the keen and expert eye of an excellent journalist, Waldman provides telling portraits of all the drama's major players, deftly exposing their foibles and their mutual manipulations. And she has a sense of humor: the novel is punctuated with darkly comic details…Elegantly written and tightly plotted, The Submission ultimately remains a novel about the unfolding of a dramatic situation—a historian's novel…lucid, illuminating and entertaining.
Claire Messud - New York Times Book Review


[A] coherent, timely and fascinating examination of a grieving America's relationship with itself. Waldman…excels at involving the reader in vibrant dialogues in which the level of the debate is high and the consequences significant.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Waldman imagines a toxic brew of bigotry in conflict with idealism in this frighteningly plausible and tightly wound account of what might happen if a Muslim architect had won a contest to design a memorial at the World Trade Center site. Jury member and 9/11 widow Claire Burwell presses for the winning garden design both before and after its creator is revealed as Mohammed "Mo" Khan, an American-born and raised architect who becomes embroiled in the growing furor between those who see the garden as a symbol of tolerance and peace, and various activists who claim patriotism as they spew anti-Islamic diatribes. Waldman keenly focuses on political and social variables, including an opportunistic governor who abets the outbreak of xenophobia; the wealthy chairman of the contest, maneuvering for social cachet; a group of zealots whose obsession with radical Islam foments violence; a beautiful Iranian-American lawyer who becomes Mo's lover until he refuses to become a mouthpiece; and a trouble-sowing tabloid reporter. Meanwhile, Mo refuses to demean himself by explaining the source of his design, seen by some as an Islamic martyr's paradise. As misguided outrage flows from all corners, Waldman addresses with a refreshing frankness thorny moral questions and ethical ironies without resorting to breathless hyperbole. True, there are more blowhards than heroes, but that just makes it all the more real.
Publishers Weekly


Ten years after 9/11, writing about the attacks without seeming to exploit them can still be a challenge. Debut novelist Waldman takes an effective approach by imagining a search for a fitting memorial that ends up revealing the divisions underlying American society. A member of the jury choosing the memorial, Claire—who lost her husband on 9/11 and now finds herself cast as a "star widow"—champions a garden whose walls contain the names of the dead. The design wins, the anonymous submission is opened, and the architect is revealed to be Muslim American—born here, hardly a practitioner of his faith, and not ready to fall into the role of the enemy. At first glance, Waldman's tale unfolds in fluid, accessible language, and the issues raised here will deeply engage readers.
Library Journal


The selection of a Muslim architect for a 9/11 memorial stirs a media circus in Waldman's poised and commanding debut novel.... Waldman's book reflects a much-needed understanding of American paranoia in the post-9/11 world.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What do you think the purpose and message of a national memorial should be? Would you have voted for the Void or the Garden?

2. Reread the epigraph. What do its words suggest about the relationship between nature and human nature?

3. As Claire tries to explain the tragedy to William (and, in a way, to Penelope), what does she discover about her own beliefs and feelings?

4. Mo is under considerable pressure to give the "right" reasons when asked why he entered the competition, but he defies simplistic answers. What does his design communicate on its own? For any creative work including novels should the author's biography matter to us? Do you think he was obligated to explain himself and his design? Why or why not?

5. Chapter 16 begins with a depiction of Mo's hunger and thirst during Ramadan. We're told, "The truth was he didn't know why he was doing it." How does it affect him, a secular skeptic, to join Muslims worldwide in observing the fast?

6. How did your reactions shift as Sean's story unfolded, especially as he struggled with conflicting feelings after pulling Zahira's scarf? Is bigotry excusable if it's coming from someone whose loved one was the victim of a horrific crime? What are the limits of a survivor's rights?

7. Asma's memories of Inam are her private inheritance, and she must rely on translators to convey her messages in English. Did anyone in the novel have a truly accurate understanding of her suffering? How was her mourning experience different from Claire's and Sean's? What common emotions do all of the novel's survivors share?

8. Many of the characters desperately want someone to blame for their loss. The final line of chapter 22, referring to Alyssa, reads, "She is responsible." Ultimately, who is responsible for the tragedies depicted in the novel?

9. What would you have done in Paul Rubin's situation? Was it courageous or insensitive of him to permit Mo's submission to move forward?

10. A journalist, Amy Waldman had special insight into Alyssa's world. What does the novel tell us about the role of the media (exploited by all parties involved) and the impact of a free press in the information age?

11. How does Claire's sense of self change when Jack reappears in her life? Did Cal, despite his wealth, cost her an important part of her identity?

12. Discuss the novel's title. To what (and to whom) must the characters submit? Who are the novel's most and least submissive characters?

13. An uproar erupted in 2010 when Park51, a community center housing a mosque, was proposed for construction two blocks from Ground Zero. What does this conflict and the one described in The Submission suggest about how 9/11 might have transformed American society? (Note: Amy Waldman began writing The Submission several years before Park51 was announced.)

14. What makes fiction a powerful way to explore events that shaped our lives? What can a novel achieve that journalism and testimonials can't?

15. In the final "dialogue" between Claire and Mo, orchestrated by Molly and William, is anything resolved? What does the closing image of a cairn show us about the heart of the novel, and the role of future generations in resolving history?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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