Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking) is an original, smart, and incisive novel about a Filipino fashion designer, Boyet Hernandez, who is held at Guantanamo Bay after authorities discover his ties to an alleged terrorist, Ahmed Quereshi, the man who funded Boyet’s fashion label.
Part manifesto, part immigrant love story, part satire, part tragedy, Gilvarry’s debut novel is as moving as it is full of barely controlled anger, a tension that makes this well-written novel eminently readable. Gilvarry and I had a great conversation via email about his novel, the immigrant’s voice, and the responsibility writers have to respond to the world we live in.
The Rumpus: One of the things I loved most about this book is how you wrote a very timely novel about the state of civil liberties in the United States and how justice in the name of national security is being meted out, but you did so in a really unexpected way by framing it around a fashion designer. How did you conceive this novel?
Alex Gilvarry: I wanted to write about someone from a seemingly superficial world (like fashion) and catapult that character into the reality of the present day and all that comes with it—two wars, civil liberty violations, indefinite detainment. Out of this I thought I’d get some parallels between fame and the outrageous publicity scares and tactics of the Bush/Cheney administration. And then I invented the character, Boy, a small Filipino man who comes to New York City a year after September 11. His voice seemed to glue the two worlds together.
Rumpus: How much research went into this book? I watch enough Project Runway to believe the details are really authentic.
Gilvarry: Quite a bit, actually. I didn’t know that much about fashion when I began, though I had been to a few fashion shows because my girlfriend worked in the industry. But once I married myself to writing about a designer of women’s wear, I needed to learn how to talk about women’s clothing like a designer would. So I subscribed to Vogue and W Magazine. I read Women’s Wear Daily and biographies of fashion designers like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. I kept a notebook of fashion terms—mood board, dress form, bloomer skirt, pantsuit, etc. I really unleashed the teenage girl inside me. And then there was still the elephant in the room: Guantanamo Bay. That’s where I did the most research and where I needed to be most accurate. I looked at court documents and tribunal transcripts. I read every book written on Gitmo in the last ten years, I believe, and they all look as if they’ve been notated by a mad man.
Rumpus: I would love to see a picture of a notated page. Writers’ marginalia always fascinates me. How do you mark your books?
Gilvarry: Here’s a page from Murat Kurnaz’s Five Years of My Life. I wrote “zunzun” in the margin (a hummingbird in Guantanamo), and then “birds,” and then “2 minute showers,” which actually made for a useful scene in the novel. I don’t think birds ever appeared in the book. It’s nothing too exciting, I know. Norman Mailer used to tear entire sections out of books and then when he was done he’d duct tape them back together. He was a psychopath; I’d never treat a book that way.
Rumpus: Do you follow fashion? Who are your favorite designers?
Gilvarry: I do now. I developed a certain amount of respect for the work that goes into a clothing line, and so I still follow along. Since I’m technically a man, I like men’s wear designers most. Acne, A.P.C., Unis—I’m 6’3″, so these people make clothes that actually fit me. And I like the shoes they do at Opening Ceremony and Rachel Comey. But if I were a woman with a decent amount of disposable income, I’d probably wear Jil Sander. Their store on Howard St. in New York is like an art gallery. Look but don’t touch.
Rumpus: Over at Full Stop magazine, they are doing a fascinating interview series where they ask prominent and up and coming writers about the state of American writing. Two of the questions that interested me the most dealt with the responsibility writers have to write about the state of the world (the economic crisis, the war, etc.). As I read your novel, I was reminded of that interview series. Do you feel we have a responsibility, as writers, to take up these profound social issues?
Gilvarry: Absolutely. Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Mailer, even Updike would weigh in with a novel bent on social change. I think novels still have a profound effect on the way people think. Our major novelists today take a decade in between books, maybe work on a little television, and then deliver another novel of white, middle-class malaise. They’re talented enough—and have enough clout—to write anything they want, and people will read it. If I had that power, I would use it wisely. This is why I respect Mailer’s career so much. Would anyone today title their novel Why Are We In Afghanistan? Not that that’s a good title, but someone like Mailer would do this. Though, he was certainly crucified more than once for speaking out of place. I was warned by some that I didn’t have enough perspective yet to write a novel about Guantanamo Bay. Most writers of fiction believe we need years and years of perspective. And that’s true in some cases. That’s why all the WWII and Vietnam books keep coming out, and there won’t be any great novels of Afghanistan or Iraq for quite some time. Although I hope I am proven wrong.
