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Post-9/11 Life As A 'Non-Enemy Combatant'


For one debut novelist, the famous prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba became a source of unlikely inspiration. Alex Gilvarry's dark first novel occupies a wacky continuum that begins at the center of haute couture, and ends in solitary confinement. The book is called "From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant," and it looks at one man's trip into military detention and, did we mention, it is a comedy? Author Alex Gilvarry joins me today from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Alex.

ALEX GILVARRY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: OK. So, let's start with your main character. He's this young man, an aspiring fashion designer from the Philippines - he's named Boy - and he comes to New York City to make his name and fortune in fashion. Tell us more about his guy.

GILVARRY: He moves here from Manila, where he grew up, went to fashion school and he idolizes America. And he moves here to New York. He becomes mixed up with the wrong crowd, as happens sometimes. The people who fund his label - one character in particular - winds up implicating him in a terrorist plot, and he becomes the first man arrested on U.S. soil to be captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

MARTIN: OK. Before we get any further, let's have you read a little bit from the book - just that very first chapter.

GILVARRY: Sure. (Reading) My story is one of unrequited love - love for a country so great that it has me welling up inside knowing it could never love me back. And even after the torment they've put me through, tossing me into this little cell in no-man's land, would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart? Stupid me, Boy Hernandez, Filipino by birth, fashion designer by trade and terrorist by association.

MARTIN: So, there are two narrative threads here - one is Boy's journey through this kind of crazy mayhem that is New York's fashion scene, and the other is his experience in captivity, in this place that you describe as something that's meant to be the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. You write about this episode, it's the turning point that changes everything for Boy.

GILVARRY: Boy describes it as the overwhelming event, and that's the night of his capture. And men break through the door and he's hooded, his apartment is ransacked and he's drugged, taken for a car ride and soon put on a plane. You know, the one book Boy has when he's in his cell is the Quran. So, writing this book, I read the Quran, and the overwhelming event is a chapter from the Quran, and that's where I took the name.

MARTIN: We should point out that Boy, the character, is a kind of a disenfranchised Catholic himself.

GILVARRY: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: Not a Muslim.

GILVARRY: He's not. And he keeps claiming that he's not a Muslim to his captors in prison, yet they just sort of ignore that and give him all the religious paraphernalia.

MARTIN: You make a lot of claims about how this went down. He's spirited away in the middle of the night, he's hooded and drugged, and your details about what incarceration in Guantanamo Bay is like. What kind of research did you do on this?

GILVARRY: Well, you know, I couldn't go there. They don't let novelists into Guantanamo Bay to visit to write a novel. So, I read everything I could, really. I started the book in 2006, and Guantanamo was something that was on the radio and the news every day. I read books by Gitmo lawyers as well, and I just used what I could, details that I found from them.

MARTIN: Wondering what provoked these questions for you in the first place, to sit down and say I'm going to write my first novel and I'm going to devote a lot of it to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the U.S. detention facility there.

GILVARRY: Well, I wanted to write about the state of America over the last decade with two wars and post-9/11 paranoia. This was my world, you know, when I was living in New York City. It was all of our worlds. And I wanted my novel to address that in some way. Guantanamo is something that just grew as an obsession of mine. Every day, I would hear on the radio stories of men imprisoned without trial. And any sort of injustice, especially when it happens in this country, really gets me fired up.

MARTIN: Did you think that you were perhaps feeding this paranoia? I mean, to date, there have been no detainees who were apprehended on American soil, but that's what happens to your character.

GILVARRY: Right. I wanted this sort of to be a worst-case scenario novel; what could happen if we continue down this slippery slope of locking prisoners away without due process.

MARTIN: Because your character is this kind of unassuming guy. He's an aspiring fashion designer. Yes, he may have come into contact with some kind of dodgy folks, but we're led to believe that he's a pretty innocent guy. But Guantanamo Bay is filled with people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and people who have conspired to do significant acts of terrorism.

GILVARRY: For me, I was really interested in the men who slipped through the cracks, who hadn't done anything wrong. I start to think, how could this happen?

MARTIN: Is this a satire?

GILVARRY: It is. It's supposed to be funny.

MARTIN: I mean, there are parts that are very funny. But it does switch, the tone does change.

GILVARRY: Yeah, it does, especially the last third of the book becomes darker as Boy approaches his tribunal. He's in his cell writing out his confession, preparing his case. And he begins to lose hope in the American justice system.

MARTIN: What does Boy learn through this journey? Who is he at the end of this?

GILVARRY: You know, he's a very damaged individual by the end, yet he is still sort of in love with America, and in particular New York City. It was a dream for him being here, so he has very complex feelings about this country. And he prevails. I hope there's a note of hope when a reader finishes this book.

MARTIN: Alex Gilvarry. His debut novel is called "From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant," and it's available now. To read an excerpt from the novel, go to our website, NPR.org. Alex Gilvarry, thanks so much for talking with us.

GILVARRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.