Charged with selecting a memorial for the site of the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, a jury must choose between two finalists from among 5,000 anonymous submissions. One finalist, the Void, a black granite rectangle 12 stories high, is considered too dark by some. The other finalist, the Garden, with a pavilion, two perpendicular canals, trees in orchard-like rows and a high white wall, seems just right—until the designer’s name is revealed. Then all hell breaks loose.
Amy Waldman’s first novel, The Submission, charts the layers of that hell in a searing tale about racial profiling following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Waldman, whose short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Review and other publications, was a co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times and knows her territory well. Her depiction of Muslim life, customs, places, rituals and shrines in the United States and in countries like India and Bangladesh is impeccable. Waldman also has a sharp eye for contemporary attitudes of hypocrisy and moral lassitude, which emerge during the numerous arguments, debates and moments of soul-searching that make up much of the plot.
This is a book driven by its theme: a society not held together by principle will break apart. Characters, action and even setting are secondary to the ideas Waldman espouses. That is not necessarily a flaw, but it does make the reading slow.
Among the major players are Claire Burwell and Paul Rubin. Claire, whose husband was one of the victims on 9/11, is among the jurors, as is Paul, a retired banker. Initially, they believe a garden would speak to mankind’s need for healing, and they convince the others to go along.
But the Garden, or at least the concept of a garden, does not heal. It causes chaos, hatred, destruction and death—not because there is anything wrong with the design but because the designer, Mo (Mohammed) Khan, is a Muslim.
As people learn Mo’s identity, they try to change the rules of the competition to eliminate his entry. Some question whether the garden is even the clear winner. Some say the public, not the jury, should have picked the winner. The governor conveniently decides that she alone should have the final word.
Most of the story is concerned with reactions to Mo’s ethnicity as opposed to his winning design. Even though he was born and raised in the United States and is not a practicing Muslim, his religious orientation upsets nearly everyone—from the jurors to the media to the families of the victims to the average citizen who reads about the process in the newspapers to members of the New York Muslim community.
Only Asma Anwar, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh who lost her husband at the World Trade Center, speaks for Mo, for the right thing and for the God of Islam. Eloquently and in broken English, she brings the audience to tears during a town hall meeting. For her courage, she pays a price, yet she never loses her faith. “He [God] would not abandon her if she did not abandon Him,” she says. But God seems to do just that as the story tragically unfolds.
Several people, including Mo’s family, advise him to withdraw his design and submit to the pressure of anti-Muslim sentiment. If he does bow out, will the other finalist, the Void, automatically become the winner? As one of the jurors puts it, there was no joy on 9/11, so its memorial should be a kind of created destruction, visceral, angry, dark, raw—just (ironically) as the atmosphere surrounding Mo and his ethnicity is emotional and angry.
In another of the book’s many ironies, a brother of one of the victims asks whatever happened to right and wrong. Significantly, no one answers him. But since his idea of right and wrong is based on his anger over the loss of his brother, his question—situation ethics at its finest—is just another example of the difficulties found in a world where, to paraphrase Hamlet, nothing is inherently good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Ultimately, this true-to-life but fictional account is chilling not because the book calls to mind the circumstances surrounding 9/11 but because those circumstances, with their mindless prejudice against all things Muslim, continue. As Waldman brings back the era’s poisonous atmosphere, she shows readers that the poison has not abated. In fact, it has mushroomed.