Waldman discusses her debut novel The Submission, which is receiving rave reviews, and shares why she feels fiction is the best place to deal with post-9/11 perceptions of Muslims.
Journalist Amy Waldman
Tavis: Amy Waldman is the former co-chief of the South Asia bureau for “The New York Times” and a national correspondent for “The Atlantic.” She’s out now with her first-ever novel. It’s called “The Submission,” a book that’s been receiving rave reviews. Amy, good to have you on the program.
Amy Waldman: Great to be here.
Tavis: It’s all up or down from here, I don’t know. (Laughter)
Waldman: Let’s just say up.
Tavis: Let’s say up, okay. I say that only because there is so much talk about your very first novel. What do you make of all that?
Waldman: (Laughs) I would attribute it to my talent, but I think there’s a lot of interest in the subject as well, just because Americans are still so interested in Islam and that’s a lot of what the book is about.
Waldman: They’re trying to figure it out.
Tavis: I want to get into what the book is about in just a second, but let me tease it by asking why it is that you thought, given how raw emotions really are still after 9/11 relative to the monument, relative to how we treat Muslims and their wanting to build a house of worship near 9/11.
Emotions are so raw. Why did you think you could even get away with putting that kind of stuff in a novel and not offend people by the novel itself?
Waldman: I think a novel’s kind of the perfect place for it, because it’s fiction. It’s a little easier, I think, to talk about a lot of these things because you’re not talking about real people or real issues. You can sort of – it’s like putting vegetables in some kind of food or something, in a way. It’s a story, in the end, and so I think that makes it almost easier to talk about.
And I get asked a lot if I was afraid I would offend people, and I think I just blocked all of that out when I was writing. Also, when you’re doing your first novel it’s easy to do that because you don’t know if anybody’s going to read it.
Tavis: Yeah. So tell me about “The Submission” about this character, Mo.
Waldman: So the premise of “The Submission” is that there’s an anonymous competition to design a 9/11 memorial and it’s won by an American Muslim, an architect born and raised in Virginia, and his name is Mohammad Khan. He goes by Mo. He is not the world’s easiest person, in some ways. He’s very independent in thinking and his selection naturally sparks a lot of controversy. That was kind of the premise of the novel.
So he is in the position of what kind of – people are not sure whether to trust him, they’re not sure whether to be afraid, and so he’s in the position of should he assuage those fears, should he take them on and try to make people feel better about who he is.
Tavis: Yeah, and part of what’s called for it, actually, this happened many times in our culture and our country, where somebody who was not guilty of anything is asked to denounce something heinous, and the same thing happens to Mo. He’s put in a position of having to denounce something, because he’s a Muslim, he had nothing to do with
Waldman: Right, right. Yes, I think we often sort of assign collective guilt, in a way, to members of a group, and that’s what I was really interested in writing the novel, is as an individual, what are your obligations? Do you take on whatever a member of your group has done?
I think a lot of Muslims face that after 9/11. There’ve been a lot written, why won’t they stand up and denounce terrorism. I think a lot of them feel why should I have to do it more than anybody else, and that’s Mo’s answer, is “I’m an American, just like you and you, so why do I have to say something extra to make you feel okay?
Tavis: What’s fascinating about this for me is that the novel doesn’t just make a statement, or raise questions, I should say, about Muslims and what we think of them and how we treat them or maltreat them, but it also makes a statement about us. It’s not just them; it’s about us as well.
Because in the competition that Mo wins, they don’t know that he’s a Muslim before they open the envelope.
Waldman: Right, right.
Tavis: That’s a very important part of the story. He wins the competition.
Tavis: They select the best design. His design is the design that they think is best.
Tavis: When they open the envelope, then they discover that he’s a Muslim, and then all hell breaks loose at that point.
Waldman: Right, right.
Tavis: But tell me your thoughts about what you wanted to say about us putting Mo in a position to have to defend or apologize or denounce.
Waldman: Right. Well, I was really interested in sort of the period after 9/11. I think there were all kinds of debates in this country about what should change in response to this. Which of our values do we hold on to, which do we renegotiate because of what happened to us.
I felt like this competition was a great way into that, because it’s sort of this because American idea that may the best person win, and that’s what an anonymous competition is meant to ensure.
Tavis: Meritocracy, yeah.
Waldman: Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter your name, your background. So a Muslim winning, I felt like was sort of a full frontal challenge to that, and so that’s what I was trying to get into. I think it’s been really interesting, readers’ reactions, because it does make them think a lot about who they are as opposed to just who Mo is, and where do you come down on who’s right in arguments in the book.
Tavis: How much of the debate about the proposed mosque near 9/11 – well, let me ask it this way. What did you make of that story when it started to surface?
Waldman: Well for me it was really strange because I had finished the full draft of the novel, and then suddenly it felt like it was coming to life in front of me, and I’m a former journalist and suddenly felt like reality was kind of chasing me when I had moved away from it.
Tavis: It’s life imitating art.
