David Bowen: Your novel, Challenger, is centered on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, named by the 9/11 Commission Report as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.” Why this story? What drew you to approach this novel from his perspective?
M. C. Armstrong: I think the novelist needs to find that thin line between “sympathy for the devil” and “love thine enemy,” that space between Jagger and Jesus. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the devil of our generation, received his education in my backyard. He spent his entire time in America, the country he came to loathe, living in North Carolina. He received his degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina A&T, where I used to teach. I wanted to know what it was like to be in his skin during the decade of my childhood, the 1980s. I wanted to take an event that I had a connection to, the explosion of The Challenger, and use that to find a way into the heart and mind of this young man, the guy his buddies called “Baluchi” because he resembled John Belushi and hailed from the area of Pakistan known as Baluchistan.
DB: At one point in this excerpt, Jesse Jackson says, “The problem in the end is not really any particular individuals or personalities, but powers and principalities, like the Scriptures say. The structure of society has got to be challenged.” Did Jackson actually say this in a speech? What’s the role of research in your writing process?
MCA: That is an actual quote from Marshall Frady’s biography of Jackson, but not from Jackson’s eulogy for Ronald McNair. That’s why it’s italicized. Everything Jackson says in the eulogy comes straight from a story on the speech as reported by The Greensboro News and Record from February 1, 1986.
I felt a tremendous hunger when I returned from Iraq. I wanted to know who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was, and what it was like to have been in his skin in Greensboro during the mid eighties at a historically black college. So I started doing research.
I started online, discovered some conflicting reports about a crime he’d committed in Greensboro, a small traffic violation that had resulted in a night in an American jail. So I went downtown, threw his name into the computer at the clerk’s office, discovered a traffic ticket with an address: 333-B Montrose Street.
I drove to Montrose, gathered sensory impressions, took notes on the “Colonial” Apartment complex, found a hookah bar nearby, met an old friend of KSM’s there, but he wouldn’t tell me they were friends—at first. Most folks do not want to talk about their old buddy, the terrorist. But, eventually, this interview gave me a sense of the young KSM, and sent me down the road to Chowan College in Murfreesboro where KSM spent his first semester before transferring to A&T. I spoke with an administrator there. KSM’s old roommate, now a cop, hung up on me when I tried to talk to him. But after a while, more details started to surface, and what became increasingly compelling to me was the fact that the most effective terrorist of our time received the vast bulk of his schooling at a historically black college that, at one time, was seen as the epicenter for civil disobedience in North Carolina. The sit-in movement started in Greensboro. Peaceful dissent was once the flavor of the day, but as American history tells us, violence increasingly became part of the message as African-Americans grew frustrated with the pace of change. This is when Malcolm X arrives with his message of militant Islam. This is the burning of Washington, D.C., the emergence of the Black Panthers.
Eventually, I began to see KSM as part of an evolving history of dissent: local Christian-centered acts of civil disobedience yielding to an increasingly global call for violence in the name of Islam—as well as in the name of poverty. A lot of folks want to simplify these guys—the terrorists. They want to paint them into corners as nothing more than nutty evangelicals strapped down with dynamite. But KSM didn’t attack churches. The focus of his attack was The World Trade Center, just as the focus of the Seattle Protests just before 9/11 were on World Trade, corporatization. Martin Luther King was a minister, but at the end of his life, he wasn’t fighting for one race or one religion. He was leading a campaign against poverty. His critique was economic.
KSM is not Martin Luther King. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to lionize the man. But I am trying to humanize him. KSM was educated at a school that taught dissent, and there were two ways to go: violent or non-violent. And there were two ways you could see the oppressed: either it was just the blacks, which would have left him out, or maybe the class of the oppressed was something bigger—not just blacks, but maybe people like KSM, too—young men born without rights whose skin wasn’t black or white.
DB: You write of Americans as “the great dispensers of all stories.” What does it mean in this novel to be a “dispenser of stories”? Why do stories matter? In what ways does this novel wrestle with the importance of how stories are dispensed, and who dispenses them?
MCA: A dispenser sells. That’s what we do in America. We sell everything. We certainly sell stories. These days, most of us are giving them away, right? But imagine being a young KSM. This is a bidoon, a child of a guest worker. This is a kid whose father was an imam. KSM was not Osama Bin Laden. He wasn’t rich. In Kuwait in the late seventies and early eighties, I think it’s safe to say KSM’s reading habits were circumscribed by his circumstances, his poverty and his religion. Then, all of a sudden, he’s in America, and the Koran is at war with The National Enquirer and Revenge of the Nerds and Back to the Future and Saturday Night Live, a million commercial enterprises taking over the story-telling reins from the tightly-controlled, relatively commercial-free context of the madrassa.
