‘We shudder to recall the times through which we have lived, the Recent Past, about which no one wants to think.’
Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul
On New Year’s Eve, 31 December 2001, we buried our son. His name was Daniel. My husband Adam, his father and my sister stood alongside me in Singapore’s Chua Chu Kang Lawn Cemetery and we watched a small, white coffin go into the ground. A nervous priest said words that may as well have been in Tamil, a language I do not speak, because not one of them seemed relevant. Our daughter Isabella was back home at our apartment. Only two years old, she didn’t need to watch us fall apart that day. We had no words to explain to her – or ourselves – what had happened, what was happening.
That evening, shattered, we sat by the water at Singapore’s East Coast Park eating chilli crab and drinking Tiger beer. In Singapore, every night is a warm night. Hundreds of ships were moored offshore waiting to come into port. They looked like twinkling cities, far away. Or maybe all those container ships were trying to leave. Who could tell?
Time had not stopped. The four of us sat there, each no doubt thinking about the new year starting in a couple of hours. It felt like time had opened up, with nothing but gaping blackness where the future was supposed to be. I wanted time to push on, for the fucking nightmare that was 2001 to be over. But I was scared, so scared, about what might come next. I had no clue how I might be in whatever came next, how I might live. I was too bereft to imagine tomorrow.
I can’t remember if I watched any of those ‘Year in Review’ wrap-ups on television that night or the next day. Probably not, but who needed reminding that it had been a bad, bad year? 2001 was not a year news anchors would sum up in pun-packed, jaunty recaps. Of course the year’s default images are the planes flying into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Everyone remembers where they were when they watched that happen. Asked to pick a defining image of the twenty-first century, most people would look to Manhattan that day – planes, buildings, fire, ash cloud, people running. The twenty-first century began on September 11, 2001.
But the year had 364 other days. What if we were to turn this book you’re about to read into a video taster, a sizzle reel in words? ‘THE YEAR THAT WAS 2001’, soundtrack and all? Here’s how it might look and sound.
Kylie Minogue, all in white, sashays to her classic pop song, the one you truly can’t get out of your head, la la la/la la lalala. Here comes Dido thanking you for giving her the best day of her life. But wait, I hear bhangra, and it’s Missy Elliot, gettin’ her freak on. A voice declaims, ‘I am Maximus Decimus Meridius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance.’ Russell Crowe’s mellifluousness fades to George W. Bush mouthing words about evildoers, John Howard declaring we will decide who comes to this country, a stricken Tony Blair and Britain standing shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in their hour of tragedy. The images blur into each other. A US spy plane down on a Chinese island, G8 protests in Genoa, Slobodan Milošević captured, Steve Jobs holding an iPod, Kofi Annan speaking about the AIDS crisis, asylum seekers in orange life jackets on the deck of a Norwegian container ship. Mount Etna is exploding. Enron is collapsing. George Harrison is dead. The pictures speed up. You know what’s coming; your sense of dread rises. The planes, the Towers, the Pentagon, a blurry video of Osama bin Laden. Put on gloves to open your mail. B-52s. Flags, flags, flags. Suicide bombers in Israel, farewell to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Oh my God, what next?
Glimpsing the what in this mini-overture, or at least some of the what – believe me, there’s more, though thankfully it’s not all bad – doesn’t help with the why, or the how. Why go back to 2001? With out-of-character precision about the time and date, I can pinpoint the moment my big 2001 idea landed. In February 2014, I found myself in a lecture theatre at the Australian National University in Canberra surrounded by historians gathered to honour the work of one of their brilliant colleagues, who was about to retire. I was there because I’m a non-fiction publisher who had published books written by the honouree.
I don’t usually go to these events celebrating individual academics, but I’m glad I went to this one because it allowed my mind to wander. Many of the historians gathered had been involved in what they called ‘slice histories’ published to coincide with the Australian Bicentenary in 1988. Their approach was to take a particular year – 1788 or 1888 or 1938 – and use it as a device, a snapshot of life, events and trends that year.
‘Such a publishing conceit, so great for marketing,’ I remember thinking. You take a single year and interrogate the bejesus out of it. I ran through years that I knew had eponymous books – 1066, 1776, 1789, 1914, 1915, 1917, 1919, 1939, 1945, 1968. I recalled ones that were contrarian, like 1493 (take that 1492!). Or years that seem random, like 1959 or 1995 or Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927. Then I found myself wondering about years you might choose that were not all about war or revolution. 2001 popped into my head. (Although, as it turned out, it was about war.)
My brain was stormed by my own idea. Down a mental rabbit hole, as I sat among the historians, I made a list of all the 2001 events I could remember. Number one was 9/11, of course, but I added the Tampa crisis and both George W. Bush and John Howard winning elections everyone thought they might lose. Was that the year those guys also refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, I wondered? I knew it was the Centenary of Federation in Australia, a much-hyped event that fizzled. I tried to remember if it was the year Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, snubbed Oprah and her book club. (It was.) When was the first Harry Potter movie? Did the first Lord of the Rings movie come out then too? 2001 was huge, I thought, though in that moment I didn’t know the half of it.
My job is to commission authors to write books that I develop and publish. So naturally enough my next thought was, ‘I must find someone to write about 2001.’ Their question of inquiry, I decided then and there on behalf of this as-yet-unknown writer, should be ‘Did everything change?’ That’s how these single-year books work, I mused. But it was a genuine question worth exploring, because people were always so glib when they said, ‘Oh, everything changed after 9/11.’ Did it? Just because you utter a phrase reflexively and with great portent doesn’t make it true. Settling into the idea, I recalled all the times I’d heard people say ‘Since 2001 . . .’, using it as a marker before sharing some statistic or trend. What an interesting thing to explore for whoever is going to write this, I thought.
But remembering Daniel stopped me in my tracks. Jesus, 2001 was the worst year of my life. Did it change everything for me? I didn’t know, but in a moment heart-stopping and exhilarating at once, I resolved to write this 2001 book myself.