There is a scene in “The Submission,” Amy Waldman’s new and much-discussed post-9/11 novel, where the Muslim-American architect who wins a Sept. 11 memorial competition confronts the competition’s chair, Paul Rubin, a Jewish tycoon not unlike Michael Bloomberg.
The architect, Mohammad Khan, is avowedly secular, urbane and liberal — much like Rubin — but he is also obstinate in his refusal to cow to public pressure. Ever since the jury announced his design the winner from 5,000 other anonymously submitted proposals, the public has gone into frenzy over his Muslim identity.
“I could change my name,” Khan says to Rubin, in a secret meeting before Khan’s design is publicly announced. Rubin takes him seriously: “Many architects have, mostly Jewish ones.”
Khan says he was only kidding, but Rubin goes on anyway: “My great-grandfather — he was Rubinsky, then my grandfather comes to America and suddenly he’s Rubin. What’s in a name? Nothing, everything. We all self-improve, change with the times.” And yet Khan will have none of it. “It’s a little more complicated than that,” he says, “picking a name that hides your roots, your origins, your ethnicity.”
Khan is, to put it simply, complicated: a man with certain unassailable moral convictions, but also coy and maddeningly intransigent. For a first-time novelist to make him the center of a post-9/11 story — coming out amid crush of 10th anniversary coverage — is all the more daring.
But Waldman insists the character’s complexity was necessary. “It would have been much more of a one-note novel if he was only the victim,” she said in an interview at a Brooklyn café, not far from where she lives. She added, “I think that, 10 years on, we’re more ready to talk about this.”
Waldman may be uniquely qualified to write about the post-9/11 landscape as well. A New York Times reporter for nearly a decade, she covered the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, and then was sent abroad — to Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout Southeast Asia.
She studied literature at Yale, and began the book on a Harvard fellowship five years ago. But she says her Jewish upbringing was deeply informative too: “As different as Khan was from me, I could draw on my own experiences as a Jew,” she said. “The other parallel is that, historically, there’s always been suspicion of Jews, and I think that came in my mind as well.”
Waldman, 42, was raised in Los Angeles and went though the typical Jewish rites of passage: bat mitzvah, Sunday school, a Jewish wedding. She also recently went on the Reboot retreat for young, successful Jewish creative types. Though she’s not observant, she identifies strongly as Jewish, she said. And yet to write the novel, she often asked herself what it meant to “strongly identity” as anything.
“Whether it’s about Israel or something else,” she said, people have certain assumptions about your views based on your identity. In her book, Khan, like many of the other characters, faces a similar predicament. “What are people’s expectations of you as a member of a group?” she asked rhetorically. “I thought a lot about that when I was writing the book.”
In barely 300 pages, “The Submission” scrutinizes many common perceptions borne from the post-9/11 environment. There is Claire Burwell, the sophisticated, seemingly liberal widow of a man killed in the attacks, who sits on the memorial selection jury. Though an early defender of Khan, she begins to doubt him in face of public pressure, and then becomes outright hostile when confronted with his obduracy.
Asma Anwar is another complicated character: also the widow of a man killed in the attacks, her circumstances could not be more different than Burwell’s. An illegal Muslim immigrant living in Brooklyn, she’s torn about whether she should publicly defend Khan, or stay silent — not only because she is undocumented, but also because, as a widow, she’s quietly receiving $1 million in aid.
That Waldman’s first novel has received so much attention, even for a high-profile journalist — since Waldman left The Times in 2005, she’s been contributing to The Atlantic — has been somewhat surprising. Though perhaps not for her publisher: “We actually bought it on only 80 pages,” said Courtney Hodell, Waldman’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“It’s very rare for us to buy” a first novel before it’s finished, she added. “But what I saw in these pages was a reporter setting aside her [zeal for veracity] and really letting her imagination go.”
Waldman’s imagination was, indeed, uncannily prescient. She wrote the novel before last year’s “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, though it reads at times as if it were cropped directly from those headlines. “It was a confirmation of Amy’s shrewdness and her intuition,” Hodell said, who had the full first draft by February 2010 — three months before the mosque fracas erupted. Both she and Waldman said they had to change certain parts of that draft because they were too similar to the event.
Waldman said she came up with the main conceit around 2003, while she was discussing the real Sept. 11 Memorial competition (won by Michael Arad, an Israeli-American, with the memorial opening next month). Waldman was talking to a friend about Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Washington, and the controversy that ensued over Lin being Asian-American. “That’s when I thought, ‘What would be the equivalent for 9/11?’”
A yearlong fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study gave her the time to write a full-length book. She planned on writing a non-fiction work about British Muslims when she brought up the idea of a novel with friends who were writers.
One of them was Lorraine Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote her first, and highly praised novel, “Harbor” (2004), after a long career in journalism. The two had been friends since their cub reporting days together in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s. Adams helped convince Waldman that fiction would allow her to write about subtler truths of the post-9/11 world that even the best reporting could not convey.
“People mistake journalism for reality,” Adams said, “but it’s a highly formulaic version of reality. I think having the confidence to imagine the inner lives of people is not in the habit of journalists,” she added. “I told her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just sit down and do it.’”
For her research, Waldman resisted the temptation to conduct new interviews. She worried it would crowd out her own ideas, and yet she fully concedes that her long experience in journalism was critical. “I think a lot of my reporting influenced the book,” she said. “Just being abroad opened me to how much debate there is within Islam.”
She recounted an interview she conducted in Afghanistan with a former Taliban member released from Guantánamo Bay. Her translator was a Muslim man who got into an argument with the ex-Taliban member after he belittled him for protecting a woman — and still worse, a Westerner. Waldman and her translator quickly left, the atmosphere too tense for her to finish the interview.
When Waldman asked her translator what the two men were fighting about, he told her that the man said he was “not a real Muslim.” Thinking about that intra-Islamic conflict came back to her when she was writing passages of her novel, many of which deal with the conflicts within America’s Muslim community. “I was thinking, ‘Who’s the real Muslim here?’”
She also knew that, for the novel to feel realistic, she needed to draw on Muslim-Jewish tensions. The novel itself touches only lightly on those dynamics — Rubin’s wife, for instance, has little sympathy for Khan’s plight: “Daniel Pearl paid a much higher price for being a Jew” she says coldly at one point.
Waldman said she also drew on experiences she’s had with otherwise acculturated, liberal Western Muslims that have given her pause. She remembered befriending a Muslim man while reporting from a small town in England. Their political and social outlooks seemed more or less attuned when, almost out of nowhere, the man said, not knowing she was Jewish: “You know, Henry Ford” — a notorious anti-Semite — “was right about the Jews.”
“I thought, ‘No! Not you too,’” Waldman said, recalling her reaction to the comment.
And yet, thinking about those comments while writing her novel made her ask whether such sentiments necessarily led to violence, or even sanctioned it. “I didn’t feel in danger,” she said, “and that is the question: when do thoughts like that become dangerous? And do we police those sentiments?”
As for her views of Jewish-Muslim relations in the post-9/11 world, she put it this way: “I think Jews feel more threatened by radicalism, yet I also feel that Jews have a special obligation to stand up for Muslims who aren’t part of that extreme, because of our past. I thought about that while writing this book.”