“The Submmission” by Amy Waldman— Building a Memorial

Waldman, Amy. “The Submission”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011.

Building a Memorial

Amos Lassen

A jury chooses a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack on Manhattan and learns that the anonymous designer is an American Muslim, an enigmatic architect named Mohammad Khan. His selection, as we can imagine, reverberates across a divided and traumatized country and through individual lives. Claire Burwell, the sole widow on the jury, becomes Khan’s fiercest defender. But when the news of his selection becomes public, she comes under pressure from outraged family members and collides with journalists, opportunistic politicians, and even Khan himself. This is a story of clashing convictions and emotions as well as a satire of political ideals.

We look at the notions of who is an American and what American identity is or should be in a post-September 11 and while this is not a Jewish novel with only a few Jewish characters but it is the themes rather than the characters, the themes hold Jewish interest.

We follow the contest to create a memorial at the site of the Twin Towers. The protagonists are the members of the committee that will decide on the winner;  this group includes the families of survivors, artists, and the chairman, a Jew who has held various political positions.  The committee makes a decision without knowing the winner’s  identity and it is revealed that the winning design is by a secular Muslim named Mohammed, whose parents tell him that they gave him this name both because it was his pious Muslim grandfather’s name and because it was a “statement of faith in America that we never thought for a moment that your name would hold you back in any way.”  The question of how America reacts to a Muslim architect is what this novel is all about. We also get specific details on New York, the Bangladeshi immigrant community, and identity politics.

Waldman does a wonderful job of identifying points of view relevant to a potential competition to design a memorial to the 9/11 attacks. She uses them to put in motion a plausible scenario of how such a competition might take place and how the many stakeholders in such a memorial might act during the competition. Their interactions tell us a lot about who we are as a nation and how we make public decisions. We gain insight on a public policy topic that continues to be near the center of American political discourse.

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