View from Middle America: Why US literature has failed 9/11

By Kevin Bloom 12 September 2011

US commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks have been happening from sea to shining sea over the last few weeks, with literature serving as an important avenue into an understanding of the ongoing impact. But has American literature lived up to the enormity of the event? KEVIN BLOOM reports from a panel discussion in Iowa City. 

On Tuesday 6 September, as part of a series of launches that UK-based literary magazine Granta was holding across America for its 116th issue, I appeared on a panel in the Prairie Lights bookshop in Iowa City. The subject of the panel, as of the issue, was “Ten Years Later,” and with me to read from the submissions and discuss the topic were another three authors: Bina Shah from Pakistan, ZZ Packer from the United States, and Horacio Castellano Moya from El Salvador. When the readings were done and the opening reflections made, moderator Christopher Merrill put a question to the panelists: how do you write about an event like 9/11, but more importantly, how do you memorialise it?

The last to answer was Moya, one of Latin America’s most celebrated novelists, a man forced into exile on the eve of the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1957. “I think my perspective is a little bit biased,” he said. “You know, I come from Central America, we were not innocent. I don’t have any virginity. We had three civil wars in our countries, more than 300,000 people were killed, and America was importing most of the killers. For us, it’s an old story. The period that was opened by 2001 for us is far away, we are just recalling what happened before, we were victims too.”

To be clear, what Moya was responding to was the idea that the world may have lost its innocence after 9/11 – the idea that America as a good-willed global ballast, an America that intervenes in world affairs for the sake of peace and democracy, had died together with the people in the planes and the buildings. Of course, this idea had been rubbished in intellectual and Leftist circles for decades before the fall of the towers; the writings of heavyweights like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky in the ‘70s and ‘80s stressed that US foreign policy – aided and abetted by US cultural production – was simply and always a tool of imperialist and economic domination. And in 2001, the very year that the attacks happened, Christopher Hitchens released The Trial of Henry Kissinger, wherein he convincingly argued that the former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to the presidents Nixon and Ford should be tried for war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor.

Still, Moya’s point about having lost his virginity years prior to 2001 was a profound one – here was a man who had personally suffered at the hands of the clandestine and classified actions of the United States government, a man who brought a human face to all the theory. “I don’t want to say how to commemorate,” the Latin American continued, “the victims are the only ones who have the right to decide how to commemorate. I think that history is always the same, the killing goes on.”

Watch: Granta 116 launch, remembering 9/11. Prairie Lights bookshop, Iowa City

An observation that would seem to lead to further questions (unfortunately time ran out and the panel didn’t get to debate same): is it only Americans who can truly understand the depth and nature of the loss wrought by the attacks? Or, more specifically, it is only American literature, and American authors, who can write about the event with any authenticity?

On a superficial level, the answers to both questions are obviously “no”. To give just one example, the ridiculous security measures and the racial profiling (which tries desperately to mask itself, and therefore only reveals itself) that’s gone on at airports across the world in the last ten years means we’ve all been somehow affected – the loss of personal liberty in these spaces, the feeling of being treated like an unbroken puppy, is a real “loss” for everyone who experiences it. Also, the make-up of the panel I was on, and the make-up of the articles in Granta 116 as well as on the Granta website, are proof positive that international authors have a lot to say on the subject.

But maybe, and ironically, it’s the apparent “inability” of American authors to properly elucidate 9/11 that means we need to hear from them the most. Of the novels that were supposed to shine a torchlight into the dark vortex that was 11 September 2001, Don Delillo’s Falling Man was anticipated above all others. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the book for the New York Times, articulated the disappointment of many when she observed: “Instead of capturing the impact of 9/11 on the country or New York or a spectrum of survivors or even a couple of interesting individuals, instead of illuminating the zeitgeist in which 9/11 occurred or the shell-shocked world it left in its wake, Mr. DeLillo leaves us with two paltry images: one of a performance artist re-enacting the fall of bodies from the burning World Trade Center, and one of a self-absorbed man, who came through the fire and ash of that day and decided to spend his foreseeable future playing stupid card games in the Nevada desert.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s been American non-fiction that’s come closer to some sort of answer in the last decade than any homegrown novel – Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is still widely regarded as the go-to book on the tragedy. Unsurprising because – as Antjie Krog says about non-fiction in South Africa, and her own decision not to write novels – sometimes the facts of an event are simply too big for the imagination; sometimes you just can’t make it up.

As I write this, it’s the morning of 11 September 2011 in Middle America. Iowa City is subdued, people are silent and contemplative, the TVs are tuned to images of military parades and fluttering US flags. The country, it seems, is still in shock. What actually happened on that terrible day ten years ago? Some time in the future, but probably not the immediate future, a major American novelist is going to tell us. DM

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