What makes a 9/11 book? Certainly a book in which 9/11 is central to the plot, or a book that uses 9/11 as an occasion for significant reflection, is a 9/11 book (I'm thinking The Emperor's Children
and that Lynne Sharon Schwartz novel
, and of course the Julia Glass novel
). But what of a book that simply mentions 9/11, because it takes place now? Could we say that all our literature, post 9/11, is 9/11 literature, or is 9/11 simply the condition of our current literature, five years later?
It can be pretty persuasively argued that Digging to America
is Anne Tyler's 9/11 novel, though there's only one overt reference. No, that's not right. The overt reference I'm thinking of is the arrival of the Dickinson-Donaldson's second child. When their first daughter arrives from Korea in 1996, everyone greets her at the gate; when they come back from China with their second daughter, at some point after 9/11, the grandfather and first daughter meet them outside security, everyone else waits by the baggage carousel, and momentum is lost. There are other overt references too, though, I'm remembering now, because the Iranian Yazdans, whose daughter Susan arrives from Korea on the same flight as Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson, refer to how they are treated after 9/11.
But Tyler is more subtle than the writers who make their characters face the falling towers. I would call this a 9/11 novel because it addresses the question of what it means to be American, especially for immigrants, and it does so not through young Muslim men, but through Maryam Yazdan who comes to American as a young woman who opposes the Shah, her son Sami who doesn't even speak Farsi, Sami's wife Ziba and her more-recently-immigrated family of Shah supporters, the Korean girls, Jin-Ho and Susan, and Bisty Dickinson, Jin-Ho's culturally appropriative liberal mother. OK, now that I'm writing this out, I'm thinking it's not so subtle, perhaps oblique is a better word, or, and I know this is a lame compound and there's probably a better word, lightly oblique.
At any rate, there is something deeply comforting about reading Anne Tyler, and I mean that as the highest praise. Her worlds and characters are so fully realized, her dialogue so present, her plots so naturalistically meandering (though the end of this one is just a bit forced): she is a master of fiction, and we all should always remember to read her. (Just as I read great chunks of Joan Didion as I wrote my senior essay, I devoured Anne Tyler as I finished my first pregnancy and then sat on the couch and nursed for weeks--I nursed longer than weeks, but in those first few weeks it seemed like all I did was nurse and read Anne Tyler.)