10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally


Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

10 QUESTIONS: Nick Mulgrew


Nick Mulgrew is a local literary super-hero — if there’s an independent wordy initiative going on in South Africa, odds are he’s involved. He’s associate editor of literary journal Prufrock, is a pivotal member of Short Story Day Africa (and co-edited Water, its new anthology) — all the while completing his MA in English Language & Literature as a Mandela Rhodes scholar.

A prolific short story writer and poet, his poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, came out last year, while his debut short story collection, Trains, will launch next month. Mulgrew has also founded uHlanga: a poetry press that showcases first-time poets.

uHlanga started out life as a poetry journal. Perhaps you could kick off with telling us a bit more about what made you decide to launch that.

While working at Prufrock magazine, I realised that there weren’t nearly enough publications that were publishing new poets – and especially poets from KwaZulu-Natal, where I’m originally from. I envisioned uHlanga as a yearly journal that would publish poetry from, of and about KZN.

uHlanga issue 1 was launched at Poetry Africa in 2014, where our reading was upstaged by a freestyle slam by some teenagers playing beats on their cellphones. Almost immediately I realised I needed a different angle, even though the magazine was beautiful and affordable and ended up selling well.

What made you decide to transform it into a fully-fledged poetry press?

Even though we have few poetry publications, we have even fewer poetry publishers. Which is a shame, because the only way – well, not the only way, but the most effective way – to build a career as a written poet is through publishing single-author collections. You need visibility and prestige and a publication, and a book is the best way to confer these onto a poet, especially a younger one, or someone who is in the early-building stages of their career.

So far you’ve published three collections. How did you go about choosing who to publish?

Thabo Jijana and Genna Gardini were two poets who I had worked with at Prufrock, whose writing I admired, and who I thought were two of the best young poets in SA who had not yet been published for their poetry. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

Who will be the next poet?

I can’t say just yet because I’m waiting on funding, but there will be a book from someone whose career is gaining momentum, and one from someone no one knows very much, in Xhosa and English.

Tell us a bit about what the role of publisher or editor entails — is putting together a collection a very collaborative process?

For me it is. As well as being the publisher of uHlanga, I work as the commissioner, designer and usually also the editor. I work with the author to make sure the book is as polished and beautiful as possible, and that the poems are tight, their rhythm right, and that no word is wasted. I love to collaborate with authors, because I get to learn a lot about their writing processes and what makes them tick. It makes me a better editor and writer, and I hope it’s a pleasurable experience for the authors too.Matric Rage

What are the biggest challenges you face in publishing poetry?

I’m going to be blunt here: it’s a lack of support from major booksellers. Go into any major bookstore and look at the poetry section. If there is one, it’s usually pitifully small. The refrain goes that poetry doesn’t sell. I say it doesn’t sell because booksellers don’t try to sell it. Vicious cycle, et cetera.

We’ve had mainstream exposure for the books (from Superbalist and City Press and GQ and so on) and exposure at literary festivals – but chain booksellers won’t bite. We’re about to start distributing these books in the UK, but still you can’t easily find a copy in my hometown. From next week it will be easier for my gran in Scotland to buy one of our books than my mum in Durban North!

Independent bookstores, however, and a number of Western Cape-based chain stores have been very supportive. I love those guys. Maybe I just have to work harder to convince everyone else.

You’re also involved in Short Story Day Africa and Prufrock. What are some of the lessons you’ve gained along the way?

In publishing, you can only rely on yourself. You have to assume no one is on your side until, over time, through actions, they prove they are. And once you have people on your side – like my colleagues at SSDA and Prufrock – you hold onto them jealously.

The other thing is that people in the publishing and literary industry now have to have a diverse skill set. You can’t just be a writer or a publisher. You need to also know how to design, or edit, or typeset, or market, or distribute, or events organise. The days of the single-skilled publishing professional are very much gone.
Failing Maths

What are the things you dig most about being involved in literary initiatives?

Making people happy. Not just writers – whose work me and my colleagues try our best to champion – but also readers, and helping introduce people to new, current work that reflects their lives or their contemporaries’ lives, and books that make people feel that they are part of a particular, definable point in history and politics and nationhood. We live in a discombobulated age, and I think good books can be a great comfort. Our world isn’t very joyous. Literature could do well to trade in more joy.

You write both your own prose and poetry. Who and want have influenced your own work? 

Flannery O’Connor, Catholic dogma, Njabulo Ndebele, four years of unsuccessfully trying to be a popular folk guitarist, MasterChef, Bruce Chatwin, the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, Manchester United, Zadie Smith, Rustum Kozain, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Vladislavic, public transport systems in foreign cities, Richard Rive, Sam Riviere, and the Recurring Tragedies of the Natal Sharks. My church is a broad one, evidently.

The Myth of ThisThere has been much debate around the polarised literary landscape in South Africa. What are ways in which it could be “decolonised”?

It doesn’t just need to be decolonised. It needs to be deglobalised, decapitalised and deapartheid-ised. (What a horrible trio of neologisms I’ve made there, but you get the point.)

