Amy Waldman’s The Submission is the most exciting piece of fiction I have read in some time. It is engrossing, thought-provoking, and is as finely written as it is intricately plotted. By asking what would happen if a Muslim was anomalously picked to design a Ground Zero-type of memorial (the novel is vague in its reference of the attacks of 9/11) and then exploring the hysterical fallout of that decision, Waldman is able to delicately balance social satire with a tragic, almost poetic eloquence.
Waldman begins her novel in the Governor’s mansion, as a selected group of historians, artists, and political aides debate the merits of two memorials, narrowed down from the thousands that have been submitted. The group is narrowly divided over two selections: One is a dark sculpture named the Void, which breaks out of the ground, reminding the viewer of the horror of the day by creating a “great gash against the sky.” The other is a walled garden, symmetrical in its design, and lined with metal trees, each of which are made from the ruins of the site. Both memorials have their supporters. The group, however, selects the garden, based largely on the urgings of Claire Harwell, a widow whose husband was killed in the attacks. Claire’s passionate defense of the garden, which begins as a yearning for peace from the horrific grief of her loss, starts out unwavering, even in the face of strong opposition. She soon begins to question her own decision and personal convictions, however, when it is revealed that a man with the name of “Mohammad” submitted the chosen design.
“Jesus Fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!” is the cry from one juror upon hearing the name.
The ripples of this decision animate the novel. Waldman sets up nearly a dozen separate characters and follows them as they grapple, debate, fight and question their beliefs over the memorials selection. Some of those, such as Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother in the attack, vehemently oppose the memorial. Sean uses the opportunity to publically express his outrage, going as far as pulling a headscarf off of a Muslim woman in protest, setting off a disturbing wave of bigoted violence across the nation. The memorial’s supporters, such Asma, another widow whose religious beliefs (she is a Muslim) and illegal status (she if from Bangladesh) keeps her silent surrounding over the memorial, question how to fight the discrimination the design provokes.
Amongst all of the yelling, fighting, and violence over the project, it is the memorial’s designer, Mohammad Kahn, whose narrative becomes the most potent. Khan refuses to disclose his inspiration for the design in an effort to keep the focus on his art, as well as in defiance over his unfair treatment. That the reader is able to understand both his stubborn anger and his bitterness over the controversy is a testament to Waldman’s great talent at characterization. It is easy to sympathize for Khan, even as he grows increasingly unlikable to all the characters in the book.
Reading The Submission, it is impossible to not to be reminded of the uproar over the recently proposed “Ground Zero Mosque,” a scandal that flooded the news and divided much of the country last fall. The novel, written well before that fracas began, is eerily prescient, if not entirely unsurprising, in foretelling the uproar that took over the country. Perhaps because of this, The Submission is a novel that needs be read now: Not just because its theme of the destructive nature of widespread and mass Islamophobia is so important that it needs immediate attention, but because timeliness of the novel’s subject matter might soon become unrecognizable. Even though this feels like a flaw to the novel’s ability to stand the test of time, it should not deter readers from picking it up. Now needs to be examined as much as yesterday or tomorrow.