The Sub­mis­sion

Amy Wald­man

By – January 11, 2012

Amy Waldman’s The Sub­mis­sion is a won­der­ful nov­el and an inter­est­ing addi­tion to exist­ing lit­er­a­ture with both 9/11 and immi­grant themes. Though not explic­it­ly Jew­ish themed, the notions of who is an Amer­i­can and what Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty is or should be in a post-Sep­tem­ber 11 era are of inter­est and con­cern to Jew­ish read­ers. There are a few Jew­ish char­ac­ters but it is the themes rather than the char­ac­ters which hold Jew­ish interest.

Wald­man was a reporter for the South Asia bureau of The New York Times and her abil­i­ty to mar­shall and accu­mu­late details that sup­port her char­ac­ters and her set­tings is one of the main strengths of this nov­el, Waldman’s first. 

The book fol­lows 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. 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 occu­pies this gem of a nov­el, rife with love­ly spe­cif­ic details on New York, the Bangladeshi immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty, and iden­ti­ty politics.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Far­rar, Straus and Giroux

1. What do you think the pur­pose and mes­sage of a nation­al memo­r­i­al should be? Would you have vot­ed for the Void or the Garden?

2. Reread the epi­graph. What do its words sug­gest about the rela­tion­ship between nature and human nature?

3. As Claire tries to explain the tragedy to William (and, in a way, to Pene­lope), what does she dis­cov­er about her own beliefs and feelings?

4. Mo is under con­sid­er­able pres­sure to give the right” rea­sons when asked why he entered the com­pe­ti­tion, but he defies sim­plis­tic answers. What does his design com­mu­ni­cate on its own? For any cre­ative work — includ­ing nov­els — should the author’s biog­ra­phy mat­ter to us? Do you think he was oblig­at­ed to explain him­self and his design? Why or why not?

5. Chap­ter 16 begins with a depic­tion of Mo’s hunger and thirst dur­ing Ramadan. We’re told, The truth was he didn’t know why he was doing it.” How does it affect him, a sec­u­lar skep­tic, to join Mus­lims world­wide in observ­ing the fast?

6. How did your reac­tions shift as Sean’s sto­ry unfold­ed, espe­cial­ly as he strug­gled with con­flict­ing feel­ings after pulling Zahira’s scarf? Is big­otry excus­able if it’s com­ing from some­one whose loved one was the vic­tim of a hor­rif­ic crime? What are the lim­its of a survivor’s rights?

7. Asma’s mem­o­ries of Inam are her pri­vate inher­i­tance, and she must rely on trans­la­tors to con­vey her mes­sages in Eng­lish. Did any­one in the nov­el have a tru­ly accu­rate under­stand­ing of her suf­fer­ing? How was her mourn­ing expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent from Claire’s and Sean’s? What com­mon emo­tions do all of the novel’s sur­vivors share?

8. Many of the char­ac­ters des­per­ate­ly want some­one to blame for their loss. The final line of chap­ter 22, refer­ring to Alyssa, reads, She is respon­si­ble.” Ulti­mate­ly, who is respon­si­ble for the tragedies depict­ed in the novel?

9. What would you have done in Paul Rubin’s sit­u­a­tion? Was it coura­geous or insen­si­tive of him to per­mit Mo’s sub­mis­sion to move forward?

10. A jour­nal­ist, Amy Wald­man had spe­cial insight into Alyssa’s world. What does the nov­el tell us about the role of the media (exploit­ed by all par­ties involved) and the impact of a free press in the infor­ma­tion age?

11. How does Claire’s sense of self change when Jack reap­pears in her life? Did Cal, despite his wealth, cost her an impor­tant part of her identity?

12. Dis­cuss the novel’s title. To what (and to whom) must the char­ac­ters sub­mit? Who are the novel’s most and least sub­mis­sive characters?

13. An uproar erupt­ed in 2010 when Park51, a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter hous­ing a mosque, was pro­posed for con­struc­tion two blocks from Ground Zero. What does this con­flict — and the one described in —sug­gest about how 9/11 might have trans­formed Amer­i­can soci­ety? (Note: Amy Wald­man began writ­ing sev­er­al years before Park51 was announced.)

14. What makes fic­tion a pow­er­ful way to explore events that shaped our lives? What can a nov­el achieve that jour­nal­ism and tes­ti­mo­ni­als can’t?

15. In the final dia­logue” between Claire and Mo, orches­trat­ed by Mol­ly and William, is any­thing resolved? What does the clos­ing image of a cairn show us about the heart of the nov­el, and the role of future gen­er­a­tions in resolv­ing history?