Ten Years of Trying to Write About 9/11

In 2001, I lived on the twenty-fifth floor of an apartment building in New York’s East Village, and for the past ten years I have been trying to write about the events that occurred on 9/11.

The turning point of my life, I have written many times.

The first milestone of my adult life, I have written many more.

This is taken from the first time I tried, dated 13 September 2001:

There are two red gaping wounds coming out of a sight she knows all too well, those two tall towers that always stood higher than the rest, those boring monoliths she used to complain about seeing daily, never a fan of seventies architecture. Jon, her boyfriend, eventually came to her side and her next sentence was, ‘Turn on the television, something is happening.’ On NY1 she saw the exact same thing as out of her window – it was as if they were indistinguishable, what was in front of her, what was filtered through the television, the reality of it as cinematic as…cinema. On the news they said many things but the errors stand out: the planes were private jets, there was a third plane somewhere in the NYC skyline about to come down, the DC mall was on fire. It was all unclear. They took out a disposable camera and took pictures for reasons they could not understand, but probably so they could just believe it was happening. The buildings were sparkling wildly, covered in a halo of glitter from all the broken glass.

I applied to grad school the month after, because I had to do something.

For an entire semester every story I workshopped started out about something else and ended up being about 9/11.

Here is a portion of a very flawed story about the impulse to turn back time:

She heads to a line, where a bunch of men, fat, in suits, big boss types, are cursing the stock market – of course – and she wants them to live. She turns to the donut man and asks for ‘one glazed original’ and humors his offer of a Dunkaccino or a Coolatta, opting for the Dunkaccino, for no apparent reason, other than perhaps now in light of what she knows, even the word Dunkaccino is chock-full of tragedy.

‘Can I ask you something?’ she asks.

‘One Dunkaccino!’ he announces instead to the girls in the back. And in spite of the minor insult of being ignored in favour of the creation, the rather simple pouring of a highly caloric, mass-produced, artificially-sweetened, ‘coffee-drink’ of dubious caffeine content, she thinks, is beautiful. Human beings, with their meek flimsy attempts to make this wild world fun, sweet, funny, livable, affectionate, maybe even to someone clever or classy, will always come up with Dunkaccinos. And everyone might know it’s stupid or silly or just sickening, maybe nobody will even truly like it, but somewhere in an office, someone came up with it with good intentions, sure he wanted it to sell, but what he really wanted was to feed his family, and if he didn’t have a family, maybe the family he will one day have. The vulnerability, the humanity, the sickly sweetness, of capitalism suddenly moves her so much, and perhaps so mistakenly, that she suddenly almost forgets to ask again, ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘No, I mean, sure,’ answers the distracted donut man, who’s eyeing the line nervously.

‘Please, don’t come to work tomorrow,’ she says, leaning close to him, ‘Will you trust me? Just don’t bother. Something bad – I don’t want to alarm you, and don’t ask me how I know this – something not-so-great might happen and so please, just take a day off. You’ve earned it, I’m sure.’

He is looking at her blankly and nodding not because of any understanding of any sort, but simply nodding in the manner people have learned to nod in New York when they encounter a crazy person.

I don’t stand by the story today, but I somehow envy its immaturity.

Because what could you do but wedge yourself into the narrative, until the story was a story of you, and the crime just against the self, your self to be specific, and the terrorists had downed you, the city hurting for you and you alone?

And yet the minute you try to make sense of all the layers of non-fiction, fiction, with its insistence on order, creeps in to tidy the narrative.

DeLillo talks about how in the future people will insert themselves into the 9/11 scene: ‘For the next fifty years, people who were not in the area when the attacks occurred will claim to have been there. In time, some of them will believe it. Others will claim to have lost friends or relatives, although they did not. This is also the counternarrative, a shadow history of false memories and imagined loss.’ How accurate this turned out to be. On 12 September 2001 I sent an email to a few dozen friends which said, among other things, that ‘two people I know seem to be of the “missing”’.

I don’t know who I meant, which two? When I reread the email I wanted to punch myself – be careful what you wish for – and yet another side of me wanted to break down and mourn for the pressure and sorrow in composing that email, who knew what chaos fueled that confusion. And then there’s the DeLillo: the counternarrative, a shadow history of false memories and imagined loss. People would be doing this to the end of time, and people have done this so much there are constantly new truths being born, events ever in flux and therefore never over. How can there be closure on something that we won’t let close? Who can call the closure when it belongs to no one and everyone?

Thanksgiving 2001 journal entry:

I have become an American citizen. It just so happened my date to be sworn in arrived after my application had been in the works for a year or so. It was a good thing because in September 2001 my green card expired and I’ve been worrying seriously that all Middle Eastern people would be put in some internment camp or deported. I thought it was a good thing to become a citizen – being a real resident of this country would allow me the freedom to leave the country (and of course come back) and I could vote, both blessed luxuries. So I went through my interviews with the INS, of which there were a couple. One time, an INS official, checking my language skills, asked me to write ‘today is a sunny day’ and I wrote it in a shaky cursive that didn’t even look like my own handwriting. I answered the official’s questions (what are the colors of our flag? to the admittedly more challenging, what are the duties of Congress?), and went to the naturalization ceremony where we sang the national anthem and pledged allegiance and some people were crying and laughing and just a few, like myself, were somewhere between solemn, stoic, and confused.