Waldman: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So I think it sort of for me affirmed what the novel was about and the questions it explores, and it made me do a little rethinking in terms of how to portray certain things.
I found it really interesting because it showed me almost 10 years on how much still confusion and discomfort there is around Islam and even the place of Muslims in America, and even for many liberals who on one hand are saying of course they have the right to build a mosque, and yet five minutes later are saying but maybe they should just move it 12 blocks away instead of two blocks away.
You can’t really have it both ways. If you’re saying it should be moved, it’s saying we don’t fully trust members of this religion.
Tavis: You had finished your first draft when this story breaks in New York about the proposed mosque. What did, how did, if you did, in fact, you end up tweaking, changing – because here, if I’m you, I’m thinking this book is going to be a best seller. I would have figured that out then, because if life is imitating art, your first draft is already done.
This story is paralleling, in some ways, what you’ve written in your novel, and you saw all the interest that generated. I’m thinking to myself, ding, ding, ding, or better yet, kaching, kaching, this book is actually going to sell.
Tavis: But was there anything that you wanted to tweak or change, or did, in fact, tweak or change as a result of that story?
Waldman: I did, I did. There were a few things. There were lines in the book that I had written that when I wrote them seemed very funny or original, because the book is funny in parts, and then suddenly I was reading them in the newspaper, because people were saying them.
So even if that sort of confirmed my prescience, I didn’t want people to read the book and feel, “Oh, I’ve read this all before.” So I did some rewriting in response to that. Then also just watching how events played out, I think it just was very fertile for my imagination, even the spectre of violence that kind of arose on all side in the way one event leads to another leads to another.
So that sort of influenced some of the plotting in the book, but I think it also just made me realize this is what a novel can do. It can take us deep inside people’s minds in a way that news stories, for example, about that controversy just can’t do, because we all sort of have a position we present to the world, and so much of the novel is about doubt and ambivalence and what you’re really thinking in your head, and sort of the confusion in there. That’s different than what news reports can capture.
Tavis: To your point now about this distinction between news reports and novels, is there a statement that you want to make to us in this, or are you really probing so that we can ask ourselves questions?
Waldman: Yeah. I definitely don’t want to prescribe what people should take away. I do think it’s just the novel speaks for itself and will take readers to a lot of different places. I’ve already seen that, and I can’t control how people react or whose side they come down on. That’s sort of the beauty in the novel, in a way.
Tavis: They say timing is everything. How did this become, and why now has it become your very first novel?
Waldman: I think it just came to be because I had the idea. I wasn’t sitting around years ago thinking I really want to write a novel. But I had this specific idea of what would happen if this guy won, and it stayed – it took me three years after I had the idea to find the time to write it, but it really stayed with me.
So that’s where I started, and then I found a publisher and they did want it to come out right before 9/11, because they felt there is going to be a conversation around all of these issues.
The memorial just opened on the 10th anniversary, and the book’s about a memorial, so that just was fortuitous in a way, in terms of the timing.
Tavis: So having written for “The New York Times” and “The Atlantic,” what do you make of this novel-writing thing?
Waldman: I love it.
Tavis: You do.
Waldman: I really love it. (Laughter)
Tavis: What do you love about it, Amy?
Waldman: The freedom, not having to worry about the facts. It’s just fun. I didn’t expect that it would be just really fun. It’s so hard, there were so many days when I thought I miss my notebook full of quotes and I don’t know what these people should say. But on the whole, it’s just the creativity and the freedom of it, so I’m already thinking about another one.
Tavis: Ah, I was about to ask my next question, you already answered it. So you’re already thinking about the next one. (Laughter)
Tavis: But it’s something totally different?
Waldman: It’s pretty different, but it’s not – I think I, at least for the foreseeable future, will write things that are sort of grounded a little bit in reality, or in politics, or just because that’s what I’m interested in. I think there’s a lot of great fiction that explores those kinds of things, so that’s what I want to keep pursuing.
Tavis: All right, well, it’s called “The Submission,” from Amy Waldman. Did you – you were with “The New York Times.” You were based where, example? What city were you in?
Waldman: Well, I was in New York for a while. I was in New York on 9/11, and then I spent three years based in New Delhi.
Tavis: In New Delhi, yeah.
Waldman: Yeah, so covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, the whole region.
Tavis: That region of the world is getting more interesting by the day, it seems.
Waldman: It is, it is.
Tavis: You see it the same way, more interesting by the day?
Waldman: Oh, yeah, yeah. Interesting in a tough way, but yes, very much so.
Tavis: You miss that at all?
Waldman: I really don’t. I’m so glad I did it. I had amazing experiences. But I’m kind of happy now sitting in my room, writing.
Tavis: All right. So Brandy ain’t the only one sitting in her room. (Laughter) Amy Waldman is too. The book is called “The Submission,” by Amy Waldman. It is her first and a whole lot of folk are talking about this very first novel from her. I think you might be intrigued by it. Amy, good to have you on the program, and congratulations.
Waldman: Thanks, great to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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