Author speaks about 9/11’s effect on art and literature
Amitava Kumar, author and professor of English at Vassar College, spoke at Ithaca College on Sept. 7 about his most recent book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and how 9/11 has had an effect on art and literature in the past decade.
At Vassar, Kumar teaches a course called “Literature of 9/11,” a genre that he said his book, published in 2010, fits into. The book explores the consequences of the war on terror through the cases of Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj, two men convicted of plotting acts of terrorism after coming in contact with U.S. informants.
Kumar first heard the voice of Lakhani on the radio, saying, “I don’t know why I have been arrested. I’m not Muslim. I’m not a terrorist.”
Kumar said he wondered, among other things, why it was that he thought only Muslims could be terrorists. He wanted to know what this man did and where he grew up. He wanted to meet him.
“Many of our stories begin with this discovery of news, and something that makes you curious,” Kumar said during his talk.
In an interview, I asked Kumar about literature in the post-9/11 world.
Q: Do you feel your purpose in writing, or in finding stories to write about, has undergone any significant changes as a result of 9/11?
A: There is no doubt that 9/11, and certainly its global aftermath, has altered my sense of the world. For example, I wouldn’t be teaching my course on “transnational literatures” in the manner that I do — with the closing section on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — if it were not for that recent history. It is the same with my writing. It is clear to me that the fallout from 9/11, for which torture and war would be a quick shorthand, is the new definition of bare life. I urgently want to understand it.
Q: How would you define ‘literature of 9/11,’ or what puts a book in this genre?
A: When I began doing this, I was thinking more of the question ‘how to teach about 9/11?’ Soon I found that I was staging a debate about different writerly or artistic responses to the day’s events. But as the decade has progressed, my response has changed. Whereas in the beginning years I had been preoccupied with how, say, three different novelists might have responded to this singular event, I’m now interested in asking students whether the prison-log of a man being tortured in Guantanamo can be considered an important, if not the culminating, part of what I’m calling the ‘literature of 9/11.’
Q: You talked about your perception that art has been able to — or at least has started to — address 9/11, while literature has not. Do you think it is possible that 9/11 cannot be portrayed through the medium of words, or that it just hasn’t been done yet?
A: I’m very interested in stressing that art or literature has to be adept at responding moment by moment to history. At the same time, I remain perplexed, or maybe only involved, in figuring out what time it takes for art to name and understand new things. Perhaps it takes longer for writers to respond than performance artists.
To answer your question more directly, we can’t really say that 9/11 has ‘happened’ yet — which is to say, it isn’t over yet — and so it hasn’t been done yet in literature, no. When people think about 9/11, they usually think of a single day. But a more thoughtful response cannot — and should not — distinguish it from the days and years that preceded it and the devastating decade that came in its wake.
Q: You ended your talk on a point that it is the job of the writer to give a face to people who are affected by violence around the world. Can you comment at all on the media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade? Do you think it could do a better job of communicating this information about the people in these areas?
A: There has been some striking coverage of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by Western writing. Read Robert Fisk, for instance. Great reporting has come out even when the journalists are embedded with the armed forces. Check out David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.
But, for the most part, the reality of war, and what it has meant for the ordinary people in those countries, is screened from our view. The horror remains hidden. And my point in my book is that the war on terror here, the many trials and the many arrests, screen from our view the horror of that other war.
Gena Mangiaratti is a junior journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.