Guantánamo Couture

Author Alex Gilvarry Redefines the term fashion victim.
Alex Gilvarry at the Ace Hotel in New York City. Photo: Florence Holdeman.
Alex Gilvarry at the Ace Hotel in New York City. Photo: Florence Holdeman.

The best thing about publishing From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, says debut author Alex Gilvarry is, “Just to know that you’re being read. People have been sending me letters and emails telling me about their reads…that’s just incredible to me.”

We’re in the dark vintage lobby of the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by a late lunch crowd, the usual screenwriters, and entrepreneurs crowding the low sofas as if they’re pitching ideas from lily pads.

I first met Gilvarry in 2009 when he was an MFA student at Hunter College. Earlier this year at his book release party in Strand’s Rare Book Room, playwright and actor John Buffalo Mailer brought the 30-year old Norman Mailer Fellow to the podium saying simply, “Alex possesses what my father, Norman, believed every writer needs, balls.”

What more must a writer possess?

“Ambition. Writing something larger than yourself that actually matters to people today. I think that relates to ‘balls,’ which is a very Mailer-esque sort of statement.”

Alex Gilvarry with Colum McCann and John Buffalo Mailer at Strand Books in New York City.
Alex Gilvarry with Colum McCann and John Buffalo Mailer at Strand Books in New York City. Photo: Siciliana Trevino

For him, Mailer’s euphemism translated into a comedy of errors at the dawn of the war on terror and the U.S. sanctioned torture of detainees at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay – without ever mentioning Guantánamo or, “Bush. Cheney, Rumsfeld, all those names and words that made it a blatant finger wagging. It was a subject I felt powerless with but I wanted to do something, something really good. I wanted the anger to sneak up on you with the absurdity of that prison. And, I wanted to get more people to read about what’s going on there.”

Gilvarry’s male ingénue, “the patsy of this wrenching tale” is Boy Hernandez, a Filipino fashion designer inWilliamsburg, Brooklyn whose rise to fame turns to infamy when his downstairs neighbor and sole company investor, Ahmed Qureshi is arrested for attempting to sell weapons-grade fertilizer to terrorists. Government agents break into Boy’s loft and give him a new kind of hoodie that knocks him out. He wakes up in a detention center he calls “No Man’s Land” wearing a day-glow orange jumpsuit that is, “Much too big and doesn’t breathe.” Boy alters it by tearing off the sleeves and pegging his pants.

In fashion, combining two opposing styles – New York City hipster with Guantánamo prison life – is known as the High-Low, bold style choices that create visibility by elevating low status and skewering high status. Gilvarry’s unlikely mix of couture and prison suicides balance humor with pathos in a fun to read satire of a post-9/11 America, hell-bent on catching its enemies by any means necessary.

“The novel starts out with a good dose of anger.” Gilvarry says. “A man has been taken, placed in a cell, and he’s angry about it, and he doesn’t know why he’s there. But then that’s where you have to use your imagination, what else would happen to a person like this, there? What would he do? Who would he talk to?”

In the process of writing it, “you read more, to inform yourself and your imagination. I read some of the best books written about America in the last ten years. Clive Stafford Smith’s The Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side. One of the first ones I read, which was excellent, was by Joseph Margulies, called Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power. I learned about the complexities of something like this. This is the problem that law enforcement has now. Do you get these guys before they do anything? Because of what they’re involved in? Or do you need to catch them in the act? And the answer has been we get them before they do anything now.”

Today, ten years after 9/11 and the May 2011 raid that killed its mastermind, Guantánamo is the most expensive prison in the world costing U.S. taxpayers over $800,000 a year per detainee, 30 times the cost of stateside incarceration, according to the Miami Herald. That doesn’t begin to cover Guantánamo’s human toll – of the 171 detainees that remain from the original 774 who were held and tortured there, 39 have been cleared however, “nobody wants to take the prisoners. Where are they going to go? Other countries won’t take them.”

Gilvarry continues, “It was a grand political statement for him to, when (Obama) took office to say that he was going to close Guantánamo Bay within a year. But it’s been impossible. It would be a grand political statement to the world to shut it down but nobody’s going do that in an election year.”

President Obama did, however, make a scenario like Boy’s more attainable for all Americans last December when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act, that allows our military to detain a U.S. citizen without cause indefinitely.

“If the government’s looking at me seeing everything that I do, I’d probably be in jail too.” He says. “My Google searches are all, ‘terrorist, al Qaeda…'”

Did Gilvarry ever get paranoid that his searches would land him on a government watch list?

He laughs. “No. I never felt that way…if it happened it would be great for my book though.”

11797355

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
By Alex Gilvarry
Viking. $26.95

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