There are more sinister forces at work than just the long and heavy shadow of colonial structure and ethos that falls over the publishing industry and the literary landscape. Yes, our publishing industry was imported wholesale from the colonial project and has re-inforced prejudicial and linguistic barriers over centuries. But unless we also address the way we cede our power and agency to positions of global prestige and power; and unless we address the cost-benefit analysis-driven modes of publishing that have become de rigeur (which in turn squash creativity and risk-taking) and the centralisation and suburbification of bookselling; and unless we do sustained work in introducing more black-led and intersectional works and initiatives into our industry, anything new and ostensibly decolonial will still uphold the greater part of our current status quo.

How do we go about that? Well, I think that’s another interview entirely.

Stations launches on 3 March at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.

10 QUESTIONS: Stephen Clingman


In your lecture titled Looking from South Africa to the Word: A Story for Identity in our Times, delivered at the ‘Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series’ at the University of Massachusetts you say, ‘I can say that my own searches in my professional life, my way forward has been a continual way of going back, to derive my topics from the world from which I came, to addressing them, to being answerable to them, both as an obligation and a way forward. For there is something here about accountability, giving account, turning an experience into something that counts. In that regard, I have written criticism about South African literature, I’ve tried my hand at biography of a South African political figure, and I’ve returned to criticism in the transnational arena. Underlying it all is the question of identity. How emerging from a broken world we might approach one another to make something more just and more human. The question came from the place of my birth and it has followed me here….The challenge of identity is not only my topic, it is my own challenge’. Birthmark is quite evidently a store of many personal, intimate, uncomfortable, nourishing and challenging memories; to what extent is it also an intellectual biography?

First, let me thank you for these thoughtful and searching questions, which I’m very pleased to have.

This first one is intriguing, and my instinctive response is to say that Birthmark is not really an intellectual biography: it’s a much more personal account, often written as if within the moments it describes. Much of it has to do with my childhood and early life. From those points of view it is the precursor, if you like, to the intellectual and professional life that followed.

However, the extract you’ve quoted from ‘Looking from South Africa to the World’ brings out another aspect, and another level, because there I make the case that it is impossible to separate the life one has lived from the intellectual pursuits one undertakes. Or, I should be more focused, more modest: it is hard for me to separate my life from my intellectual pursuits, as varied as these have been. But perhaps there are wider resonances. We all know the aphorism, or the truism masked as an aphorism: everything one writes is autobiography. But, truism or not, I think in various ways that is true!

But how, and in what ways? One way to think of intellectual (auto)biography is as a choice: this is my topic, this is what I am going to write about. That in turn implies a hierarchy: first comes the choice, and then what I select is the subject matter. However, if you take the other view, that autobiography is embedded in whatever one writes, then the hierarchy, and the notion of choice, gets inverted. From this perspective, it is deeply embedded, unconscious promptings that spark the writing one does, ranging from the most personal to (perhaps) the most academic. Or, at the least, that there is some combination of those promptings always mixed into conscious choices. So, I can say, there was no conscious choice to write intellectual autobiography in this book: it is very much a personal story. But in the very nature of the memories that came to me, in the whole way the book is structured, there is intellectual autobiography of another kind. This book is the product of the person who underwent all these experiences; these experiences made him the kind of person who would write this sort of book. From that point of view, the intellectual biography is something one discovers through the act of writing—and the act of reading. It’s quite important to me that the book, Birthmark, was an act of discovery as much as it was one of choice and creation.

If it is indeed an intellectual biography, to what extent was this a basis for selecting which reminiscences, anecdotes and observations to include in the text? Did you only select details from your past which bore significantly on the intellectual arc you have followed in your career? If this is the case, were there particular past events and memories which you consciously chose to occlude from Birthmark? I suppose what I am wondering is whether there is a paradox at the heart of your memoir: to expose one’s ‘self’ in such a frank way is a radical act of freedom. But what repressions were necessary in order to make this happen – specifically, which aspects of your biography have been excluded from the text? Can you see yourself writing another memoir including these unspoken elements?

I think I’ve answered part of this question in my remarks above, and I’ll say more about how the memories I’ve written about were not simply the product of a process of selection. My method overall was much more inchoate than that.

For the moment, though, let me focus on the issue of occlusion—whether there were aspects of my life that I excluded as I wrote, and whether this was the result of repression. You may be suggesting, very interestingly, that memory is itself inseparable from repression—that what emerges as we remember is outlined by what we cannot imagine or have forgotten. If so, and I don’t discount the possibility, by definition I do not and cannot know what I have repressed. Sure, there are details one can leave out, and here and there I have done so—to save others from embarrassment, perhaps, or to give figures who are not major characters in the book a degree of anonymity—something I feel they deserve. But there is the more challenging proposition about what I do remember, and remember publicly here. What is the ground against which those memories take place? What is there about my self that I do not know, or cannot remember? This is something I am fairly conscious of in the book, I think: at one point I ask the question, ‘How evasive is my honesty?’ This I feel is something we can never know—just how evasive we are when we think we are telling the truth. But the question of that evasion is built in, so at least it becomes an overt part of the story.

Overall, I would say the book is built around two major vectors: one is that of memory, and the other that of vision. A fundamental premise regarding both in the book is that neither comes to us whole or entire. And so memory/forgetting, vision/occlusion—these are intrinsically connected. If I were to write another memoir, it would only be if the previously hidden began to come into view. But if I do take to this kind of thing again, it might only be in another form.

