From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
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“My fear is that we’ll all get used to the stink” (44).
Boyet (Boy) Hernandez was a horny eighth grader when a beautiful classmate drew his attention away from comic books and into the glossy pages of women’s fashion magazines. More than a decade later, Boy recalls that sexuallycharged Manila afternoon as he struggles to document how high fashion became the obsession that would ruleand eventually derailhis young life.
The coddled, middleclass adolescent quickly acquired subscriptions to “W, American Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, [and] I.D.” (p. 88). From there, Boy studied at the Fashion Institute of Makati (FIM), where he hoped to eschew a career designing bridal wear in Manila for nothing less than his own tent in New York City’s Bryant Park during MercedesBenz Fashion Week.
After graduation, Boy lands in America on September 13, 2002, with wide eyes and the immigrant’s dream in his heart. But even before he sees his doppelgänger shilling a midtown diner’s $2.95 breakfast, Boy knows that it would take more than talent to make it in the Big Apple. “One needed friends much more than lovers and enemies. This city was cutthroat” (p. 16).
He quickly parlays friendships with runway models and Philip Tanga fellow FIM student and the genius behind the überchic Philip Tang 2.0 labelinto styling gigs for some of the hottest designers in town.
While he gains entrée to fashion’s incrowd, however, Boy still struggles to launch his own label from his grimy apartment in the wilds of Bushwick, Brooklyn. He longs to relocate to nearby hipster Williamsburg, but first moneyand then lovestand in his way.
After first spotting Michelle at an art museum, “walking along an installation of broken glass . . . in a Diane von Furstenberg wrap” (p. 95), Boy is smitten. But as soon as he’s dating the Sarah Lawrence undergraduate, he begins to resent her for luring him away from his work.
Distracted by both his ambitions and his lust, Boy lets himself be wooed into doing business with his neighbor, Ahmed Qureshi, a purported Canadian fabric importer. Later, Boy insists that while “each of Ahmed’s stories seemed incredibly farfetched . . . his manner never struck me as dangerous” (p. 33).
The $2,500 Ahmed overpays him for a pair of custommade suits quickly escalates to $70,000or full financial backingfor the nascent (B)oy label. Friends and colleagues are suspicious of Ahmed’s motives, but their warnings fall on deaf ears.
Thenjust as a profile in W magazine and a coveted order from Barney’s promise to deliver Boy fame and fortuneAhmed is arrested for arms dealing and Boy is guilty by association. Now, clad in a DayGlo orange prison uniform and confined to a sixbyeight cell in Guantánamo, the newly dubbed “fashion terrorist” ponders his past as he awaits his uncertain future.
Provocative and outrageously funny, From the Memoirs of a NonEnemy Combatant masterfully skewers life in post9/11 America as it boldly announces debut novelist Alex Gilvarry as a talent to watch.
Alex Gilvarry is the editor of the Web site Tottenville Review He has been named a Norman Mailer fellow, and his writing has appeared in The Paris Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q. What inspired you to write a novel about Guantánamo through the brilliantbut unexpectedlens of high fashion?
When I thought of the book I was working for a children’s publisher in SoHo, New York, where I was surrounded by fashionable peoplemodels, designers, boutiques. And my girlfriend was a model at this time, so I spent a lot of time at fashion shows and their after parties. This was during 2004-2007, which, in my mind, were some of the most violent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every morning there was a report on the radio of the war against terror. Guantánamo was also everpresent, specifically the stories of innocent men mistakenly locked up or sold for bounties. Men imprisoned without due process. This really struck a cord with me, to the point of obsession. So when I started writing the novel, the two worlds met in my mind and somehow made sense to me as a storyteller.
Q. Is the term “nonenemy combatant” actually used by the U.S. government? If so, what is it supposed to mean?
To my knowledge, they first used the term “not enemy combatants” (NEC) to describe those prisoners who were found innocent in military tribunals. And then they changed this to “no longer enemy combatants” (NLEC). In my book, I slightly altered it for the title, but the words are still a dehumanizing tactic. Notice that all of this circumvents the word “innocent.” So if a man is found to be an NLEC, as many were, that still means he was once an enemy combatant in the eyes of our government.
Q. Before writing From the Memoirs of a NonEnemy Combatant, did you know that Coco Chanel had consorted with the Nazis? What is the relationship between fashion and politics?
I read an old biography of Coco Chanel while I was writing my book. It was part of my education in fashion design. It was only then that I learned about her liaison with a German officer and her collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of France. This gets rather glossed over in her legacy.
Our politicians always appear well dressed and put together. How they appear is very calculated. In the last several years we’ve seen Jason Wu become big news for designing Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown. And before that there was a big stink about Sarah Palin suddenly wearing expensive suits during her campaign. These events were in the air while I was writing. But really the two worlds, fashion and politics, collide in the book because I wanted to take a man from a seemingly superficial background, someone who only cared about his own art, and catapult him into the political world of today. It was a way to veil writing about my own political awakening, under the guise of a fivefootone fashion designer. I’m sixfootthreehow could anyone mistake us?
