The Submission Memorial Projects
How do we handle loss? We’ve all felt it ourselves, or stood next to it, or watched it unravel the lives of strangers. But what do we do with it? Where do we put it?
I often assign Amy Waldman’s outstanding 2011 novel, The Submission, a book that examines the depths of loss and the tensions that arise in attempting to acknowledge and contain it. The setup for the book is pretty simple: it’s two years after 9/11, and a committee has been formed to select a winner for a nationwide contest to design a memorial to those killed in the attacks. It’s a blind competition, so no one knows anything about the designers until one is selected. The committee chooses the winning design, and the designer is revealed. His name is Mohammad Khan, and he’s a Muslim. Naturally, controversies unfold and lives are damaged—some irrevocably.
Amidst these controversies, several issues emerge, and our discussions have tried to address all of them. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on two: the complexities of public memory and the purpose of memorials. Khan’s design—a garden laid out according to rigid geometry—is meant as a public monument that will contain and reflect the personal memories and emotions of those affected. But given the plurality (and sometimes cross-purposes) of these memories and the racial tensions in our society, the difficulties of this task become too much to overcome.
And yet, these characters need to remember the dead, to offer some memorial to them, to gain closure and begin to heal. In one scene, near the end, a character honors his dead father by placing a small stone cairn in the corner of a garden. Waldman writes, “With a pile of stones, he had written a name.” The gesture is minor but meaningful. It is, in fact, the only real act of memorializing in a 300-plus page book about a memorial.
To connect more closely with the spirit of this character’s act, I have designed an assignment where my students and I create memorials of our own—ones that are both individual and collective. I get some river rocks at Lowe’s, haul them to class in a bucket (nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process), and ask each student to take a few and place them somewhere on campus in memory of someone or something—a family member, a friend, a pet, a public figure, or even a thing or idea. After they find their spot and “write a name with a pile of rocks,” they take a picture and send it to me with the name of who they chose to memorialize and some words in memoriam. The rocks are meant to transform our campus into a group memorial comprised of individual acts of remembrance. And because people or weather or time will undoubtedly unstack these rocks, the pictures (in the galleries linked below) are meant to make permanent our memorial.
So please take a look at this work by my various classes:
Fall 2022 English 203