A remarkable feature of Birthmark is the beautiful balance between chaos and order. Birthmark possesses a fractured quality: despite the calm, an occult freneticism percolates through the surface from below. The jumps across time, place and modes of address articulate – with the blend of wry and dark humour, poetic seriousness and the torrential flow of detailed remembrances – a kind of chaos. One can almost picture you hastily grasping at memories and putting them to paper before they flitter away. Nevertheless, each sentence is assiduously crafted and self-contained. Each signals a care at odds with the welter of form and memory. How did you manage to give form to your past without stunting the ecstatic flow of memory? Your prose is at once sensuous and languid as well as analytic and measured. How did you give order, but not too much order, to your past?

Again, you ask a probing and very good question, and I’m pleased that you have lit on the question of form, because that is an essential part of the book. I do like the idea that the flow and seemingly uncontainable current of memory is balanced by the structure of the book from sentence to sentence, part to part. That feels to me like a mix of past and present in a kind of combined perspective—and if the book does offer that, I couldn’t be more gratified.

As to the organizing principles of the book, I’ll say the following. I had only a few self-imposed rules while writing. One was that each segment should be relatively brief—only three to five pages double-spaced on my screen. And another was that each segment, each story, should end up somewhere other than where it began.

Why was that? To me, it had to do profoundly with the nature of memory—and a way of exploring it. For various reasons, I’ve become very interested in associative narrative, where one detail leads to another in a kind of unfolding journey; this is something I’ve explored in my critical writing as well. It seems to me that ‘travel’ is built into that kind of form. In Birthmark, it meant that the journey was built into each segment as it travelled down its own associative path. And of course, in the gaps between and across the segments, there is another kind of journey, which the reader as much as the writer is invited to undertake. I am sure memory works this way: it leads us on its wayward and unfinished paths all the time! And if we bring in the idea of vision, the fragmented and separate segments combine to create what I thought of, in writing the book, as a hologram: a series of perspectives from different places and times which fashion an image in space.

The order, if there is order in the book, then takes on a somewhat organic form as the memories and perspectives organize themselves and unfold. This may be what you refer to as ‘order, but not too much order’. At some level, one has to surrender control, but at the same time write each story with a sense of its own journey, its own view.

Did you keep to a particular routine, a daily regime, while writing Birthmark? Did you write in the mornings, afternoons or in the evenings? Where did you write? Did you have to develop certain strategies which put you in the right frame of mind for returning to the past, to fish for memories in the dark well of the unconscious?

As it happens, I did keep to a particular routine when writing the book. I’ve mentioned a couple of rules I followed in doing so. A third—not so much a rule as a habit—was that I would write only one segment a day (a habit I kept to for the most part, though on some days, when all was flowing, I wrote two). This would occur usually first thing in the morning. I happened to be on sabbatical when I started, so everything was auspicious from that point of view. I would write my segment, and then leave it. And then the next morning I would write another, and the following day another. What was the logic in this? Again, I feel it had to do with memory, and the unconscious promptings I spoke of, as well as the associative form. Though I was seldom sure, when I came to the end of each piece, where I would start the next morning, when I arrived at my computer, there it was, and I would begin. I don’t know how to think of this except as a kind of unconscious navigation, perhaps some of it aided by the night-time’s dreamworld, which would guide me on. One thing quite literally led to another. It was a self-fulfilling and perhaps self-probationary exercise in the associative method.

Your father figures more prominently in Birthmark than your mother – he seems to take up more time in the text, so to speak. Is there a specific reason for this? Was this a conscious decision? To what extent is this self-writing, autobiography, also other-writing, allography?

Yes, you are right: my father does take up more space and time in the book. There may be a number of reasons for this. One is that he is no longer alive, and so perhaps it felt more possible to write about him without too strong a sense of betrayal—though there was some of that, to be sure. Another is that, as you’ll know from reading the book, there was a certain drama in my father’s story which affected the rest of the family directly. This, in a way, was something I had to work through in my life, and so naturally my father’s story is there.

For all the complications, my father also taught me much that has stayed with me. For instance, when he taught me cricket, he did so through a kind of grammatical method—something I describe in the book. Although he himself was not a reader, and although for various reasons cricket disappeared for me, something of that underlying sensation of the ‘grammar’ in things has never left me. He was a confusing character, my father, lovable and sometimes hurtful, but in the end I was at peace with him, as I hope he is with me and all of us. And yes, he is, in that sense, very much a character in the book—one created in brushstrokes, suggestions, and fragments. I hope readers will join me in filling in the spaces to understand him.

You have written criticism about South African literature, you’ve written a biography about Bram Fischer, and of late you’ve turned your attention to literatures of the transnational boundary. These modes of writing have in common that the writer maintains a critical distance. As already mentioned, Birthmark covers tremendously personal as well as painful dimensions of your life, exploding that critical distance. Why did you choose to depart from the tried and tested and to share this intimate portrait of your life with the world now?

It may help to know that when I started writing, I wasn’t thinking of publication, or even of something taking the form of a book. Rather, there were a number of stories in my mind that I had always promised myself I would write, and so that was how it began. That released the pressure somewhat, and it meant I could write more personally. Overall, the writing became a form of exploration, to see where those stories would lead. As things developed, the book came into view, and I began to think perhaps it could be published, and in the event that is what happened. But it didn’t begin that way.

