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BKMT READING GUIDES
The Submission: A Novel
by Amy Waldman
Hardcover : 320 pages
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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
Ten years after 9/11, a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel reimagines its aftermath
A jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack. Their fraught deliberations complete, the jurors open the envelope containing the anonymous winner’s name—and discover he is an American Muslim. Instantly they are cast into roiling debate about the claims of grief, the ambiguities of art, and the meaning of Islam. Their conflicted response is only a preamble to the country’s.
The memorial’s designer is an enigmatic, ambitious architect named Mohammad Khan. His fiercest defender on the jury is its sole widow, the self-possessed and mediagenic Claire Burwell. But when the news of his selection leaks to the press, she finds herself under pressure from outraged family members and in collision with hungry journalists, wary activists, opportunistic politicians, fellow jurors, and Khan himself—as unknowable as he is gifted. In the fight for both advantage and their ideals, all will bring the emotional weight of their own histories to bear on the urgent question of how to remember, and understand, a national tragedy.
In this deeply humane novel, the breadth of Amy Waldman’s cast of characters is matched by her startling ability to conjure their perspectives. A striking portrait of a fractured city striving to make itself whole, The Submission is a piercing and resonant novel by an important new talent.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011: Amy Waldman has performed a rare and dangerous feat in writing an airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable post-9/11 novel. When a Muslim architect wins a blind contest to design a Ground Zero Memorial, a city of eleven million people takes notice. Waldman, a former bureau chief for the New York Times, explores a diversity of viewpoints around this fictional event, bringing in politicians, businessmen, journalists, activists, and normal people whose lives--whether by happenstance, choice, or even due to their country of origin--get caught up in the controversy. Incredibly, she manages to keep all the balls in the air without ever fumbling. The story is moving and keeps the pages turning, but there are also bigger themes at work: of individuals versus groups; about the purpose of art, commerce, government, and journalism in society; of how people respond to grief and terror. The result is honest, compelling, and breathtaking.--Chris Schluep
"The names," Claire said. "What about the names?"
"They're a record, not a gesture," the sculptor replied. Ariana's words brought nods from the other artists, the critic, and the two purveyors of public art arrayed along the dining table, united beneath her sway. She was the jury's most famous figure, its dominant personality, Claire's biggest problem. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion QuestionsQuestions and Topics for Discussion
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 The Submission suggest about how 9/11 might have transformed American society? (Note: Amy Waldman began writing The Submission 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?
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