Eventually, KSM evolves. He becomes like us to some degree, sending out horrific videos on YouTube. He becomes the media chief of Al-Qaeda. He learns how to operate in the world of screens. He learns how to speak our language, how to sell through story. I imagine that seeing the entire national media apparatus descending upon A&T’s campus in the wake of The Challenger explosion was instructive for young KSM. I imagine seeing his classmates glued to the tube as the shuttle blew up, over and over again—I imagine that was instructive. I certainly remember what that time was like. Just like 9/11, after The Challenger blew up, the TV just kept repeating the story—that image of death—over and over again.
DB: What is your status as an American dispenser of this particular story, told from the perspective of a Pakistani student, soldier, and terrorist?
MCA: Certainly to some degree I cooperate in that morbid instant replay mentality by writing a story like this, by paying attention to the life of a murderer. But there’s an act of synthesis at play in fiction. And this may be remedial, but it bears repeating: most fiction writers aren’t selling facts sandwiched between commercials. What the fiction writer does, instead, is create an uninterrupted world, a singular work that engages the imagination through words as opposed to controlling it with repeating images.
Now maybe that sounds way too noble and self-congratulatory. And maybe it is, so let me say this: I’m in the world of the screen. I get hooked on images. I like a good commercial. I like my sex and violence, my repeating images. But fiction, to me, always feels a bit like rehab, a way to wean yourself off the toxins of the corporate imagination. Individual consciousness can also be toxic, but when one person writes against the official, state/corporate interpretation of events, something healthy happens. Suddenly, there’s a conflict, a challenge, a dialogue. That conversation can’t take place without some common ground. We need to address some common problems, and the biggest problem I see these days is how America treats other people. I don’t think you can address this treatment without showing it, without showing the exploitation, the dehumanization.
When it comes to the terrorist, the state prefers they appear as animals, nutty evangelicals holed up in caves surrounded by rusty weapons and camels and Viagra pills. The more we “buy” into that interpretation, the easier it is to kill them, to treat violence with violence. The more we turn them into complicated textual characters—and not just images—the more we start to see them as they are—as human beings.
To see KSM as a human being is not to condone his actions. To treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as “Khalid” is not to turn a mass murderer into a warm fuzzy Care Bear. But if we want to understand what took this young man from student to soldier to terrorist, and thereby prevent such a disastrous path in the future, we need to do more than just torture him in an illegal prison.
DB: I recently spoke to the novelist and story-writer Gordon Weaver about his argument back in the 1980s that fiction provides a moral lens for interpreting, and even shaping, our cultural moment. Challenger is certainly a novel invested in contemporary moral questions. Do novelists have a responsibility to pursue such questions in their work? Do such questions play a useful role in the creative process?
MCA: This is a tough question because of all the genre-bending gamesmanship going on, a trend that points to the core responsibility of the writer as a nuanced negotiation of his game, the code of his craft. I’m reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One right now, and what I like about it, and what I think’s prescient about it, is its prophecy of a future consumed by a video game where, of course, the goal of the game is a pot of gold, the multi-billion-dollar estate of a tech guru. Is it Cline’s responsibility to do more than give me a laugh-packed roller-coaster ride through a simulation of a simulation of a landscape of eighties nostalgia?
Many would say that just by loading his dystopian vision with laughs he’s doing his duty—finding that levity, that light. It’s quite tempting to obey the literary zeitgeist and say “to each their own,” especially in light of how much I’m enjoying Cline’s work—and at this point I have no idea how it will end. But I feel compelled to say this: if the novelist sees a new evil in the world, I think it’s his or her duty to map out the labyrinth that leads to the dragon. I attended a writer’s conference several years ago in which four prestigious novelists sat on a stage and wasted an hour of my time talking about the treatment of evil in literature. All four writers refused to go beyond the nineteenth century in framing their concept of evil, Ahab being the favorite emblem of the group. But where’s the courageous confrontation with the dehumanizing forces of right now? Do we dare give laurels to writers like Bret Easton Ellis for monstrous characters like Patrick Bateman? Are our writers growing cowardly, consumed as they are by games? Is literature yielding the floor to cable TV and its bold commonplace treatment of evil in shows like “Breaking Bad?” In order to find the light, I think you have to go into the dark, and right now that darkness—that “American hollow,” as Kesey calls it—is a scary place, but I think it’s the writer’s duty to go in there, and just by calling out a description of the dragon, I think that the pilgrim does the world a service.