There are a couple of other relevant aspects, however. One may apply particularly to those who have travelled—who have ended up somewhere other in the world than where they began. Again, the impulse was partly personal, in that I didn’t want these stories of our lives to disappear. If my daughters, who are American, or if their children and children’s children want to know something of the world we came from, what would there be to tell them? In my case, the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents in Lithuania disappeared almost completely—because of the Holocaust and the virtually complete rupture it marked. But things can disappear for other reasons too. Underlying my book, at least at some level, is a cry of survival: this is how we lived, this is the world we came from. And so I wanted to record that in some form.

But still, why, as you say, share it more publicly? It is true that I have worked in more orthodox, perhaps less revealing modes, from literary criticism to biography. But underlying those works are some themes which are sustained—around identity, around boundaries, around connection and disjunction in an uneven world, around responsibility. Why not, then, tell that story more personally? Added to that were other impulses that come from my work as a literary critic and biographer, but turned in a different way. How does one understand the text and texture of one’s own life? What sort of narrative would one use? Could I write a book in which I was both inside and outside the story? Could I understand myself as a character—the story of just one life in the world, yet a story which may evoke something for others? From that point of view it was a bit like writing a novel, a bit like writing biography, a bit like writing history, but it was none of these things specifically. It was the book that it came to be. And I have to say, it was wonderful to feel free of the need for research—and the legitimacy of footnotes!

Would it be fair to say that in writing this memoir you entered into a form of self-administered psycho-analysis? If so, can you perceive any differences in the configuration of yourself and psyche before and after having gone through this process of writing and rewriting? What are these differences? Furthermore – given your conviction that life and vocation are existentially entwined – has it altered your intellectual focus in any way? Which boundaries have you crossed? Where do you find yourself now?

Again, very interesting, but let me take it from a slightly different perspective. In classic forms of psychoanalysis the relevant arena is the mind, its conscious and unconscious dynamics and relations. If the body comes into things, it is usually as symptom—the symptom that has to be cured through the analysis. However, in my case, things worked, if anything, the other way round. It was the experience of the birthmark, and the operation I had when I was two, that had various effects on both my body and mind. Mind and body, in other words, were much more of an integrated unit, and this book was an attempt to understand that.

One thing I will suggest by way of analogy, because psychonalysis offers itself as the talking cure, is that for me the book was a kind of writing cure. In many ways it was a liberating experience to talk about things so long unspoken, and while there was some trepidation about bringing it all into the open, somehow even writing the painful parts was therapeutic. That wasn’t the reason I wrote, but it was a happy byproduct. As to whether it’s altered my intellectual outlook, I suppose it has reinforced my feeling that body and mind cannot be separated in our analytic approaches. I am starting to do some work now on pathology in South African literature, but I am not really sure where that will go. I have also found other forms of writing, such as this book, very attractive.

Your project seems to take its cue from the starting point of psychoanalysis: we acquire knowledge about ourselves in relating to others. This is evident in the language of proximity you use in describing your relationships with family, friends and colleagues. It is also evident in your relation to books. In a section which touches on W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz you say, ‘as I read I returned to my own scene, of the operation on my eye when I was two, and some of Austerlitz’s sadness descended upon me. I relived those moments in my own place of recognition’ (205). Are there other thinkers, writers and specific books which have given you opportunities for self-analysis, recognition and growth?

Yes, most certainly there are books and writers who have led me on. These have ranged from the existential and relational—some aspects of Sartre and Buber early on—to the classics we can all think of. In the South African context it would run all the way from Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm to Gordimer’s The Conservationist, or Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron, or Ndebele’s short stories and essays. One of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read is Amos Oz’s A Time of Love and Darkness. A book that affected me deeply is David Grossman’s See Under: Love; or more recently, his novel To The End of the Land. Not a semester goes by that I don’t hand out to my students something from Walter Benjamin.

What I find in Sebald, however, is something different: a consideration not only of lost and marginal stories but also of how to tell them through new modes of narrative that link first and third person, that develop a kind of circumambience in the telling. Austerlitz was so powerful for me for reasons I discuss in Birthmark. But my book has inevitably taken on inflections from some of the literature I have written about and which I teach: the constellated forms of Caryl Phillips; the nomadic forms and philosophies of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. These books for me fuse something important about how to live in our disparate times; and also about how to tell the stories of our lives, and the lives of others.

One of the most intriguing formal aspects of Birthmark is the recurrent ambiguity of address. Chapters often begin with hesitation and prevarication with regard to who it is you are referring to – yourself or a past version of yourself which is not quite the same ‘you’ of the present moment? You shift from first to third person and back again. For instance, many sentences like this appear: ‘The boy – me, I – is transfixed for reasons he can’t quite understand but which slowly rise within him’. In the space of a single sentence you have gone through three gears of address, referring to yourself, ‘Stephen Clingman’ as ‘the boy’, ‘me’ and ‘I’. I spent a lot time while reading Birthmark trying to understand why you make the shifts when you do. Are there certain memories, events and acts from the past which you feel more comfortable uttering from the first person rather than the third person perspective? What do these pronominal shifts intimate about how you understand the nature of personal identity?

