Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Reflection on September 11th and the Power of Writing

Those of us who were in schools and classrooms eight years ago this week can likely recall with specificity how difficult it was to help our students process the news of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., as we ourselves were learning about the human loss and devastation only moments before—or at the same time as—our students did.

It was with these still vivid memories in mind that I heeded Jennifer Buehler’s recommendation and read David Levithan’s just-published young adult novel Love is the Higher Law this weekend. Levithan’s book chronicles the experiences of three New York City teens on September 11, 2001, as they attempt to situate their personal emotions in the midst of a national tragedy and to reconcile their doubts about humanity with their need to feel hope for the future.

Reading Levithan’s book (and earlier this year, Joseph O’Neill’s beautifully rendered Netherland, a novel that explores the ways the events of 9/11 profoundly alter the narrator’s personal life) reminded me of twin truths upon which the tradition of Sophocles and Shakespeare is founded: Writing helps give meaning to tragedies that seem too immense to comprehend, and reading what good writers have written about these tragedies connects us in an experience of art borne out of destruction.

To be sure, the notion of reading and writing about tragedy seems starkly different when the tragedy is real and not mythical, in the present day and not historical. As with literature about any significant event, there is certainly a risk of the creation of “a 9/11 genre” filled with books that merely use the day as an excuse for a topical and timely story. I’m grateful for authors such as Levithan and O’Neill (and I’m sure there are others) who are writing about September 11 despite that risk, and to powerful effect.

Early in Love is the Higher Law, the character Claire (a high school senior) rushes from her school to the classroom in which her younger brother Sammy and other children are coloring flowers and pumpkins, unaware of the destruction occurring only a few blocks south. “The world is falling apart,” Claire observes dismissively, “and this is what we have to offer.”

Far from being art that is merely a distraction, writing that engages both directly and indirectly with an event such as 9/11 has much to offer all of us: Perspectives different from our own; narratives that allow for confusion and fear as well as hope; and reading experiences that prompt us to reevaluate the potential for human response to complex and profound events.


Nan said...

Thank you for sharing those texts. While that tragedy was unthinkable, it's refreshing to know that there are resources available that we can use now with our students.

Lisa Fink said...

I was in junior high when the Challenger exploded - that was one of the tragedy's that seemed to define my generation. We were watching on TV as the explosion occurred. I don't remember what my teacher did or said after that - all I remember is that we were given paper and writing and art supplies and he gave us the rest of the day to express our feelings and emotions. What you said is true, "Writing helps give meaning to tragedies that seem too immense to comprehend."

CSimonSays said...

Thanks for taking the time to read this book and reflect on it. I can't wait to read it!

Mrs. DeRaps said...

Thank you for suggesting this new title. I've read Netherland and loved it. I feel that students need options like these to both remember and process the events of that day.

Thanks again!

Gail said...

Check out the beautiful new book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. They will be speaking about their book at the 2009 National Book Festival on September 26 on the Washington Mall. Learn more about this book and the authors at the Library of Congress Young Readers' Toolkit.