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New York City Manhattan downtown skyline at night from Liberty Park with light beams in memory of September 11 viewed from New Jersey waterfront.| ©Songquan Deng / Shutterstock
New York City Manhattan downtown skyline at night from Liberty Park with light beams in memory of September 11 viewed from New Jersey waterfront.| ©Songquan Deng / Shutterstock
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How 15 Literary Figures Reacted to 9/11

Picture of Culture Trip
Updated: 6 October 2016
The unforgettable tragedy of 9/11 still feels like a fresh memory. It changed our world in greater terms than any of the new millennia’s initial, optimistic promises, ushering in an era of terrorism from the Middle East and aggression and racism from the West. 15 years later, Muslims have gained wider acceptance and inclusion in Western culture, even as Islamic extremism remains a scourge. London has elected its first-ever Muslim mayor; a bigoted presidential candidate tweets anti-Islamic sentiments. We have come a long way and still, it seems, have much further to go. But on that day, as smoke billowed from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as a facade of the Pentagon gaped open, and as a farm field burned with the remains of a plane, it wasn’t anger but anguish that was on the minds of its witnesses. On that day alone, when the actions of a handful of men impacted the entire world, people everywhere came together to grieve and try to make sense of what had happened, including many writers and poets.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we gathered the words of 15 writers who have memorialized the event from then till now.

Toni Morrison (from “The Dead of September 11“)
“Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would like to speak directly to the dead — the September dead. Those children of ancestors born in every continent on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas…; born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles, wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes, feathers and cloths to cover their hair. To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say — no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become.”

Zadie Smith (from “Monsters“)
“I grew up with girls who wore the head scarf, a fact that seemed no more remarkable to me at the time than Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes or Hindu kids with bindis on their foreheads. Different world. What enabled it? […] The end of the world for nearly three thousand innocent people. The beginning of a different sort of world for the rest of us. From the epicenter in Manhattan, shock waves rippled across Europe. In North West London, a small but significant change: the stereotype of the Muslim boy was transformed. From quiet, sexless, studious child — sitting in the back of class and destined for an engineering degree — to Public Enemy No. 1.”

Orhan Pamuk (from “Listen to the Damned“)
“As I walked the streets of Istanbul after watching the unbelievable images of the twin towers in New York blazing and collapsing, I met one of my neighbours. “Sir, have you seen, they have bombed America,” he said, and added fiercely, “They did the right thing.” This angry old man, who is not religious, who struggles to make a living by doing minor repair jobs and gardening, who drinks in the evening and argues with his wife, had not yet seen the appalling scenes on television, but had heard only that some people had done something dreadful to America. I listened to many other people express anger similar to his initial reaction, which he was subsequently to regret… In the heat of righteous anger at this vicious act of terror, and in nationalistic rage, it is so easy to speak words that can lead to the slaughter of other innocent people.”

Joan Didion (from “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History“)
“Seven days after September 11, 2001, I left New York to do two weeks of book promotion, under other circumstances a predictable kind of trip. […] Like most of us who were in New York that week — I was in a kind of protective coma, sleepwalking through a schedule made when planning had still seemed possible. In fact I was protecting myself so successfully that I had no idea how raw we all were until that first night, in San Francisco, when I was handed a book onstage and asked to read a few marked lines from an essay about New York I had written in 1967. Later I remembered thinking: 1967, no problem, no land mines there. I put on my glasses. I began to read. “New York was no mere city,” the marked lines began. “It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.” I hit the word ‘perishable’ and I could not say it. I found myself onstage unable to finish reading the passage, unable to speak at all for what must have been thirty seconds.”

David Foster Wallace (from “View from the Midwest“)
“I remember when I came in everybody was staring in transfixed horror at one of the very few pieces of video CBS never reran, which was a distant wide-angle shot of the North Tower and its top floors’ exposed steel lattice in flames and of dots detaching from the building and moving through smoke down the screen, which then that jerky tightening of the shot revealed to be actual people in coats and ties and skirts with their shoes falling off as they fell, some hanging onto ledges or girders and then letting go, upside-down or writhing as they fell and one couple almost seeming (unverifiable) to be hugging each other as they fell all those stories and shrank back to dots as the camera then all of a sudden pulled back to the long view. […] It seems grotesque to talk about being traumatized by a video when the people in the video were dying. Something about the shoes also falling made it worse. I think the older ladies took it better than I did. Then the hideous beauty of the rerun clip of the second plane hitting the tower, the blue and silver and black and spectacular orange of it, as more little moving dots fell.”