Yes, that was interesting for me too in the writing. I think in the South African context (and beyond) everyone knows by now of J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, written entirely in the third person, as if he were writing about a different character. That form of writing has come to be known as autre-biography¬—writing the self as if it were someone other. As extraordinary as I think Coetzee’s book is, however, it felt a little relentless to me, perhaps even somewhat monochromatic in terms of its perspective. The reality felt different to me. We see our stories both from the inside and the outside. Am the same person I was when I was four years old, or ten? The answer is yes, and no. Certainly some things have endured—those first-person impulses and passions. But I also have a perspective now which is coloured by so many different experiences, shifts in time and space. From that point of view, the perspective is in the third-person, the tense is past rather than present. In a sentence such as the one you quote, there is a recognition that these perspectives are not separate, but layered together: we are first- and third-person, past and present, subject and object, inside and outside, all together, all the time.

In a nutshell, then, I think the answer, which may only be partial, to your question is that when I felt myself writing in the moment of the experience—for instance, of that operation I underwent—then my writing self was first-person, present tense. But when there was a need for a shift—to see myself from outside, to wonder how others saw me—then it would change. But still, it is very complex, with various permutations. When I scored that goal in one of my soccer matches, I am certainly reliving the event, but I do it in the past tense until it enters the present as a relived moment that has never left me. And of course the entire structure of the book has to do with seeing from many different angles, many different times, many different perspectives.

You describe your identity during the years of apartheid as partial and unstable. You say ‘we weren’t entirely white because we were Jewish; we weren’t entirely Jewish because we were white; and of course we weren’t entirely African because we were both Jewish and white’. How has being an émigré in America altered how you relate to your ‘Jewishness’, ‘Africanness’, and ‘Whiteness’? How has the fabric of your being altered? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

For a talk I am presenting later in the year, I have been looking at Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, where he remarks, ‘Today…it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.’ That captures something extremely powerful: perhaps we cannot be, or feel, truly at home until everyone does so. Certainly it captures one aspect of the continuity for me from the South Africa I grew up in to my life in the USA now. For me, probably, there was always a dialectic involved, of both belonging and unbelonging, and that has continued in various ways. Strangely, for someone who has been away from South Africa for so long, I still feel remarkably attached to it. I love the feel of it, the landscape, the energies, the philosophical sharpness. And there are things I feel attached to in Amherst, where I live now, as well. But always there is that oscillation: belonging/unbelonging, being at home/not-at-home. And there are differences: being Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in South Africa. To what extent am I still African? Am I still trapped in my whiteness? Who knows: I would have to be outside my story to tell. But something I feel quite strongly, perhaps because of these experiences, is that belonging can also be in the spaces-between, the spaces of transition and navigation. No matter where we are, I think there is some truth in that for everyone.

Birthmark is published by Jacana.

10 QUESTIONS: Larry Siems


Larry Siems, the editor of the still-incarcerated Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary discusses this remarkable account of life in the US prison.

You’ve worked on narratives of torture in your previous work, so what in particular distinguished Slahi’s diary to you? Was it its uncommon depth? Its personality? Or simply the fact that it was an unprecedented look into conditions at Guantanamo? I read it in one sitting, transfixed – but perhaps that’s because I was a layperson from a country far from Mauritania or Cuba or the United States, and every section brought something new to my eyes. I wonder what the experience was like for you personally, reading Slahi’s diary for the first time?

I was transfixed, too. It was like hearing a voice from the deepest void. To this day no Guantánamo prisoner has been able to talk with a writer or reporter, let alone address the public directly. Every word a GTMO prisoner speaks or writes is considered classified from the moment it is uttered, and every piece of writing gets locked in a secure facility near Washington, DC, where it accessible only to lawyers with top secret securities clearances. Mohamedou wrote the 466 page manuscript for Guantánamo Diary in the summer of 2005, and it took Mohamedou’s lawyers years of litigation and negotation to win the release of the redacted version they were finally able to hand me in the summer of 2012.

So it was a wonder to be reading the manuscript at all, let alone listening to this particular voice, which is so incredibly open and accessible and which engaged me completely on both a human and on a literary level. The whole Guantánamo system was set up to dehumanise, to negate the humanity of the prisoners, and suddenly Mohamedou speaks, and just in the way he tells his story he humanises that entire world.

I remember one moment early in the manuscript where I realised I was holding something extraordinary. It’s right after Mohamedou and 34 other men have been delivered to Guantánamo. They’re blindfolded and shackled and piled in the backs of trucks. The guards are shouting orders: Walk! Sit Down! Cross Your Legs! A female guard is shouting “No Talking,” while a male guard is yelling “Do Not Talk!” In the extremity of that moment, the physical agony, the fear, Mohamedou writes, “I was completely annoyed by the American way of talking.” And yet, he continues, “I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do Not Talk’ and ‘No Talking.’ That was interesting.” That curiosity, that attentiveness to his environment, that fascination with language, the tool that both unites us and divides us as human beings—I identified with those impulses on the very deepest level. I’d been reading for years about Guantánamo and the abuse of prisoners in the United States’ post-9/11 detention operations around the world, but I had never been able to feel or locate myself in what was reading—and suddenly I was right in the middle of it.

What I find extraordinary about Guantanamo Diary, beyond the haunting and harrowing events it depicts, is that Slahi wrote this in his fourth language. In your introduction to the text, you favourably compare Slahi’s vocabulary to translations of Homer’s Odyssey – and I find it an apt comparison in a number of ways. Beyond his compact, compelling turns of phrase, Slahi conjures an epic. But, perhaps, it’s more Dante than Homeric? It’s a special vision of hell.

