The Submission

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Title: The Submission
Author: Amy Waldman
Page: 299
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (Macmillan)
Pub. Date: August 16, 2011

The Submission is a serious and thought provoking novel about issues of racism, tolerance, and awareness; about immigration, belief systems, and grief's healing processes. It's two years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. A jury of artists and professionals, including one family member of a person who died in that attack, have convened to choose the winning architectural entry for the memorial that will be built at ground zero. After some conflicts and thorough discussion, they decide on a winning entry. Only, when the name of the winning design is announced, Mohammed Khan, everyone immediately recoils in fear and astonishment. How is it possible that a Muslim man's design is the winner of the memorial for the attacks perpetrated by Muslim men?

What follows is the fight over how to handle this situation both by the jurors and then by the American public, as the information is leaked to the press. Some think Khan's design shouldn't be allowed to be created while others believe his rights are being violated. Some believe Khan, himself, would be doing the right thing by withdrawing his submission (despite the fact that this memorial would be an extreme milestone in his architectural career). Then there's the discussions about the difference been a Muslim man and an Islamic extremist, not to mention Khan may not even believe in Islam. No one really knows; not even Khan, at times. Although the entire book revolves around this exact plot and storyline, there were several supplemental themes. What about the people who were in America illegally but who also lost family members in the attacks. Should they not be provided with the same concessions and care that other family members are provided? And how is it decided what is the best way for people to heal from extreme grief?

This novel was so emotionally charged for me, as I'm sure it will be for many readers. I abhor ignorance, especially as it relates to racial issues. The Submission is told from various viewpoints, so the reader is often provided with Khan's perspective. I think knowing how benign his attitude and reason for entering the contest made it that much more enraging for me the way he was treated. There was a quote near the beginning of the book about a woman so pessimistic that in looking so intently for a bruise in an apple eventually caused the bruise herself. (Unfortunately, I can't remember the page number). That was how I felt about the characters in this book. Their fear became so exaggerated that they caused new fears they hadn't necessarily had in the first place. Even the person who was his staunchest advocate started creating fears of her own and questioning her beliefs. And it seemed like Khan wasn't always sure that the route he had taken (for instance, not having to answer any questions whatsoever, on principle) was the right way to go.

One of the dynamics I found so interesting was those of Khan's and how he so questioned his own beliefs. While he seemed assured and was rational (though there were times when I wished he would concede in just the smallest of ways to help come to a compromise) he was often conflicted. This is evident as described in this quote about the way he tamed his interactions with others.
...he realized that the difference wasn't in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism. He didn't like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt, yet he couldn't quite shake him. (p. 25)
And this quote describes the way in which his rationality started to give way to paranoia because of some of his experiences.
The memory of the airport interrogation was unpacked, shaken out, stuffed full of straw to make it lifelike once again. There was no evidence Roi hadn't elevated Mo because he was a Muslim but none against it, either. If he had been singled out once, why not again? Paranoia, no less than plasticine, could be molded. (p. 40)
Unfortunately, there isn't a wonderful, pretty resolution to everything. Though I found the book gripping, its focus was really on how this situation affected various people in the community from those who lost family members to those who wanted to have a "cause" to fight (for or against) to the governor who wanted to twist this for her future presidential campaign. This book angered and saddened me, but it wasn't overly dark or melancholic either. I thought the author did a good job of portraying the complexity of the various perspectives. The ending was a little ambiguous, but the real meat in this book was the dynamics of the characters and all the thoughts they elicited for me. This is one I will not be forgetting for a long time!

The website for this book is actually pretty interesting. It introduces all the main players in the book. Check it out if you have a chance!


Melissa said...

I hadn't heard of this book at all, but I can always count on discovering new books on your blog. It sounds very interesting. Honestly I haven't paid to much attention about the details of the 9/11 memorial going up so I had to scroll back up after reading your review to make sure this wasn't a nonfiction. It easily could have been.

bermudaonion said...

At first I thought this was a true story. It does sound very thought provoking.

Anita said...

I've seen this book,but I believe this is the first review I've read. It seems very interesting, thanks for such a wonderful review!

Zibilee said...

I have read a little about this book, and think that it sounds extremely emotionally complex. I also think that it sounds rather realistic. I would love to read this one and see where it takes me mentally, and I thought your review was elegant and very well considered. Thanks for this!

Sandy Nawrot said...

EW was all over this book. I think it might have even been in the "best of 2011" list. I wouldn't expect it to have a happy ending (and be realistic). This battle has been going on since the beginning of time and it probably won't ever be resolved. But I love books that make you think about issues that on the surface seem so cut and dried.

nomadreader said...

I don't I liked this one as much as you did! I loved the set-up, but I found some of the writing eye-rollingly bad and it really distracted me from the characters and story. Some of the narrators were more intriguing than others. I think my expectations might have been too high, but I was still disappointed. I'm glad it was such an emotionally charged read for you!

Jenners said...

Entertainment Weekly listed this as their best book of the year, and it sounds terrifc -- complicated and intense and timely. I should check it out.

Kathmeista said...

I reallllly want to read this book, especially given my love of post 9/11 stuff. Thanks for the awesome review.

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