ON a visit in 2002, when it was little more than a construction site in a wire cage, the World Trade Center’s site was still one of the most moving places on the planet. Long before the names of the dead were carved, lit up at night, into bronze plates overlooking waterfalls flowing into pools carved out of ground where the towers once stood, this canyon in downtown Manhattan radiated a sense of tragedy.
Thousands have died in other countries, including here at home, and in the wars that have followed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But perhaps because the country that has preserved it insists on the value of lives lost (and despite the knowledge that it attaches less value to foreign lives), the place creates a unique sense of sadness.
At its best, Granta 116: Ten Years Later, manages to do the same, in moments that show how ordinary lives around the world remain transformed long after the day itself: the American soldier returning home from Iraq, the accidental Guantanamo prisoner, the Somali father looking for a son who has left home to join a militant group.
But those moments are all too infrequent, highlights among other writing that only peripherally addresses the collection’s theme or, more importantly, fails to affect profoundly enough to live up to that theme. Reading the broad range of pieces here in various genres and from around the world provides some answers to the now-familiar debate about whether 9/11 literature has managed to do justice to the event. It quickly becomes apparent from Granta 116 that the most powerful writing related to that day’s aftermath focuses on the human tragedy of it — rather than its politics — and does so cleanly and bravely, confronting the reality of it head-on and with little of the sentimental or the melodramatic.
This is why “Redeployment” and “A Handful of Walnuts” sear themselves unforgettably into your understanding of 9/11. The former is a short story by a US Marine who served in Iraq; the latter is a chapter from the upcoming memoirs of Ahmed Errachidi, an innocent Moroccan who was held at Guantanamo for five years.
Opening the issue with a punch to the gut, American veteran Phil Kay writes in the first person of a soldier’s disappointing return home from Fallujah. With language that doesn’t mask his bewilderment with too many words or burden it with too much emotion, the narrator shows how he can no longer communicate with his wife or walk down the street, how fellow soldiers are now the only people he will ever be close to, and how he wishes he could leave once again the home he had missed so much, to go back to a place where there are more important things to do than dental appointments and shopping at American Eagle Outfitters. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that violence has now become a part of who this soldier is, and that he has brought it back with him into small-town America. Kay’s writing is powerful because it is brutally direct — unlike that of Pakistan-born novelist Nadeem Aslam in his story about a teenage boy who becomes a warlord’s prisoner in a war-torn Afghanistan in 2001, a piece that could easily have had more impact were it less overwrought — and because, one suspects, it is autobiographical.
Errachidi’s memoir is entirely so. Captured from Afghanistan while on a trip there to help refugees after the US invasion, he believes Pakistanis who were promised bounties for militants sold him to the Americans. What follows is a heart-breaking but quiet first-hand account of the horror of Guantanamo, of its isolation cells and torture, but also of camaraderie between prisoners and the ability of the human spirit to find beauty in the most unjust of situations.
These two pieces are enough to make one wonder if a profound and direct personal experience of the worst effects of 9/11 is required to write about it well. Despite its larger point about racism, for example, travel writer Pico Iyer’s piece on the inconveniences of airport security pales into insignificance when read alongside them. Other pieces also fail to have enough impact, including “Stones and Artichokes”, in which the possibility of death haunts a mother — but only philosophically — as she interacts with her family, and “Laikas I”, in which a Sikh in Toronto, who plays only a peripheral role in the story, is called “Osama” by a subway station officer. And while reporting by Anthony Shadid and Declan Walsh on Iraq and Pakistan is informative, it is still in the deeply personal that 9/11 finds its voice.
But then there is “Crossbones”, an excerpt from prominent Somali author Nuruddin Farah’s upcoming novel of the same name. A father who has migrated to Minnesota returns to Somalia in search of a son who has left home to join the Islamist insurgency there. Woven in among a resigned but playful look at the absurdities of the modern-day Horn of Africa, including its corruption, criminal bosses, piracy and human trafficking, is the profoundly moving story of a father confused by his son’s new ideological leanings but willing to brave a venture into the Somali underworld to find him. Farah’s light touch and his arch look at the country’s troubles only heighten the pathos of this story of a parent caught off-guard by a younger generation’s radicalisation.
In the midst of these pieces have been squeezed in a handful of works about the Arab Spring. The inclusion of the two non-fiction essays and a collection of photos seems forced, an attempt to somehow fit in this massive development that only detracts from the collection’s purpose. The Arab Spring does form a topical bookend for the end of the decade that began with 9/11, but to include it here draws a link too direct to justify. And if it is meant to strike a note of change, that decision smacks of entirely too much optimism; it will take a while longer to determine if the upheaval has in fact taken place in the face of, and not alongside, the religious extremism that has taken root over the years. Instead, the Arab Spring deserves its own Granta.
As does 9/11. One advantage Ten Years Later has over other 9/11-related work produced over the years is that it can mix genres, styles and locations, including writing from around the world in several different voices. It doesn’t have to choose between Mohsin Hamid’s view from Lahore or Don DeLillo’s from New York, or between their fiction and the reportage of The 9/11 Commission Report. Why, then, is it so hard to strike deeper with such rich material to mine?
There has been much hand-wringing in literary circles about the failure of so-called 9/11 literature to do justice to the event, and Ten Years Later shows why. The problem is not so much, as is often argued, that we are still too close to the day itself; the finest pieces here show how much obvious tragedy there is to narrate, and that accessing it does not necessarily require the benefit of more time. Perhaps the event’s aftermath is best addressed by those whose lives have been changed in a profound way; we are not all equal participants in the repercussions of 9/11. Perhaps it needs less political analysis and more personal truth. Perhaps it needs more direct treatments rather than serving as a peripheral backdrop against which lives unfold. Or perhaps it simply takes a rare talent to make the words match the enormity of the reality. Either way, most writing in this collection ends up speaking mainly to the intellect about an event that should have a much deeper home.
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
Granta 116: Ten Years Later (ANTHOLOGY) Granta, London ISBN 978-1-90588-135-2 256pp. Rs1,350