I see what you mean—it’s a vision of hell, for sure, and a kind of catalogue of torments, which in its way the Inferno is, too. But there’s a kind of aloofness to the Divine Comedy in the relation of the protagonist to those he encounters. Dante is being guided through hell in order to observe the torments of others; he’s a privileged tourist.

So for me, the strongest echoes were of Homer. There was, as you mention, the similarity to the Homeric Epics, in the size of the vocabulary and the use of formulaic phrases (almost every cell he is ushered into has a “thin, word, hundred year-old mattress”, for example), and in the larger repetition of catastrophe, if we can call it that. Odysseus goes from shipwreck to shipwreck and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of capricious and very flawed gods; Mohamedou gets shuffled from country to country and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of the CIA and Pentagon. And then there is the overall narrative arc of homecoming—an arc that is fulfilled in the Odyssey, but that remains achingly and shamefully unresolved in Guantánamo Diary.

All of this exaggerates the parallels, of course; I studied classics in college, and still see Homer everywhere. But it was an interesting touchstone for me as I edited the manuscript. It reminded me all the time that this is an unfinished story and an unresolved epic, both for Mohamedou and for the United States. And for Mohamedou, that irresolution is the real hell.

Perhaps the most curious (and disturbing) aspect of the US censors’ redactions to Slahi’s diary is their seeming attempts to disguise, through redactions, the fact that female soldiers were employed interrogate and sexually assault detainees. Guantanamo is a place in which detainees and detainers alike are stripped of their humanity, and the different levels of exploitation detailed by Slahi is, frankly, sickening. There appears to be incredible naivety on the US authorities’ part, in that they would attempt to hide something like this, but make such a cack-handed job of concealing it. This brings up a cynical question: is this seeming cack-handedness a manipulative tactic? In other words, do they perhaps simulate incompetence in an attempt to plead that Guantanamo is simply an ill-advised project that got out of control?

Not that cynicism isn’t in order, but I think it’s more likely that the redaction system just mirrors the GTMO system as a whole—a system of massive incompetence and arbitrariness. The United States government knew by the time Mohamedou was shipped to Guantánamo in August 2002—just eight months after GTMO opened—that the vast majority of men it was imprisoning were there by mistake. Instead of acknowledging this and righting the ship, the Pentagon turned to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and to torture in an effort to wring confessions from its prisoners, another terrible mistake and also a grave violation of US and international law. Censorship, which created the space for these mistakes and abuses to happen in the first place, has remained in place primarily to cover up those mistakes and abuses.

The redactions are the vestiges or fingerprints of that censorship regime, and some are no doubt meant to conceal embarrassing aspects of Mohamedou’s treatment—as when they try to obscure the role female interrogators played during his so-called “Special Interrogation.” It is so obviously absurd: the two interrogators who remove their uniform tops and sexually assault Mohamedou in one infamous scene are clearly female, and redacting the female pronouns only emphasises their sex. But I understand the impulse: there’s a particular shame to the fact that female professional soldiers were asked to participate in the sexual abuse and humiliation of prisoners. For years the Pentagon has been under fire in the United States for not doing enough to prevent the sexual abuse of women the armed forces, and here we learn that it not only has failed to protect women from abuse, but has actually enlisted female soldiers in the sexual abuse of others. That is exactly the kind of thing that gets institutional censors reaching for their black pens.

At the same time, the censors aren’t just institutional, they’re also human—which means they sometimes just plain miss a “she” or a “her” or a “Mr. X,” or forget they obscured a reference earlier and this time let it through. In a strange way, I find this human error poignant. There were even a few places where it felt like the redactions came not from an institutional brain at all, but from an on-the-spot, visceral human reaction. I keep thinking that is what must have happened with this redaction in this passage:

“How you been?” said one of the Puerto Rican escorting guards in his weak English.

“I’m OK, thanks, and you?”

“No worry, you gonna back to your family,” he said. When he said that I couldn’t help breaking in        . Lately, I’d become so vulnerable. What was wrong with me? Just one soothing word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry.

What word could that possibly be but tears? And why censor that? All I can think of is that the man or woman who was working on that passage had a strong personal response to the emotion, and reached for the black pen in a kind of reflex reaction to any sense of personal connection. So it’s not random or cynical: it’s a censorship system that was created to obscure the humanity of prisoners, internalised and enacted on the most human level.

There is a striking amount of emotional and thematic resonance between Guantanamo Diary and the prison memoirs of South African political detainees during apartheid. I’m thinking particularly of the likes of Breyten Breytenbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, which was published during apartheid, and incidentally also had portions of it redacted by censors. The torturing and killing of prisoners during apartheid was partially confronted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I wonder if the United States will conduct such a moment of public reckoning once the tally of Guantanamo has been taken? Do you have faith that such a thing would or could happen?

I go back and forth in my own mind on whether or not I think we will manage some kind of truth and reconciliation process in the United States; some days I’m more hopeful than others. I do know that whether or not it happens will determine a lot about my country’s future.

