Waldman Reflects On Post 9/11 Identities

Author and former New York Times journalist Amy Waldman spoke about the symbiotic relationship she sees between journalism, fiction and real life as part of the fourth annual SUNY New Paltz Distinguished Speaker Series.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Waldman was presented as the eighth annual One Book/One New Paltz guest author to speak about her book “The Submission” to an audience of more than 230 students, faculty and New Paltz residents.

To clear the misconception that her novel is a 9/11-focused story, Waldman said she wanted to break away from the specific day to connect to the historic events that followed.

Waldman said post-9/11 sentiments kept her on her feet as she went from a local writer in New York to a foreign correspondent in Iran, Russia and Afghanistan.

The New York Times stationed her in India as co-chief of the New Delhi bureau where she encountered the primarily-Muslim countries of South Asia.

“I was in an exile of sorts, that’s what a foreign correspondent is — you’re exiled from your own country,” Waldman said. “It’s the clearest way to see your own country.”

Waldman said she felt both American and Islamic people were in the midst of an identity crisis post-9/11.

“A beard on a Brooklyn hipster is a cliché at this point whereas a beard on a Muslim is something made to seem threatening because we don’t know what it means,” Waldman said.

Waldman said that a close friend experiencing a similar identity conflict inspired her to create an identity-conflicted character in her book.

“This novel turned out to be not just about America and Islam, it’s also about our relationships to ourselves, our identities and the groups we belong to,” Waldman said. “The perpetual tension between defining ourselves as individuals and the loyalties we feel to family, faith and country.”

Waldman said that while she was a member of the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program, she finally got the time to break from her journalistic roots  to enter a more creative space for fiction writing.

“I’m glad I went through so many years as a journalist,” Waldman said. “But journalism can learn from the techniques of fiction, there’s a lot each can take from each other.”

Waldman said that writing a novel is “like going into a pitch black room” as there is little guidance or reassurance as to whether she is doing the job correctly.

“I think the role of the novelist is to raise questions rather than to provide answers, to complicate rather than simplify reality,” Waldman said.

One Book/One New Paltz coordinator Jacqueline Andrews said the committee that chose this year’s One Book/One New Paltz had to “duke it out,” vote and make sure “The Submission” was accessible for the community.

“I am so happy to see the student and community member turnout and through her speech, Waldman was really able to connect to the audience,” Andrews said.