This Wednesday I attended a reading at Nicola’s Books about Granta 116. The British literary magazine’s latest issue is focused on 9/11’s global impact. Granta sponsored similar events in fifty international cities. Panelists at the Nicola’s event included Jeremiah Chamberlin (fiction writer and director of Michigan’s undergraduate writing program), V.V. Ganeshananthan (novelist, journalist, Michigan visiting professor), Linda Gregerson (poet and Michigan professor), and Megan Levad (poet and assistant director of Michigan’s MFA program).*
As to be expected, the audience at Nicola’s was made up almost entirely of writers and passionate readers. Given the mutual interest in art and literature, the conversation turned to whether it’s possible to make art out of tragedy. And, perhaps more to the point, what creative expression the panelists felt best expressed their experience of the events of 9/11. Each panelist gave a thoughtful response that spoke to the very personal way that 9/11 affected each person. I found Levad’s response particularly interesting. She lived in New York City at the time of the attacks and shared that she found dance performances the most cathartic because of their physicality and use of silence. This made perfect sense to me. I hadn’t realized it before but my response, far separated from the immediate events, was latently physical. I remember being so sad and confused that I hurt. (Teenage angst may have played a small role.)
I had just begun my junior year of high school in September 2001. I lived far away from New York City and had never visited. Although I’d seen them in the New York skyline in movies, I didn’t even know those two tall towers had a name. We aren’t a family that listens to the radio in the car or watches Good Morning America so I didn’t know anything had happened until my friend Maura told me in the hallway. “You’re too happy,” she said. “You must not have heard.” My world was so small, I assumed she was talking about a pop quiz or some other high school trauma.
We were released early because my school was downtown, near government buildings, and no one knew if the West Coast would be attacked as well. When I called my mom and asked her to come take me home, the timbre of her voice was so calm and assured, it made me worried. My mother is a former nurse and only uses that voice when things are serious. Like so many other people, I spent all evening watching the news, watching the towers fall, watching bodies falling, watching newscasters cry.
Given my sadness and anger despite my geographical distance, the piece of art about 9/11 that means the most to me is the album One Beat by the Portland-based band Sleater-Kinney. Looking back, I don’t know if their Northwestern, feminist perspective was my own, or whether theirs shaped mine. In the months before I graduated from high school and embarked on my adult life, the lyrics of One Beat‘s title track seemed to say it all. “If I’m to run the future/ You’ve got to let the old world go.”
I’d like to highlight two stand-out tracks that refer specifically to the events of 9/11: “Faraway” and “Combat Rock.”
“Faraway” encapsulates the majority’s experience: watching the towers fall from a distance, on television, and being overwhelmed with fear, anger, and sorrow.
7:30 am nurse the baby on the couch
Then the phone rings
“Turn on the T.V.”
Watch the world explode in flames
And don’t leave the house
And the sky overhead
Is silent, waiting
Clear blue holds it’s breath
And the heart is hit
In a city far away
But it feels so close
Don’t speak of why you’re afraid
Don’t breathe the air today
(Standing here on a one way road
And I fall down,
So we fall down)
No other direction for this to go
Why can’t I get along with you?
And the president hides
While working men rush in
To give their lives
I look to the sky
And ask it not to rain
On my family tonight
I love that the song opens with a line about breast feeding. When’s the last time you heard that in a rock song?
Much as Levad found solace in the silence and wordlessness of dance, I remember thinking that the loudness and distortion of “Faraway” were just what my ears needed. Corin Tucker is known for her powerful vocals and here they are put to full effect. The chorus is a keen that transcends its simple, child-like question: Why can’t I get along with you? At face value, the question is posed to the terrorists. But of course Tucker is also questioning the American government, where class distinctions and social standing determine who is put on the front line (“And the president hides/While working men rush in/To give their lives.”)
By the time of the album’s release, in August 2002, America had begun seeking retribution, leaving many citizens uneasy. Hence, “Combat Rock.”
They tell us there are only two sides to be on
If you are on our side you’re right, if not you’re wrong
But are we innocent, paragons of good?
Is our guilt erased by the pain that we’ve endured?
Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance
I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country’s marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time
Where is the questioning?
Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same
Those who disagree are afraid to show their face
Let’s break out our old machines now
It sure is good to see them run again
Oh gentlemen start your engines
And we know where we got the oil from
Are you feeling alright now?
Paint myself all red, white and blue
Are you singing let’s fight now?
Innocent People die, uh oh
There are reasons to unite
Is this why we unite?
If you hate this time
Remember we are the time!
Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash
Red, white, blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam
Flex our muscles show em we’re stronger than the rest
Raise your hands up baby, are you sure that we’re the best?
We’ll come out with our fists raised
The good old boys are back on top again
And if we let them lead us blindly
The past becomes the future once again
When I first heard this song, I, like many Americans, was disillusioned and skeptical of the way our government was conducting itself. “Combat Rock” burst into my life and let me know it was okay to question. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself “Since when is dissent un-American?” while watching the news.
*Read the Michigan Daily article about the event here.