The time has come to forever mark New York’s grief and loss from the September 11 terrorist attacks. 5000 blind submissions, all trace of the artist’s identity removed, have been sorted through by a jury of political appointees, academics, artists, and a representative of the families. The field is winnowed down to two entries – one, a ten-story high black boulder thrusting up from the ground, with the names of the dead engraved up and down its sides. The other, a walled garden divided symmetrically by canals, with living trees interspersed with steel trees sculpted from Twin Towers’ beams, and the names of the dead inscribed on the walls. After debate and lobbying, the jury selects the garden, which was designed by…
Or, as the governor’s representative says, “Jesus f—–g Christ! It’s a g—–n Muslim!” (This is a family blog.)
The selection is supposed to be confidential, but it’s no time before second-rate reporter Alyssa Spiers gets her scoop on the front pages of the tabloid New York Post and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly the memorial is the sole property of the understandably angry families. Or a cause celebre for liberals rejecting knee-jerk hatred. Or the target of right-wing rabblerousers who proclaim it only lacking 72 virgins to make it a complete Islamic paradise for victorious terrorists. A chance for Muslim activists to reach a broader audience. A headache for the committee chair. A political liability.
A personal and professional triumph for its creator, who demands recognition for his achievement without any need to defend his heritage or his design.
Mo Khan considers himself a plain vanilla American—born to non-religious parents who immigrated from India, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, trained as an architect, promoted for his skill. No different from any other ambitious single-minded young man. Now he finds himself treated as a stranger in his own country, interrogated by the FBI on his first post-9/11 flight, his career derailed, and now his breakthrough achievement threatened. Mo now draws the line at sacrificing his vision, and the irresistible force of public opinion meets the immovable force of a proud man.
Amy Waldman does a terrific job exploring the needs and sensitivities of all the people with a personal stake in this controversy. Some are confused, unable to distinguish between their sorrow and their anger. Others are struggling with the balance between doing what is right and doing what is realistic. Still others cannot see a reason for the collective emotions, insisting on keeping the memory of their own loved one independent of the memorial’s politics.
If the premise of The Submission sounds familiar, you may remember Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. You may remember the hoo-hah over the Park51 project. (Waldman’s work on the book preceded that episode, and could even have been the blueprint for how it played out.) You may even know that the real memorial is not without controversy. As Waldman shows in a very effective epilogue, Americans tend not to hold grudges, even when our social progress is made in fits and starts. If only there was a way to speed up the process.
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The Submission is also available as a Gab Bag.