Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of September 11th, and as always happens at this time of year, I find myself thinking about it a little more than is probably healthy. Tonight I've gone farther and done some serious rereading, both of the play I worked on with my students in the months following the World Trade Center attack and, appropriately to our conversation, of a September 11th-related graphic novel.
Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers is a burning, furious cry from a brilliant and political cartoonist. Spiegelman (author of the extraordinary Holocaust memoir/parental biography Maus) lives in Lower Manhattan, and on September 11th he watched the towers fall. The book is a series of large-scale color pages, originally printed in a German newspaper, which draw on comic strips of the early 20th century and combine a wide variety of styles. In the second half of the oversized book, Spiegelman reproduces some of the original strips which inspired him.
The pages are heterogeneous and complex, Spiegelman's attempts to make sense of his own anger and loss. He rails against the Bush administration and what he sees as the cynical political use of the country's intense reaction to the attacks. Perhaps this isn't the right place to write about this book: it's not a comic for kids. But for older teenagers, with the right context, it could be a disturbing and fascinating read.
One of Spiegelman's pages depicts him and his wife, Francoise Mouly, running toward the high school where their daughter Nadja had just begun her freshman year in order to find her and take her home. That school, Stuyvesant High School, is where I've taught since 2000. (Nadja was in my Writers' Workshop class her junior year.) On September 11th, I was one of the teachers evacuating the building along with our 3000 students.
In the aftermath of the attacks, after we returned to the building, I worked with a group of Stuyvesant students to create a series of interview-based monologues which became the play with their eyes. Our inspiration came from the work of Anna Deveare Smith, whose plays Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles showed us how powerful the words of everyday people can be in conveying the complexity of community tragedy (in her case, riots in Crown Heights and L.A.).
Ten student actors interviewed 23 members of the Stuyvesant community -- students, faculty, and staff. They recorded these interviews on audiotape, transcribed them word for word, including all the "like"s, "and"s, and "um"s, and arranged them on the page like poetry, with line breaks to indicate pauses. The actors edited the transcriptions into monologues, and then performed in the character of the people they had interviewed. The book reproduces all of these monologues, along with pictures of the student actors (taken by the immensely talented Ethan Moses, who was a senior at Stuyvesant at the time):
|Chantelle Smith as Anonymous Male Custodian|
|Catherine Choy as senior Owen Cornwall|
|Anna Belc as English teacher|
|Christopher Yee as sophomore Kevin Zhang|
I hope your weekend is peaceful.