Don DeLillo (from “In the Ruins of the Future”)
“The events of September 11 were covered unstintingly. There was no confusion of roles on TV. The raw event was one thing, the coverage another. The event dominated the medium. It was bright and totalising and some of us said it was unreal. When we say a thing is unreal, we mean it is too real, a phenomenon so unaccountable and yet so bound to the power of objective fact that we can’t tilt it to the slant of our perceptions. First the planes struck the towers. After a time it became possible for us to absorb this, barely. But when the towers fell. When the rolling smoke began moving downward, floor to floor. This was so vast and terrible that it was outside imagining even as it happened. We could not catch up with it. But it was real, punishingly so, an expression of the physics of structural limits and a void in one’s soul, and there was the huge antenna falling out of the sky, straight down, blunt end first, like an arrow moving backwards in time.”

Lynne Tillman (from an interview with The Fabulist)
“People always complain that New York isn’t the same, and it isn’t the same. It changes all the time. But the difference now is drastic. Two things happened: 9/11 and the cost of living. Both are terrible.”

Caleb Crain (from “My 9/11“)
“Firetrucks were lined up at the Battery Park Tunnel and waiting for firemen, in and out of uniform. Cars were being shunted from the BBC down side streets instead of into the tunnel. There were about a dozen Hasidim, shouting into chunky cell phones. Their bars were missing and they were trying to commandeer a taxi for someone. Later I realized that they were part of a relief group. […] Soon people began walking out of the tunnel. The Hasids set paper cups on the of the car and began pouring water from blue plastic jugs.”

Colson Whitehead (from “The Way We Live Now“)
“I never got a chance to say goodbye to the twin towers. And they never got a chance to say goodbye to me. I think they would have liked to; I refuse to believe in their indifference. […] The twin towers still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are a part of the city we carry around. It is hard to imagine that something will take their place, but at this very moment the people with the right credentials are considering how to fill the crater. The cement trucks will roll up and spin their bellies, the jackhammers will rattle, and after a while the postcards of the new skyline will be available for purchase. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.”

Martin Amis (from “Fear and Loathing“)
“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

Rachel Zucker (from “Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday“)
“On 9/11 I took my nine-month old son to his first day of day care and the city exploded, went up in smoke, and no one but me cares that he spent hours there, only nine months old, while we watched TV in our phone-jammed airspace, breathed in fumes, tried to give blood, wondered was there anywhere, anywhere we could or should flee to?—”

Ian McEwan (from “Only Love and Then Oblivion“)
“Initially, the visual impact of the scenes — those towers collapsing with malign majesty — extended our state of fevered astonishment. […] In our delirium, most of us wanted to talk. We babbled, by email, on the phone, around kitchen tables. We knew there was a greater reckoning ahead, but we could not quite feel it yet. Sheer amazement kept getting in the way. The reckoning, of course, was with the personal. By Thursday I noticed among friends, and in TV and radio commentaries, a new mood of exhaustion and despair. People spoke of being depressed. No other public event had cut so deeply. The spectacle was over. Now we were hearing from the bereaved. Each individual death is an explosion in itself, wrecking the lives of those nearest. We were beginning to grasp the human cost. This was what it was always really about.”

Douglas Copeland (from an interview with the Independent)
“9/11 will probably be the last under-documented mega event. Smartphones, with cameras, didn’t come out until 2002. Imagine 9/11 happening now. There would be four billion videos to knit together. A certain tristesse comes with that, I think.”

Jonathan Franzen (From “Tuesday, and After“)
“Even if you’d been waiting for the nineties-ending crash throughout the nineties, even if you’d believed all along that further terrorism in New York was only a matter of when and not of whether, what you felt on Tuesday morning wasn’t intellectual satisfaction, or simply empathetic horror, but deep grief for the loss of daily life in prosperous, forgetful times: the traffic jammed by delivery trucks and unavailable cabs, “Apocalypse Now Redux” in local theatres, your date for drinks downtown on Wednesday, the sixty-three homers of Barry Bonds, the hourly AOL updates on J. Lo’s doings.”

John Updike, (from “Tuesday and After“)
“My wife and I watched from the Brooklyn building’s roof, the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing; it fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.”