In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 11th, in graphic novel and play

Dear Aunt Debbie,

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
I am obviously not an impartial reader here: from rehearsing these monologues over and over, editing the book, and watching other performances of the play by high schools and even a couple of repertory companies in the last several years, I know many sections by heart, and can hear the voices of the students who created each role.  Still, it's been a while since I sat down to reread the whole play.

Anna Belc as English teacher
Katherine Fletcher
One of the things that makes this form so powerful is that it is a collection of stories, and so can represent multiple and conflicting viewpoints: the intense anger of senior Max Willens, who felt his neighborhood was invaded by tourists who didn't belong in New York but snapped pictures of the wreckage; the bubbly freshman Katie Berringer talking about the pluses and minuses of having to hold classes in another school until the building could reopen; the Dining Hall worker talking about how her religious faith helped her through.  Anna Deavere Smith writes about how everyone, given the chance to talk, will say something which is poetry.  In the case of these interviewees, processing the attacks just a few months later, this was true.  Their voices came through so clearly.

Christopher Yee as sophomore Kevin Zhang
I've heard from classes who have read this book and students who have performed the play that hearing the actual words of kids their own age about what it was like to be so close to Ground Zero on September 11th made them understand the day differently.  The tiny details -- a sandwich left in a locker when students evacuated, gone moldy by the time we returned -- aren't necessarily what you think about when you think of a day as fraught with tragedy as this one was.  But they were part of the reality too.  It's important to remember.

I hope your weekend is peaceful.

Love, Annie


  1. The last paragraph in this entry made me cry.

    So many pundits and fundamentalists have been saying "never forget" for so many years now, and nearly all of them say it to promote whatever their agenda is. They don't mean that we should remember an uneaten sandwich, or the grey dust that sat stubbornly on the subway tracks for weeks, or the way that it felt when the "towers of light" memorial was first switched on... they want us to not forget the anger we felt; they want us to never forget that we have reason to hate the people who did it.

    This is my least favorite day of the year, every year.

    I remember when Spiegelman's book came out, and I was excited for it, but it didn't move me much at all. Maybe it's because I'm not a parent and so much of the story was about Spiegelman trying to find Nadja. The only thing that really stuck with me was the image of the towers glowing before they collapsed. That and the ridiculously brilliant title. It's hard to find good Sept. 11 art. I didn't think that "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" was all that great either, except for the devastating and beautiful ending.

    What I mean to say is that the end of this entry moved me more than just about anything I've read about Sept. 11 in years. I'm glad you're a teacher.

  2. Thank you, for reading and for commenting. I hope your day was okay. Seeing the towers of light shining again last night helped, as well as hurting.

  3. I'm glad you're a teacher, too :)

    Triple A
    (An Anonymous Admirer)

  4. This is a strange comment, but I went to college with Anna Belc, and it was impossibly weird to see her picture here, as I'm reading back-entries of your blog. Great post!


  5. @Emma: Small world! What a lovely, unexpected connection. Were you involved in theater too?

  6. Yep! I never worked on a show with her, but I saw her act in lots of them, and we had one fabulous, impossible class together. I can never get over connections like these.