Any attempt to shape, display and reconstruct 9/11 in the public arena is deliberate and effective. Arguably the most effective way 9/11 is shaped, displayed and reconstructed in the public arena is through media and literature, the most famous media imago – the real falling man perfectly posed in front of a tower which will soon crumble. Additionally, narratives such as the ‘war on terror’ initiated by the Bush Administration are effective in their ability to stimulate fear, however flawed they may be. The events of September 11, 2001 led directly and intentionally to the genesis of the modern American heroes and the villainous foreign other. 9/11 was arguably the catalyst for determining the way in which we view certain lives as valuable and undermine the value of others. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which texts such as Don DeLillo’s ‘Falling Man’ and ‘Burnt Shadows’ by Kamila Shamsie construct and critique a post 9/11 world and the varying effects on the human condition.
Literature offers interpretation and allows for a comprehensive look at past events. Don DeLillo’s ‘Falling Man’ navigates various stories through language and divided chapters telling the stories of three different people, each effected by the tragedy of 9/11 in a different way. The novel opens in the aftermath of the attack where the street is no longer so but ‘a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night’ (DeLillo, 2004, p.3) DeLillo creates a chaotic and frantic setting where ‘Nothing is next’ for the characters in the novel or for the reader. He continues ‘There is no next. This was next. Eight years ago, they planted a bomb in one of the towers. Nobody said what’s next. This was next. The time to be afraid is when there’s no reason to be afraid. Too late now.” (DeLillo, 2001, p.10) By removing the movement associated with ‘next’ and using it to represent the continuous and unmoving present we are subject to living in a post 9/11 world where ‘the time to be afraid is a when there’s no reason to be afraid’. This carefully constructed narrative where ‘the time to be afraid is when there’s no reason to be afraid’ is paralleled throughout Bush’s war on terror rhetoric and intentional fear mongering.
Following the attacks, America was wounded and on the defense. In terms of magnitude, visibility and number of casualties there had not been a similar attack on American soil for over sixty years, because of this, it was necessary for a response that corresponded proportionately with the heinous nature of the attack, and in order to maintain what Donald Pease describes as ‘American exceptionalism’. American exceptionalism comes from the founding of America itself as John Winthrop – an English pilgrim and a key figure in the establishment of America itself – said: “we must delight in each other, make other conditions our own as members of the same body.” (Winthrop, 1630) Pease stipulates that as an idea the United States is ‘a complex assemblage of theological and secular assumptions out of which Americans have developed a lasting belief in Americans as the fulfilment of the national idea to which other nations aspire.’ (Pease, 2009, p.7) From its earliest conception ‘America was less a territory or place than a goal, a project, a making.’ (Dolan, 1994, p. 21) In order for the ‘last belief in Americans as the fulfilment of national idea’ it was essential to construct a narrative where America reigned triumphant whilst simultaneously ensuring the people felt safe. In order for the American people to feel safe the Bush administration constructed an enemy – the middle eastern, Muslim man. The construction of this enemy has led to a lack of empathy for those who look or are associated with the middle eastern man and the removal of empathy corresponds with the lack of sympathy felt for the civilian deaths taken in retaliation to the attacks in New York City.
In Precarious Life, Judith Butler discusses violence, mourning and politics, she contends that the way in which human beings are tied to one another, even in the form of loss and vulnerability is fundamental. She argues that ‘loss has made a tenuous “we” of us all’ (Butler, 2004, p. 20) and considers the conditions of the heightened vulnerability and aggression following on from the September 11 attacks. She offers a critique on the use of violence that has emerged since as a response to the loss of life, and argues that the dislocation of first world privilege offers a chance to imagine a world in which the violence might be minimised and which interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for a global community. She also considers the means by which some lives become grief worthy, while others are perceived as undeserving of grief. She suggests that the powers of mourning and violence should lead us not to retaliation (Bush’s war on terrorism) but to the awareness that our life is fundamentally dependent upon anonymous others. In the post 9/11 America, we know that the mourning of certain people’s – particularly Arabs – is not publically allowed. The omission of Arabic peoples – dead or injured in the media in the context of “war on terrorism” works to dehumanise them because “the differential allocation of “grievability” that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human, that counts as livable life and a grievable death” (Butler, 2004, p. xiv-xv). America as a global superpower implores us as humanity to grieve with them. Their loss becomes the loss of the world, their death and grief overwhelms by travelling the continents and transcending race. If America has been attacked and is in a state of ‘rubble and mud’ (DeLillo, 2004, p.3) then so is the rest of the western world according to Bush’s speech.
Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Burnt Shadows’ is constructed of four parts where each section is set in a unique period of time. Section one addresses 1945 – the year of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki; section two 1947, the Partition in Pakistan, the third 1982 Pakistan and the fourth and final section: 2001 – 2002, a post-9/11 world. She offers a critique on how Islam has been viewed since September 11, 2001, in particular, she comments on American policy in Afghanistan and links the personal narratives in the novel to the political climate. For example, she addresses a number of tragedies, using the devastating attack on Nagasaki to implement Hiroko’s trauma. Hiroko – a young Japanese woman and school teacher who falls in love with Konrad, a German idealist who she is set to marry – is a central character. In the days leading to the end of the war Hiroko refuses to ‘back away from Konrad when her world turned him into an enemy’ (Shamsie, 2009. p.350) and suffers a number of losses; firstly, her father and then said fiancé, Konrad and finally, she loses her home. Among the ashes and destruction stands Hiroko; there she has a flashback to a city that is full of movement, people, and life.
The author’s description of the destruction of the Japanese city is significant; the shocking picture of Nagasaki enables Hiroko’s flashback to the city when it was full of life and activity, now she describes the city as functional: Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans. (Shamsie, 2009, p.7)
Burnt Shadows’ political overtones come from Shamsie’s distain for the atrocities enacted in the east, and in particular Asian countries. She uses the novel as commentary for America’s support of 1930s/40s Japan and its dictatorship, making reference to the destruction caused by western policies and the arrogance of these superpowers and such through the mass devastation on a city that was once vibrant, full of life and people but is now filled with death and despair.
Shamsie also addresses the perception of Muslims and the impact that 9/11 had on them in the public arena, she mirrors the relationship between the media representation of Islam and Muslim identities and the opposing representations, she offers commentary on the differences in the way trauma is represented and the dominance that the events of 9/11 have in a broader context by aligning them with the event of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Although it is common for the majority of 9/11 narratives to focus on the white American endeavour to recover from the trauma Burnt Shadows offers a unique look at the repetition of characterisation that is described by Butler as a ‘foreclosed ability to mourn in global dimensions’ (2004, p. 26) this blinkered perception of the pain afflicted on others is where Shamsie endeavours to place the limelight. Typically, the wrongdoings of white Americans are not visible in fictions, rather narratives often focus on the American attempt to recover from a trauma. Shamsie highlights the two cities devastated by American bombs through a constant reminder on Hiroko’s back. She disrupts the pattern of white American trauma being played out in the media and places her focus on redefining 9/11 as ‘so tiny a fragment in the big picture’ and enables others – namely the Japanese and Pakistanis – to dismiss their exclusion from the predominately white American space where 9/11 dominates tragedy and melancholy leads to justifiable outrage and thus, affirmative action in the public arena.
Americans typically do not show remorse upon invasion, using the events of September 11 to justify numerous attacks. During a conversation with Kim, Abdullah tells her that they do not fight Americans for their namesake, but rather see them as invaders. From the Nagasaki atomic bomb to life as a refugee in post-partition India to the Soviet empire invasion of Afghanistan, Burnt Shadows offers insight into this dehumanisation of the non-American body. Apparent in the prologue when an unnamed man is made to strip and wear an orange jumpsuit – a symbol of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre – Shamsie overlaps the fictional and political. Her ability to create anticipation as well as agony and grief is realised in this passage, she forms a novel based on past historical events; using this allusive man to represent humanity’s ability to torture and dehumanise other human beings. This opening is not only chilling but particularly sinister as he asks, ‘How did it come to this?’ (2009, p.1) By beginning the novel in Guantanamo Bay she focuses on the oppression and marginalisation of traumatic events, she uses the past of her characters to exhibit pain and the present of her characters to articulate a world of depression and anxiety. She uses the time span to emphasise her cultural and political agenda, this time period is critical in that it is filled with traumatic events and shows the various impacts of human suffering.
Burnt Shadows’ theme of memory is realised through the heroine of the novel, Hiroko. Hiroko’s memory of her life pre-atomic bomb is filled with her family and fiancé; however, it becomes distorted by the devastation of her home in Nagasaki. This memory is followed by life in India and Pakistan where she adjusts despite hardships faced as a woman. Shamsie is able to reflect the loss of home culture and incorporate the concept of identity and nationality. The novel is successful its interest in life across varying cultures and locations, similarly Falling Man endeavours this through the separation of chapters and depicting the same event imagined through the same event shown through different characters.
In summation, 9/11’s impact has been overwhelming. It is the catalyst for the way we live our life today and how we will continue to live our lives: in a state of fear and anticipating an impending attack from somewhere. DeLillo shapes, displays and constructs the memory of 9/11 by limiting the ability of the characters in seeing a future post 9/11, by doing this he constructs a novel where the characters are governed by fear and lack of future vision, he uses rhetoric from Bush’s speeches about the war on terror and mirrors the language in his dialogue. Shamsie offers critique of the memory that has been shaped, displayed and constructed in the public arena. Both authors successfully shed light on the limited mourning capabilities of white America and their lack of sympathy of the Muslim other and how the mourning of the Muslim other is publicly unacceptable, she uses the divided chapters and unique settings and particular, significant years to underscore and critique the magnitude of mourning of attacks similar to 9/11. She offers a wider look at world history and highlights events that have been just as significant but have not had the same visibility in terms of media response and cultural shift in the western world as September 11, 2001. There are many values that can be taken from these novels, although they are set in the past they offer messages that can be translated and that are just as important for the reader today.