Alex Gilvarry tackles both fashion and politics in his debut novel
He wanted to be controversial. He wanted everyone to remember his name. So, during his first catwalk show he sent out a model dressed in a see-through burqa.
"He doesn't really understand what he's doing. He just wants to be provocative," says the novelist Alex Gilvarry of Boyet "Boy" Hernandez, the protagonist of his debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, published last month by Viking Penguin.
"The burqa is not a stab at Muslim culture," Gilvarry clarifies, "but towards the fashion industry and how it tries to be relevant and political, for the sake of being talked about."
Fresh out of design school in the Philippines, Boy moves to New York to launch his fashion career. With the help of an eccentric Pakistani neighbour, he starts his own label and is catapulted to fame. But when his financial backer turns out to be an arms dealer, Boy is implicated in a terrorist plot that sends him to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Vilified by the media as the "Fashion Terrorist", Boy's story is spun so far from the truth that he must write down his own version of events, including an account of the Williamsburg fashion scene and his life in the Philippines.
"Boy projects a machismo attitude we find in many Bildungsroman tales," says Gilvarry, 30. "But his is not on how to be a man, but how to be a man if you're a womenswear designer."
Equal parts memoir and satirical fiction, the novel was borne out of an interest to discover how immigrants attempt to fulfil the American dream in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
"In many ways, I'm writing about myself," says Gilvarry, who's half-Filipino. Born and raised in Staten Island, the farthest borough from the centre of New York City, Gilvarry as a teenager would make constant trips to the city for the museums and movie houses.
"I was wowed by it all," he recalls. "I was very much an immigrant and wanted to move immediately."
At 18, Gilvarry moved to Manhattan to study at Hunter College. Later, in the mid-2000s, he worked for a children's publisher in SoHo, the city's arts centre. His girlfriend was a model. He also lived in Brooklyn, where he coexisted with aspiring artists of all types.
"The place is packed with hipsters," he says. "Sometimes it becomes too much. Do I really need to wake up, have a cup of organic coffee, then get a tattoo afterwards? Maybe not, but in Williamsburg, it's nothing extraordinary."
Gilvarry knew that one day all of it would be ripe for a comedic work. During the same time, he was closely following the tribunals in Guantanamo, listening to reports of enemy-combatants jailed indefinitely without being charged with crimes.
"To ignore it as a writer would be depressing and unfair," he says.
Armed with a plan to converge the world of couture and confinement, Gilvarry took out a US$7,000 (Dh25,700) loan so he could write the novel full time.
"Flannery O'Connor said it best: all the great comedic novels must be about life and death," Gilvarry says. "A comedy must have moments of severity for it to carry any meaning - that was something I focused on."
Four years after working on the novel, Gilvarry says he came out of it more politically inclined. "Like Boy, I used to be a very superficial person. I was in my early 20s and stuck up. Suddenly, I was catapulted to the reality of today. In many ways, the book became a metaphor not just for my own immigration but also my political awakening."
Although Gilvarry didn't travel to the Philippines until age 24, his main character was influenced by a Filipino he had known his whole life: his mother, who immigrated to New York in her early 20s.
"Coming from an immigrant family, I grew up in two worlds and never really felt embraced by either side. I think it's good preparation for becoming a writer, where you're always on the periphery, never really inside," he says.
Dealing with humour and politics, where did Gilvarry draw the line? Inside his prison cell, Boy tapers the sleeves and trousers of his orange jumpsuit in an effort to remain fashionable.
"I wasn't trying to be funny. I was just trying to capture the absurdity of both the fashion world and Guantanamo," he says. "Someone said I was exploiting Guantanamo. I'm sure when you write about these topics, you'll get angry comments. But that's exactly it - I am angry and I want my message out. I intend it to be provocative."
Published: February 20, 2012 04:00 AM