Rumpus: The footnotes throughout the book show us how unreliable Boy is as a narrator. At times, I started to resent the footnotes because they undermine Boy so much and he grew on me. What benefit did you see to making Boy seem so unreliable?
Gilvarry: Every narrator has a certain amount of unreliability. I wanted to play with that, and the form of the Memoir in general, by inserting footnotes by another character in the book, corrections essentially. Since I’m Filipino, and Boy is too—this might be a cultural thing—but I saw Boy’s malaproprisms’ as a part of his voice, the immigrant’s voice. Though in order to keep them that way and not have readers think they were mistakes, I needed to figure out a way to do that, and that way was to correct them on the page. I also wanted to use real detainees, real stories of men at Guantanamo, which the character, as a designer of women’s wear, would never know. So I created the character of Gil Johannessen, the editor of Boy’s “memoir,” the man in the margins.
Rumpus: The immigrant’s voice is something that really interests me as a writer and a reader because immigrants have such complex perspectives on the places they emigrate to. How did you find Boy’s voice?
Gilvarry: I love what immigrants can do with language. They can take what you’ve heard a thousand times and say it in a new way, which is what writers are essentially trying to do with every sentence. Boy’s voice comes from the voice of my mother—who immigrated here from the Philippines when she was in her twenties, like Boy. Growing up in a bilingual household (though I’m strictly uni-lingual) I went out into the world with half an immigrant’s tongue, making my own mistakes with language and American expressions. I paid for this in grade school. But I fell upon the exact voice of the novel when I began writing the beginning, Boy’s “Acknowledgements” to his readers. When I wrote the sentence: “To my enemies: It ends now.” I had the right dash of anger to go forth.
Rumpus: Does anger help you write?
Gilvarry: I suppose the anger I’m referring to is the anger felt by my narrator, which I feel too. I’m certainly angry about several aspects of American policy, particularly Guantanamo. But when I sit down to work I can’t be angry. One needs a clear head—a few hours of peace—to write fiction.
Rumpus: I’ve always loved what immigrants do with language and I too was raised in a bilingual household. My parents, who speak English fluently, still do the quirkiest things with language, often blending English, French, and Creole, saying things my brothers and I find endlessly amusing because they still make perfect sense. Did you notice that your parents created a language of their own?
Gilvarry: Oh my God, yes. My father is from Long Island, but years of living with my mother has altered his pronunciation of things. But we had another language spoken in my home—which I sometimes forget—and that was foul language. It was a cursing household, though not devoid of humor. I learned how to tell people off pretty early on.
Rumpus: There’s definitely a satirical edge to your novel. Did you consider pushing the satire further?
Gilvarry: There’s a delicate balance in satire. Humor and pathos. Life and death. A comedy needs to, at times, know when to hold back for an emotional or political impact—whatever the stakes are. If you’re asking if I ever considered pushing the funny further, I defer to a Woody Allen line: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks it’s not funny.”
Rumpus: I love the ending of the novel.
Gilvarry: And I love you for saying that.
Rumpus: How do you know when a story is done?
Gilvarry: With a novel I think you know when you’ve begun writing the end, because you’ve structured it into a type of narrative logic that makes practical sense. I had been trying to get two characters together in a room to discuss what transpired in the story—Boy’s unlawful imprisonment. Once I began the scene, I knew I had reached my end point, and I had a feeling of satisfaction even before I wrote the last lines. That, and my agent said “send me the book by Monday.”
Rumpus: What writers capture the immigrant voice well?
Gilvarry: Lately, I keep going to Isaac Bashevis Singer who does it to perfection. One of my favorite stories of his is “The Cafeteria.” David Bezmozgis and Gary Shteyngart—yes they both blurbed my book—but there was a reason I sent it to them. Natasha and Absurdistan are two of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’m lucky they liked my addition to the immigrant narrative.
Rumpus: I know this is your first novel but behind every first novel is some kind of history. When did you start writing From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant?
Gilvarry: I began writing in 2006, four years after the prison had been open. I never thought I could write a novel until I invented the character of Boy, the “Fashion Terrorist,” who came to me in a short story that got away from me. When I decided I would catapult him into the nightmare of Camp Delta, I saw the symmetry of a novel begin to form, and I knew I had to go off and write it. I remember the date I finished it—it was June 27, 2010. I was in the Second Stop Cafe in Williamsburg.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Gilvarry: I’ve started a new novel about a war correspondent. Hard to predict its course, but I can tell you I’ve been writing a lot of it in italics.
Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?
Gilvarry: I like writing dialogue. That’s when my characters start to become real. When they speak to each other.