The prohibitions against the kind of treatment Mohamedou endured – enforced disappearance; arbitrary detention; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture – are universal and absolute. No special circumstances can be invoked to justify these abuses. When they happen, those who orchestrate and carry them out must be called to account and those who are subjected to the abuses must be made whole. In the eyes of the world, we have thrown a big brick through the window of international human rights norms, and so far we have been running away from what we’ve done. It is not a pretty picture. It’s worse than embarrassing: it’s corrosive to our institutions, to the rule of law, and to our understanding of who we are.

I think if we do manage to embark on the kind of essential truth-telling process South Africa has gone through, Guantánamo Diary will have played a part, just as literature was essential to the process in South Africa. In so many ways it points the way to just such a process, in its tone of mutual recognition, empathy, and forgiveness. It is already changing the way individual readers understand Guantánamo. I get notes all the time from readers describing the same experience that you and I had when we first read the manuscript, that experience of seeing what this all means on a human level—which is the only true level, after all. In a way, I think the American people had drawn a kind of curtain in our minds around Guantánamo; we know it is a world of mistakes and wrongs and pain, and we are reluctant to pull that curtain and look. But Mohemedou pulls back that curtain for us—and yes, he shows us this world of egregious mistakes and grievous wrongs and terrible pain, but he also shows us that there are redemptive moments as well. It is just easier, after reading Guantánamo Diary, to believe that truth and reconciliation are possible.

Moving on to your editing of the diary, there appears to be a tension throughout the book between your attempts to make Slahi’s narrative as coherent as possible, but also to preserve the immediacy and imperfection of his original handwritten manuscript. Where some curse words are starred out – apparently by Slahi – in early chapters, they appear in full – “fuck”, “bullshit” – in later passages. It seems clever, this, not standardising the manuscript as one would in a traditional memoir. On a textual level, it emphasises the cathartic experience that Slahi has in writing his diary. Obviously this was intentional?

One of the joys of Mohamedou’s book is his incredible sensitivity to language, and one of its crucial narrative threads his experience of acquiring English—his fourth language, after Arabic, French, and German—in the strangest of circumstances, in US captivity.

His facility with and ear for languages is obviously exceptional; he was a hafiz [a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart] by the time he was a teenager, and seems to have had a lifelong fascination with the little nuances of languages. There’s a great scene in the book when the Mauritanian director of state security is handing Mohamedou over to a Jordanian rendition team on the tarmac in Nouakchott, and Mohamedou finds himself interpreting between the head of the Jordanian team and the DSE. “He said he needs fuel,” Mohamedou steps in. Both spoke Arabic, but as Mohamedou explains, “The DSE wasn’t used to the Jordanian dialect, nor was the Jordanian guest used to the Mauritanian way of speaking. I had an advantage over both of them: there is hardly any Arabic dialect I don’t understand because I used to have many friends from different cultural backgrounds.”

I like that word, “advantage,” and I thought about it a lot in relation to Mohamedou’s acquisition of English in Guantánamo. Mastering English meant Mohamedou could communicate directly with every one of his guards and interrogators, without a third person, an interpreter, in the room; it opened the way to the extraordinary relationships that develop during and after his “Special Interrogation.” At the same time, it was a way for Mohamedou to decode and understand the language of the power that controls his fate. And decode it he does: he catches many, many of the pitches of American English and recognises how they reflect class, ethnic, and geographic fault-lines in American society, for instance. And his observations about the way we speak are among the book’s funniest. You mention the cursing. There’s that great passage where he describes how difficult it was for him to join in the cursing, especially with a female interrogator, “But later I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F—ing this and F—ing that.”

So, because the experience of acquiring English is so central to the story as a whole, I tried really hard to preserve that experience as it is captured in the writing itself. Basically, I tried to fulfil what I think every writer expects of an editor, which is that the editing will minimise mistakes and distractions while sharpening the voice and vision. In Mohamedou’s case, the voice is so clear and compelling from the outset that this process often felt easy: it got so I really felt like I was following his lead. I learned very early on, when in doubt, leave it—and interestingly, as I worked through various drafts, the editing process very often involved undoing my own edits. I definitely came to see things like standardising text as a mistake. Mohamedou was creating a language for himself as he wrote, and inconsistency is a dynamic and thrilling part of that.

What are the challenges inherent in transforming a diary into a manuscript? Technically, because you’re handed a sprawling, handwritten, redacted document, and editorially, because you cannot confer with your writer? It must have been a unique challenge.

It certainly was. And nervewracking. For many years I directed the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, and as a longtime advocate for writers, I have a bedrock conviction in the right of writers everywhere to control the way their work appears in print. And here I was, editing a manuscript by a living writer who would not be allowed to participate the process or approve the edits.

But those conditions were an extension of the massive censorship regime that has shaped Mohamedou’s life and story for the past 13 years, and so to work with the manuscript was also to grapple with this core reality, this force. Not being able to access and work with Mohamedou was just another twist in that story. Like the 2,600 redactions, the lack of access was both a mirror of the extreme conditions under which the manuscript was created and a blunt reminder that the ordeal Mohamedou narrates in Guantánamo Diary has not ended.

So in a way, my job was both to accept these redactions and restrictions, preserving them and the uncertainties that they create as an essential element of his ongoing narrative, and to rebel against them as well. In a sense, the footnotes are the record of that rebellion—of my efforts to reconstruct in my own mind the full narrative that Mohamedou wrote in his isolation in the summer of 2005, to colour in things in my imagination that would have been appeared in colour had I been able to read the unredacted original or to confer with Mohamedou, and not been forced to stare at the black boxes of the censors.

