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09.10.11

A Literary Tribute

The British literary magazine Granta has delivered one of the most moving and engaging collections of literature on the 10 years since 9/11. Bookstore owner R.J. Coady on why we should all read it.

It was a dark and stormy night, and the idea of leaving my post-Irene snug house to head to my bookstore had no appeal. It was pouring and dark and cold, but a commitment is a commitment. We had invited the editors and a few contributing writers of Granta to join us to discuss their new issue, Granta 116: Ten Years Later. We host hundreds of events at the bookstore during the year and it isn’t always possible for me to attend—but this event felt important. Ten years ago, in the days after 9/11—the store was packed. Not people shopping, but our community, our readers wanting a place to be, to gather, to drink, to eat, or to shop but to be together to be connected. Bookstores serve this purpose—they function as our town green. This was an opportunity for us to gather and reflect on all that has changed and stayed the same.

So off I trudged. Only to find that weather was an impediment to lots of folks. The majority of people, who had registered for the event, didn’t make it. David Robinson from Granta had a flooded basement, and Elliot Woods, a contributor to the issue, was more than six hours into a four-hour trip from Pennsylvania and still an hour away. Stalwart Patrick Ryan, a Granta editor, was there and a few hardy souls. So we began our conversation. It started quietly, but you could sense the growing interest and the gratitude for the opportunity. Then with a whoosh in came Elliott Woods, the contributor of a piece titled “Veterans of a Foreign War.” This handsome, compelling, thoughtful young man began to tell his story. He had enlisted in the spring of 2001 after flunking out of college and getting “cut off’ financially from his father. Enlisting seemed an appealing solution to his new financial straits and lost focus. But the spring of 2011 turned into Sept. 11, which turned into deployment.

The real story Elliot wanted to tell was not a conceptual story about regaining his focus (or financial stability), though he did both. He wanted to tell us what real life is like for a soldier, what life is like when a soldier comes home, and what life is like when you see our country from outside our country. He wanted to help us understand. We were mesmerized.

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It is surprising to find one piece so moving, so well written, and with such vividness. But, in this issue, I was shocked to find one article after the next with the same level of excellence in the writing and the same ability to impact. 

“Redeployment, by debut author Phil Klay, puts you in the boots of a soldier returning home. From this article I gained a startling understanding of the enormity of what we ask our soldiers to endure. His description of the transition from war to home life shook me to my core. Another story, “A Tale of Two Martyrs,” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, talks about how people react when they are pushed to the edge again and again. The oppression he describes—“you spend your life swallowing insults”—and the hopelessness are profound. And then there is Nadeem Aslam, author of “Punnu’s Jihad.” He writes about yet another way in which we pay an enormous price for war. He is one of the most gifted voices I’ve read in the past five years. I encourage you to read his beautiful, poignant book, titled Wasted Vigil.

I believe it is important for us to understand and absorb what has happened over the past 10 years. I hope what we learn from this brilliant issue of Granta is to live with our eyes and ears open.

These and all the other pieces in Ten Years Later collectively change the lens with which we see the world. I believe it is important for us to understand and absorb what has happened over the past 10 years. I hope what we learn from this brilliant issue of Granta is to live with our eyes and ears open. Individually, each piece evokes a new understanding. As a whole, these articles, short stories, and poems enlighten us and give us a more dynamic perspective. They contain some of the most exquisite, heart-rending, and thought-provoking writing I have come across. I hope this issue will make us engage in our political debate, become active citizens, remember what we lost, appreciate what we’ve gained, and grow.