Recently, travelling home on the train from Norwich where she had been visiting one of our children, a student at UEA, my wife started chatting to an elderly woman. “What does your son study?” the lady asked. When she learned that he is reading Geography she was very approving: “a very useful subject.” The conversation continued and eventually the friendly woman asked about me. She was interested to hear that I am a Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and she asked about my research. When she heard that I work on the literature of 9/11, however, her interest quickly turned to annoyance: “arggh, why are people still so bothered about 9/11?”
Perhaps she is right to be annoyed.
We all know that in terms of loss of human life, 9/11 pales in significance compared to any number of subsequent “events” or “catastrophes” that have taken place around the world. The grossly underreported genocide in Aleppo of last year, for example.
It is also the case that the idea of 9/11 as a singular, defining moment that came “out of the blue” and “changed everything” is problematic as it tends to remove the attacks from their pre-histories and actual causes. This has allowed for the advancement of unilateral agendas and policies as was the case with the launch of the War on Terror. As David Holloway has noted, “the notion that the attacks came out of the blue was the ideological lynchpin for the war on terror” (2007).
So when I heard about the lady on the train’s response, I could understand her sentiment. But, of course, the other way of looking at this is that an in-depth critical understanding of 9/11 is important so that we can understand just how it was and is still being used. I certainly hope that my work on the literary response to the attacks does just this by reflecting on the ways in which literature has both challenged and reinforced this singular vision of 9/11.
But yet in some ways, I will always be complicit in the disproportionate attention given to 9/11. This is one of the troubling aporias of my research area. It is dangerous to ascribe so much importance to 9/11 but equally vital to recognize that 9/11 did change the world in some significant ways and that it is important to unpack the roles of culture and literature in this history.
My students have been a huge help with this.
Most of my students inevitably see 9/11 from perspectives linked to the pressing issues of their own generation and bring fresh eyes and views to the texts (though of course my mature students have their own distinct and equally valued frames of reference) . Personally I still identify with Peter Boxall’s statement, from his excellent 2013 monograph, Twenty-First-Century Literature, that 9/11 remains “part of the living tissue of the present.” But while 9/11 still feels contemporary to me – just – my students see it as an historical event through the prisms of more recent disasters linked to climate change, to the rise of Trump and a disturbing new nationalism, of Brexit, of the refugee crisis, of “post-truth,” “fake news” and the “alt right.”
In fact, through talking to students about texts like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007); Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011), the television series Homeland (2010-) or Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), I have been able to draw more sophisticated lines of continuity between 9/11, the War on Terror and what I see as the rise of fascism in America and elsewhere
Long may these fruitful dialogues continue! I look forward to delivering my Year 4 ‘Fictions of Terror’ module again this year and launching our new Year 3 ‘C21 Literature: Writing the Unfolding Present’ module next week, where these kinds of discussions will, hopefully, keep flourishing.