Among the many smart novels to deal with the 9/11 terrorist attacks was “The Submission” by Amy Waldman, a former New York Times journalist. By imagining what would have happened if a Muslim American had been selected to design a memorial in New York, Waldman explored the intense emotions that held sway in the still-raw years following the attacks.
In her latest work of fiction, “A Door in the Earth,” Waldman looks at the longer wake of 9/11, turning her gaze to Afghanistan. Her protagonist is the American college student Parveen, whose Afghan parents immigrated to the United States. Idealistic and rootless – still reeling from the death of her mother – Parveen embarks on a journey inspired by the celebrity-humanitarian Gideon Crane. Her destination is a remote village that Crane made famous in his memoir “Mother Afghanistan,” in which he recalls witnessing the tragic loss of a mother and infant in childbirth that has driven him to build hospitals across Afghanistan. Parveen convinces Crane’s humanitarian organization to coordinate her stay with the family of the woman who died, in the village where this took place.
The cast of characters includes not only villagers but also outsiders who have become part of the scene – for better or worse. One physician, Dr. Yasmeen, traverses the mountains weekly to offer consultations to women at the hospital Crane built. Meanwhile, the American military has been studying Crane’s concept of “kind power,” and so decides unilaterally to build a road to improve the villagers’ lives.
Those who recall the revelations about Greg Mortenson of “Three Cups of Tea” fame and the humanitarian organization he founded will likely see where this is headed.
Waldman does an admirable job of keeping multiple balls in the air. Her characters are fully realized individuals, as morally complex as the choices facing them. Parveen speaks the local dialect, so she has access to the Afghans’ and Americans’ perspectives alike. She belongs to both cultures and to neither.
The author is as deft at painting the physical landscape of this mountainous region as she is in drawing the interior landscape of her characters – and at showing where these collide with international and local politics.
This is a novel about many things, but perhaps chief among them, the risks of military intervention where there is an absence of long-standing relationships or cultural understanding. Waldman’s portrayal of an Afghan translator attempting to bridge linguistic and cultural gaps between American military officers and local leaders would be almost laughable if we didn’t know how devastating the consequences could be. “A Door in the Earth” is especially pointed in exposing the dangers of a “white savior” mentality – that is, the compulsion to see every nonwhite nation as needing to be rescued, often without understanding its traditions or history, or recognizing the way past American policies may be implicated in that history.
One sage voice to express such misgivings is Dr. Banerjee, a respected anthropology professor. While she is too acerbic to serve as the surrogate mother Parveen might wish for, Dr. Banerjee is cleareyed in understanding the harm that arises when the villagers’ stories are co-opted by men like Crane.
One of the pleasures of the novel is discovering Muslim women characters whose voices are varied and witty, and who are, in the best sense, ordinary.
Whether representing such women’s banter and daily lives, or the power plays among the local men, or the unintended consequences when Westerners parachute in to save the day, Waldman is that rare novelist who writes from both the head and heart, combining high moral seriousness with moments of irony and humor. In “A Door in the Earth,” she has created a novel as moving as it is provocative.
Elizabeth Toohey is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York.