Welcome to America. After two decades.

Just three months later, another entry, my first reflection on being American:

I began taking Amtraks cross country for months as a way to avoid planes – 9/11 had only heightened my fear of flying to total paralysis – and recently in the middle of those multi-day voyages I got to test out my Americanness while feeling the full force of my Iranianness. Somewhere up in Rochester or Buffalo – one of those dreary northern New York industrial towns – in the middle of the night, the train stopped and state troopers stormed in like the bad-looking good guys of a movie. They had an urgency that woke people up more abruptly than even the sound of their shoes or the boom of their voices, which I remember as being eerily lowered as if to show some consideration but instead only evoking a creepy sort of ax murderer murmur. Apparently they had a question in the form of a demand for all of us, each and every one, and it involved putting flashlights into our eyes and uttering it, a cluster of seats at a time: ‘Please state the country of your citizenship.’ I had finally fallen asleep after hours of the dull sort of alertness that train travel can inspire in some, and I was very disoriented when they woke me with their calculated hullabaloo. I think the whole point was to catch us off guard because some people seemed to pause. I remember at first muttering Iran, because I had always known myself as an Iranian citizen; my whole life I wrote I-R-A-N on the dotted line. But the minute it fell out of my mouth, I felt like a person who had thrown herself off a bridge and only midway decided it was a mistake – I didn’t mean to do that. It wasn’t even true! Life was good: I was an American! I quickly took it back by almost shouting into the man’s face, ‘America, America, I am an American citizen, yes.’ The man paused and we looked at each other with a bit of the swagger of cowboys at a shoot-out, squint for squint, scowl for scowl. Finally, the man walked on and I was free. And I thought that was the first time I did not feel safe as an American, because my Americanness was a hyphenated one and even if I ‘passed’ and others didn’t know it, somehow my very own identity could leak out and needlessly betray me.

Interviewers and critics have called me a ‘9/11 author’. My first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, which I began in 2003 and which was published in 2007, had a blood-red cover featuring the silhouette of a dove flying just over a shadowed New York skyline that indeed prominently featured the World Trade Center. And it’s true that 9/11 takes up much of the book – it is both an antagonist and a protagonist. It is what breaks men up and brings them back together.

But the attacks do not actually appear in the novel.

The minutes after do (my protagonist, the quarter-life-crisis-afflicted Xerxes Adam placing a call to his mother to say ‘Mother, I am alive’ after months of estrangement from his family in Los Angeles), and the hours after (meeting his soon-to-be girlfriend on the rooftop of an East Village apartment complex that they are both residents of, in the evening after, in front of a still smoking skyline). And the months before (the serious squabbles that split people up that can later be seen as just petty fights in the dark light of 9/11), and the months after (the sense of placelessness for New York City residents, the horror of a routinely stalled subway car, the endless lines at a post office where postal workers donned gloves and masks, a time when people called 911 on planes that looked too big and low or packages that felt strangely packed with addresses that looked too foreign, a time when you had to act normal or they had won, where the passing of months could be marked by how many fewer colour-copied photos of the missing you saw in the city). There is everything but the attacks.

It took my second novel to take me there. And the impetus was a part of the narrative no one ever speaks or writes about – not as far as I know – that I never had the courage to write about then: the idea that there was beauty, that the end of the story contained in it some small but real sparks of beauty. In an early draft of my second novel, The Last Illusion, started in 2009 and finished in 2011, ten years after the event and totally fixated on it – costumed in a sort of magical realist take – I wrote an ending made up of what I had never written down before, the moments on the street before we got in a car and left the city, the most surprising thing we saw:

The whole city was screaming in sirens, police and firetrucks and ambulance all at different intervals talking over each other, the only sounds, because the men and women who were running seemed mostly silent.

And there was a strange stillness, a sense that it would get even worse before it got worse.

And as far as you’d run, it felt like you were still close.

And suddenly men and women covered in a white dust were running, men and women shouting and screaming. They were wearing parts of buildings, Zal realized, they were wrapped in the building’s carnage. The buildings had died on them and they had somehow still lived.

And Zal ran with them, fast, and he noticed a few were not just silent but shouting and not crying but laughing. One man was pumping his fists in the air yelling, We made it! And another woman was crying and grinning at the same time, hands in prayer, thanking something in the sky.

They made Zal stop dead in his tracks, against the runners. He stopped, mesmerized by their faces, the brief moment of joy in all that world-ending clamour.

He watched the city move in its frantic motion, away from the end of the island, away from its end, toward itself, toward its heart. And he moved with it, with them, and counted what smiles he saw among the many tears and looks of shock and defeat.

The city was going to be plastered with the smiling faces of their family, friends, and neighbours for months. That was all that was going to be left of those unlucky ones, so frozen in their smiles.

It actually came from a journal entry scribble, just a frantic note – saw people smiling?! – that had an attached parenthetical halfway down the page: detail you might want to leave out. It took me a decade to realize the only truths worth anything in the end were those very details that, in resisting narrative, told the real story, the only one we can learn from anyway.


Photograph by Ed Yourdon

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