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Book by Amy Waldman, review by Carol Fadda-Conrey, assistant professor in the English Department at Syracuse University. Contains plot spoiling details.
Mohammad Khan is a problem. That fact is evident starting from the first few pages of Amy Waldman’s The Submission, when a selection committee finds out that this Muslim-American architect of Indian background is behind the winning design for commemorating the victims of an attack that sounds very much like 9/11, but is never named as such in the novel. The problem with Khan, we slowly discover, is not only that he is a Muslim, even though the news of that fact alone is received with intense shock and horror, first by the jury members after their blind review is completed, and subsequently by the public as the news is leaked by the media. The problem with Khan, which becomes more evident as the novel progresses, is that he repeatedly refuses to submit to the demands placed on him, by the plot’s different players, to efface, modify, or apologize for his Muslim identity in the interest of making his design become a reality. The memorial design itself, featuring a walled garden complete with streams, trees, and a commemorative wall bearing the names of the victims, is read by the protestors of the design as the embodiment of a martyrs’ paradise for the Muslim attackers or as Islam’s ultimate victory over the U.S. Waldman’s characterization of Khan and her portrayal of the controversy surrounding his design, however, falls short of complicating our reading of him or of a larger Muslim presence in the novel. For one, Khan himself remains elusive if not downright unlikable as a character. Moreover, the fact that his memorial design remains occluded from the U.S.’ commemorative landscape, despite the novel’s allusion to a more tolerant U.S. in the future, effectively serves to substantiate the nation’s anxieties, if not outright paranoia, about what is simplistically and erroneously framed as the Muslim threat to the U.S.
By undertaking a fictional controversy that ultimately questions the place of Islam in the U.S., The Submission mirrors the rampant Islamophobia pervading the country in real life. Such Islamophobia, evident well before 9/11, has become particularly pernicious after 9/11 with the alarming increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Moreover, Islamophobia repeatedly permeates current discussions of U.S. national identity, as made evident by the 2010 Cordoba House controversy and the 2011 King hearings targeting the so-called radicalization of Muslims in the U.S. In various interviews, Waldman notes her own surprise at how eerily close her novel-in-progress came to reflecting real life when the Cordoba House controversy erupted.
Despite The Submission’s investment in exploring Islamophobia in light of the fictional controversy surrounding Khan’s memorial design, by the end of the novel, the question of whether or not an assertion of complex Muslim identities is even possible in the near future seems to be answered with a reverberating no. Khan’s permanent departure from the U.S. and his disillusionment about his unbuilt design makes it clear that any chance of asserting a complex understanding of U.S. identity that does not automatically exclude Muslims remains beyond the reach of the novel’s immediate national imaginary. Despite its uneasy or even ambiguous handling of the Muslim question, the novel nevertheless succeeds in underscoring the importance of examining the role of memory and memorials in projects of nation-building, thus asserting the need for analyzing the exclusionary aspects of representation and participation that are imbedded in such projects.