Q. Who, if anyone, do you think will be most offended by your book: fashionistas, terrorists, or the CIA?
Probably all of them. In my opinion, there isn’t enough fiction out there today that provokes or offends people. We need more politically risky fiction. Novelists used to weigh in, and quickly, on the world. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion. They were our cultural critics as much as they were our novelists. Lately there’s been an overall feeling that we need to wait to write a novel about an event in order to have more perspective. And I can see that. But on Guantánamo Bay, I had all the perspective I needed. And here we are, ten years later. Perhaps the political novel will one day come back into fashion. If the vampires can rebound in this climate, I have to believe there’s room for the political novel too.
Q. What was the most startling discovery you made in your research for this book?
It was the stories of the actual prisoners themselves. The story of Moazzam Begg and Murat Kurnaz, and other men like them who were sent to Guantánamo Bay without proper evidence, and who were kept there for years under nightmarish conditions. It was the dehumanization of these men, and the lengths to which our government has gone to circumvent human rights that was most startling.
Q. Boy grew up in Manila’s “Tobacco Gardens, corner of Marlboro and Kools” (p. 5) and later returns to reside in “a luxury apartment complex called Manhattan City, a small replica of midtown Manhattan” (p. 297). Is either of these locales real?
I fell upon an area when I was last in the Philippines in Quezon City where all the streets were named after cigarettes. I remember there was Pall Mall Street and most definitely a Marlboro. I’m not sure if there was a Kools, so I may have taken some artistic license. On that same trip, I was in a mall in Manila where a woman tried to sell me real estate in a new development called Manhattan Garden City, a complex of residential buildings structured like a little New York. I took that idea and ran with it, modeling my Manhattan City after that. I thought if I were exiled from New York as Boy is in the novel, that’s probably where I’d live.
Q. Earlier in your career, you worked as an editor in book publishing, and you continue to edit Tottenville Review, the literary Web site you founded. How does your experience on the other side of the manuscript inform your own writing?
I usually edit book reviews for the clarity of ideas, which is not unlike editing my own fiction. Sure, clarity is such a simple lesson. But it’s surprising how unclear even the best of us can be in our work. From the graduate level to the professional, we can be tremendously elusive when writing because it is such an intimate process. It’s natural to shield yourself, and to cloak your ideas. To bring out the truth, even when writing fiction, is something I’ve learned from working as an editor.
Q. Your novel has already earned comparisons to the works of Junot Díaz and Gary Shteyngart, but it also has echoes of Joseph Heller’s Catch22 and Don Delillo’s Libra. Who are your literary heroes?
I love Catch22, both in its scope and ambition. It’s funny that you mention Don DeLillo, because he is a big hero of mine. I read his novel End Zone first, when I was in graduate school, and his voice resonated deep into my bones. I also look up to Max Frisch, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, all of whom have penned immigrant tales of New York. So my book, I realize, is no small accident.
Q. You grew up in Staten Island, earned your MFA at Hunter College, and still live parttime in Brooklyn. In its own sly way, is this novel your love letter to New York City?
It absolutely is. I finished it when I first moved to Cambridge, and back then it was uncertain whether I would return. So I wrote this novel like I would never write another New York novel again.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m writing a new novel about a war correspondent who loses his mojo, and sets out to get it back again by putting himself in imminent danger. I’ve been writing a lot of it in italics lately. Maybe it’s part of discovering this new characterhe’s someone who needs to be heard at a time when everyone has stopped listening to him.
- Is Boy a reliable narrator? Do Gil Johannsen’s afterword and footnotes make Boy seem more or less credible?
- One of the novel’s recurring themes is chance versus fate. Early on, Boy believes that he is destined to meet Ahmed, but after the Overwhelming Event, he thinks, “there is no such thing as fate. Only coincidence” (p. 149). Do we tend to regard our happiness as fated but our sufferings as the result of chance?
- Boy’s guards, Win and Cunningham, are depicted as nice, regular guys just doing their duty. Do you imagine they are typical of Gitmo’s military personnel? Who is ultimately responsible for the atrocities that have occurred there?
- Boy regards Ben Laden and Special Agent Spyro Papandakkas as, respectively, IrishAmerican and Greekdespite the fact that both men are nativeborn Americans. Is Boy making a point, or do you believe he’s unaware of this ethnic profiling?
- Throughout most of the novel, Boy is an avowed heterosexual, pursuing numerous women. Yet after he returns to Manila, he takes to disguising himself in women’s clothing and falls in love with a transgender performing artist. To what do you attribute this shift?
- “For Boy, the publication of his confession could be the first step in his journey back to America” (p. 302). After all that has happened, why would Boy want to return? What does his story say about the American dream of assimilation and success in a post9/11 world?
- Does Boy’s name and diminutive stature encourage you to take him less seriously? Is this Gilvarry’s intention?
- From the Memoirs of a NonEnemy Combatant is an often hilariously satirical look at a serious subject. Does the novel’s humor add or detract from its underlying message?
- Consider the ways in which artincluding Michelle’s play, the BEHAVE photo, and Gilvarry’s novel itselfhas the power to sway public opinion. What is the responsibility of the artist to the truth?