Tuesday 12 January 2021

Imagine a world

Here we are again in Covid country. Either I've become habituated to lockdowns, or I secretly crave a quiet existence, as I'm not finding it too hard this time around... as long as I ration my consumption of the news. Occasionally, for my own buoyancy, I need to think about something other than mounting Covid cases.

A photo album showing the World Trade Center
Photos of the twin towers in my album
The big distraction for me in lockdown 3 has been my writing. I'm inching towards the finish line (first draft) of my latest novel about New York in 2001. When I conceived this book in the summer, it was intended to be a light piece of escapism, based on my own experiences of living in Manhattan during the late 1990s (more City, not much Sex). Inevitably the story has become a shade darker as September 11 looms in the latter stages of the plot line. 

All the research I've been doing on the September 11 attacks has put lockdown in perspective. During the past few weeks, I've trawled the internet for newspaper articles, YouTube interviews with survivors and clips of people roaming around lower Manhattan in the aftermath, bewildered and coated in grey ash. 

To write the final scenes of my book, I've chosen to put myself into the shoes of a middle-aged American man attempting to evacuate the south tower of the World Trade Center. At the time of the attack (I was on my honeymoon), I remember feeling haunted by all the firsthand accounts, as well as the text messages and voicemails sent by desperate office workers trapped in the twin towers. 

My recent research has sent me back to that turbulent time when we all experienced a seismic shift in the way we saw the world and our place in it. Few of my contemporaries were familiar with Bin Laden or his brand of radicalism; even fewer anticipated an act of terrorism on the scale of September 11. In many ways, it was a loss of innocence for all of us.

By late 2001, I was no longer working in New York but I had friends who were affected by the attacks in one way or another (most had been at my wedding 10 days earlier). Nevertheless, I've deliberated over exploiting the disaster for fictional ends. I've even questioned whether I'm guilty of cultural appropriation by borrowing someone else's history and using it for my own purposes.

I haven't entirely made my peace with these issues, but I've always believed that stories have the potential to connect people and promote empathy. The engine in every story is the writer's imagination - if writers were only permitted to write about their own narrow experiences, it wouldn't be called fiction. If nothing else, my research has helped me to understand in some small measure how it felt to be caught up in a terrorist attack. Such trauma also casts a long shadow - another nuance I feel obliged to address within the book.

It's not easy, but for now I don't regret my choice of material. I'm learning so much - about human resilience, modern history and an event that is still shaping foreign policy today. If we can't engage imaginatively with these kinds of experiences, then eventually they will be lost to us. Stories - as long as they are told sensitively - shore up our collective memory. I have no doubt that in years to come we'll be reading chronicles about Covid and perhaps that will help us to make sense of these strange times.

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