(Anna Seward)—“So can someone give me a working definition of American exceptionalism?” This discussion on 9/11 literature was starting to get personal. Earlier in the lecture I had been able to avoid self-reflection as we discussed the specific reaction of New Yorkers to the bombing. We weren’t really talking about me I could rationalize; not the oblivious fourth grader in Portland, Oregon wondering why my teachers were whispering to each other in the middle of a lesson.
The British criticism we read to prepare for this week argued that the first wave of 9/11 literature was too personal. It repeated the trauma by reducing it to the emotional, domestic sphere, thereby ignoring the larger issues at work in both America’s multicultural makeup and the global stage. I hadn’t gotten it, to be honest. Wasn’t there something inherently personal about the attacks? The novel we were focusing on (Amy Waldman’s The Submission) had left me cold partly because of its multiple perspectives that seemed to skirt over the protagonists’’ own reactions. How could you write about 9/11 without discussing emotional personal trauma? Isn’t the most asked question in modern America, “Where were you on 9/11?” My father was in a faculty conference at his university. My grandmother flew out of JFK on September 10th and found herself stuck in the Minneapolis airport when the towers fell.
There are at least ten other American exchange students in my 21st Century American Literature class, but somehow I felt my professor was staring at me as she amended a classmate’s tentative response. “You could say American exceptionalism is the idea that America is the ‘free-est’ nation of all. Though this can pretty easily be proven false, you would have a hard time convincing most Americans.” This was about the point where I stopped taking notes. That description fit me a little too well. Even growing up in a very liberal city, my entire understanding of America revolves around its freedoms and privileges. In the last ten years my mother’s whole side of the family has emigrated from Lima, Peru, further implying that America is somehow objectively better, “freer.”
Choosing King’s College London for my semester abroad, I didn’t think I would have this kind of reflection. The examination of Western privilege some of my friends are having in more distant countries is not something I’ve experienced. We read Heart of Darkness in my modernism class last week and mostly glossing over Conrad’s inherent racism as “appropriate for the period” or “not the point.” My professor only pulled up a paragraph of Chinua Achebe’s famous critique and even this was largely ignored in discussion. The after effects of British imperialism had, so far, matched up almost exactly with the American privilege I’m all too familiar with.
As I spaced out, the discussion had moved on to Derrida’s analysis of the American reaction to 9/11 and what he meant by saying the trauma had “nothing to do with the past.” An American student (the difference in accents had never seemed so stark to me before, it suddenly labeled us as “the discussed”) chipped in pointing to the actual date as the time when the global community changed forever. The professor pushed the class, obviously searching for another answer. A British student raised her hand and said something almost unbelievable to my American ears, “But nothing changed at all.” Our professor nodded as my classmate continued, “Terrorism didn’t start on 9/11. The only thing that started was American emotional awareness of it. Many countries including England were bombed for years before. The global perception of safety wasn’t shattered, only American perception of it.”
Do American emotions about 9/11 prohibit us from writing about it in a critically acclaimed way? Are these first wave narratives only meaningful for our nation? I’m not sure what I think, but I walked away from our lecture wondering what other ways my nationality has left its mark on me. If my reaction to something as powerful as 9/11 is so typical, how many of my opinions are really just subconscious representations of my upbringing?