Q&A With Novelist Alex Gilvarry: Williamsburg Fashion Meets Guantanamo Bay
Publication Date: January 2012
Boyet (Boy) Hernandez, the fictional protagonist in “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel,” is an up-and-coming Filipino fashion designer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when he’s mistakenly arrested on terrorism charges and sent to Guantanamo Bay prison.
Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, set in the post-9/11 New York fashion world, is written in the style of a memoir, jumping seamlessly between tales of nights out with models and designers in the city and Boy’s darker experiences under the watchful eye of his captors in Cuba. (This Wednesday marks 10 years since Americans began detaining people at Guantanamo Bay.)
The author, a second generation Filipino, grew up on Staten Island and received both graduate and undergraduate degrees at Hunter College, where he studied with — and then worked for — Gary Shteyngart.
MetroFocus recently spoke with Gilvarry about New York’s fashion scene, people watching in Williamsburg (“Not just a place…A heightened state of mind”) and Sept. 11.
Q: You ride a fine line between comedy (the fashion world) and tragedy (Guantanamo) in this novel. How’d you pull that off?
A: It was difficult to find the tone for the book. One of the things that helped was Boy, the main character, never uses the phrase “Guantanamo Bay.” He calls it “No Man’s Land” in the novel. And that was part of developing the tone — the satiric tone — because words like Guantanamo are so loaded and unfunny. Somehow, I found that balance between the chapters that take place in New York and the fashion industry — which are more funny — and the prison stuff.
Q: So what’s so funny about the fashion world in New York?
A: Well, fashion…It’s an easy target. If you watch any fashion show, it can be borderline ridiculous. I spent a lot of time at fashion parties when I was in my early 20s because my girlfriend worked in fashion. I never really connected with those people too much, but I ended up satirizing them just from absorbing and being around them. They tend to take themselves very seriously — I mean, it’s what they do for a living. To me, it’s just funny to be immersed in, say, women’s clothing. For your life. Fashion is their world and everything else matters very little, like politics, etc. Like I said, they’re sort of an easy target to make light of.
Q: What’s your impression of Williamsburg? What about it inspired you to set the book there?
A: Williamsburg is an uber-fashionable place. I finished some of the book in this great place called the Second-Stop Café. I’d be there writing the book about the people who surrounded me. So basically there would be somebody in a café in Williamsburg with a tattoo on their face and I would use that in the book.
It was strange to me that there’s so many artists in Williamsburg and nobody’s ever written a contemporary novel about the neighborhood. It’s a place that was calling out to be satirized. And there’s a big difference between Manhattan style and Williamsburg style. In Williamsburg, you have what they call the hipster, who wears really tight jeans. It’s a younger style, whereas Manhattan is everything else.
I think there’s a small part of me that wants to live in Williamsburg, you know? I’m completely drawn to the coolness of the people and the artsiness of the people. But it’s a very small part because when I did live there, I hated it.
Q: There’s a scene in the book where Boy dresses a model at a fashion show in a see-through burka, calling it a “political message.” What was your intention there?
A: I was satirizing people who work in fashion and try to latch on to the political moments of our time. I remember when I was doing the research for the novel, there was a photographer who did a photo shoot a couple of years after 9/11 that appeared in Italian Vogue, and all the models were placed in these scenes almost imitating Abu Ghraib. It was the worst thing I’d ever seen. They had models at the airport being patted down, models on their knees with a barking dog in their face, with a hood on their face. I thought, “This is in such poor taste.” I think that’s what I was trying to do with Boy, is make him look a little foolish for putting a burka in his show.
Q: Were you in New York during 9/11?
A: I was. I was a student at Hunter College. I think it changed everybody who lived here, but what was more life-changing was having to live in the city and see people on their way to work, two days after, on Sept. 13, crying. It was a really sad time.
Q: Did you know then that the subject would play a role in your first novel?
A: I’d always wanted to write about it. I remember going to school and always getting stopped and having my bag searched in the weeks after 9/11. I thought that was very weird, to see tanks and soldiers in downtown Manhattan. I just needed to find the right angle.
Q: President Barack Obama just signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the military to indefinitely detain people — including U.S. citizens — who are suspected of terror activities…Thoughts?
A: It’s a complete step backwards. One of the leaps I had to take with my novel was actually sending a man arrested on U.S. soil to Guantanamo Bay. You know, that was the biggest leap I had to take. I had to make the reader believe that could happen. At the time I was writing, I didn’t think it could. Now, with this Defense Act, it can. The whole bill is very disturbing.
Q: Onto lighter subjects…When you talk about the city, the novel takes on a very romantic tone. What about New York City is romantic for you?
A: I just channeled everything that I think about the city. I grew up on Staten Island so Manhattan was like a faraway place. When I would start coming to the city on my own I just fell in love with it. I even loved Times Square when I first came here. I was like an immigrant or like a tourist myself when I first started to discover it. And then I discovered the East Village and I fell in love with the women and the girls…They were very different from the girls on Staten Island. So all of this I channeled through my main character. It’s a very romantic place. It still is.
Q: How did Gary Shteyngart, your professor, shape you as a writer?
A: I thought all great novelists were dead but then I met him. About 10 years ago, when I was an undergrad, I took one of my first fiction classes and he was the professor. I didn’t really write fiction — I wanted to be a playwright. I didn’t know you could still do this for a living. So he had a big impression on me. He just blew my world. The way he writes is really brilliant, but he writes humor, too. And I don’t think it’s happenstance that I also write humor. I went back to Hunter College for my master’s and studied with Peter Carey and Colum McCann and they got me the Hertog Fellowship. I got to work on Gary’s last novel as a research assistant. It was a dream for me. The first thing he did was send me a rough draft of his novel and I was like, “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
Alex Gilvarry is having two New York City area book events. The first is a book release party on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. at The Strand, 828 Broadway, Manhattan, hosted by the Norman Mailer Center & Viking/Penguin. The second is on Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Greenlight Bookstore, 628 Fulton St., Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.