Title: The Submission
Author: Amy Waldman
Release Date: August 16, 2011
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Amazon Vine
Rating: 5 out of 5
It’s two years after the 9/11 attacks, and America’s psyche still hasn’t quite recovered from those awful events. Claire Burwell’s husband died in the attacks, and she is representing the families of those who perished on a jury to pick a memorial design for Ground Zero. The contest is anonymous, with no names associated with the designs the jury considers. After much deliberation, a design is chosen, but when it is revealed that the author is Muslim - Mohammad “Mo” Khan - it wreaks havoc on the jury, as well as the nation.
The Submission is a beautifully written, provocative novel that will leave readers reeling from its powerful message. Through the character of Mo Khan, an American-born architect who happens to be Muslim, Waldman asks the reader what it means to be an American. Does religion supersede nationality? Time and again, Khan explains to those against him that he is an American, yet it seems that no one will listen to him. America is a nation of many cultures, religions, and political views, yet there is a streak of intolerance running through the country that Waldman doesn’t hesitate to uncover and probe.
The ignorant and prejudiced declarations about Muslims in The Submission are horribly ugly, yet the worst part of it is that there’s nothing new being said. We’ve all heard the stereotypes, the awful generalizations, the ridiculous assumption that every Muslim is automatically a terrorist. The sad truth is that what Waldman writes in her novel is completely believable - no reader would have trouble imagining that this is exactly how events might unfold, should this situation have occurred in real life. Indeed, some of the discourse is reminiscent of the building of the Vietnam War Memorial, which is mentioned over the course of the book.
The real strength of the novel, and what keeps it from being a sort of cliché, is its characters. Despite the fact that Mo becomes the face of Islam in the United States, of a people struggling to be accepted in their own country, he’s not some paragon of virtue that wins hearts and minds. Instead, he’s difficult, arrogant, and often immature. Claire, the seemingly perfect tragic widow, also has her own issues. She’s struggling to be a single mother, while also bearing the burden of representing each and every family that lost a loved one. She wants to stick to her principles, but when is that price too high? These personal issues, so real and relevant, elevate the novel to another level entirely.
Waldman also doesn’t give the reader a tidy, neat story with a perfect ending. Instead, it’s messy, as are the lives we live on a daily basis. By its very nature, the book provokes discussion and questions, and it doesn’t seek to answer all of them. Instead, it leaves the reader haunted by questions of intolerance and prejudice, while also wondering at the price of healing and adhering to one’s principles. Waldman’s graceful prose makes the novel a pleasant read, despite its difficult subject matter.
The title The Submission is an ingenious one with which to label the book. It has a dual meaning - Mo’s submission to the committee, his design and the controversy that erupts around it. But it also means submission to one’s principles, or submission to the crowd mentality. Submission to Allah is a common theme within Islam, and those interested in the final fate of Ground Zero ask themselves whether this submission is incorporated into Mo’s submission, his final design. The title is one of those topics that can be discussed endlessly; indeed, the entire novel will leave readers itching to talk about it and share it.
I can’t say much more about The Submission except that it is one of my top reads of 2012. It is so beautiful and powerful, even in its ugliness and most desperate moments. I can’t describe with words what Amy Waldman has accomplished with this book; it’s amazingly relevant and incredibly thoughtful. This is one of those books that will stick with me for a very long time.