So in the strange way of censorship regimes, I think the redactions and restrictions made me more alert, and forced me to look deeper and listen harder to the text. They certainly brought me a little closer to one of the central dramas of the book, which is of an individual facing an overwhelming state power.

Slahi’s document has potentially damaging implications for the US government and its supporters, but of course, its power rests in the apparent truth of the narrative. In the book, it seems as though you’ve gone to significant lengths to corroborate – through Slahi’s previous testimonies as well as government records – as much of the narrative as possible. Did you come across much opposition while doing this?

No, not really. Almost all of the materials that I drew on or cited in the introduction and footnotes had been declassified by the US government itself, and anything else had been published elsewhere and was in the public realm.

So in cross-referencing Mohamedou’s account with this documentary record, I was really just making sure that readers were able to explore that record, too, and see, as I had when I first read the manuscript, how accurately Mohamedou chronicles his experience. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes near the end of the book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the US government, to my brothers, and to myself.” When you read his account alongside the government’s own records, it is clear this is exactly what he has done. You’ll read his description of being shackled in a dark, strobe-lit room and forced to listen to Drowning Pool’s “When the Bodies Hit the Floor” at ear-splitting volumes for hours, for instance, and you can find in the Senate Intelligence Committee 2008 report on detainee treatment that on 8 July, 2003: “Slahi was interrogated by Mr. X and was ‘exposed to variable lighting patterns and rock music, to the tune of Drowning Pool’s ‘Let the Bodies Hit [the] Floor.’” Overall, the precision of his recollections is staggering, when you think about trauma involved in those experiences.

As for where the U.S government stands on the book now, I’ve been very encouraged by the official response that accompanied its release. In the government’s first comment, the day before publication, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that the government had released the manuscript in its redacted form—that it was authentic, in essence—and also that Mohamedou’s “allegations of abuse are under review” and that the government’s investigation has analysed “thousands of documents, medical records, hundreds of interviews of Guantanamo personnel, and statements relevant to any allegations of abuse occurring at Guantanamo”—the very record that I’ve drawn from in the footnotes.

A few days later, that same spokesman told a reporter, “I haven’t yet read the book, but I look forward to reading it. It’s of interest to many of us in the Defense Department who follow Guantanamo issues, and it’s part of our country’s history.” I can’t describe how emotional it was for me to read that, and to have that kind of official acknowledgement that this often incredible-seeming, and deeply disturbing narrative is in fact a part of American history. To me, that is as close as we have come so far to taking a step toward a truth and reconciliation process.

Following on, were there any initial worries that portions of Slahi’s narrative were not truthful? One wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, not only because through his words he comes across as a reasonable intellect and a likable man, but chiefly because, as you related in a piece in the The Guardian, “he proves again and again to be a reliable narrator”. But much of his diary concerns events in Mauritania and Jordan, where presumably you wouldn’t have access to documentation to corroborate his experiences. Or are his experiences outside of US hands beside the point?

It’s funny: even though I could see in my first read how accurately Mohamedou’s manuscript tracked the official records, I still went through a two-year-long process of learning to trust him as a narrator. I just kept having to learn that things were pretty much always as he described them or reported them. At one point, for example, he is shown a photograph of someone he knew in Montreal who was then being held in US immigration custody in Florida, and Mohamedou described bursting into laughter at “the expression on his face and the Bob Barker–Calvin Klein prison uniform.” The only Bob Barker I knew was a longtime game show host on American television, and I couldn’t figure out the connection. I was debating with my editor at Little, Brown what the reference might mean—and then my editor just turned and Googled Bob Barker, and we learned that Bob Barker Company Incorporated is America’s largest supplier of prison uniforms.

At another point, during that disturbing scene of sexual assault by two female interrogators, Mohamedou recounts how he went on a kind of mini hunger strike, and how the supervising interrogator was unimpressed. “You’re not going to die, we’re going to feed up up your ass,” Mohamedou is warned. I always took that to be a brand of locker room tough talk; we all know guys whose favorite threats have to do with shoving things up your ass. And then, in December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report about torture in the CIA’s black sites, and we learned about the practice euphemistically called “rectal rehydration”—and I learned, once again, my understanding of Mohamedou’s words was incomplete, and that I hadn’t grasped the full truth of what he was relating.

As for the pre-GTMO sections, it’s true that we don’t have interrogations plans and memoranda for the record from the Mauritanian and Jordanian security services describing what happened during his detentions there. We do have US press reports announcing his detentions and releases in Mauritania, and a Human Rights Watch report confirming that Mohamedou was one of at least 14 prisoners renditioned to Jordan and interrogated at the Jordan’s General Intelligence Department’s Wadi Sir prison in Amman—a report that describes a layout almost identical to the one Mohamedou describes. And at one point, Mohamedou describes that prison suddenly filling up and hearing through the prison grapevine that the head of Jordanian’s antiterrorism unit had been targeted in an assassination attempt; a little research revealed that there had been just such an assassination attempt at just that time, and very much as Mohamedou describes it. So I certainly see no reason to doubt Mohamedou’s narration of his time in Mauritanian or Jordanian custody.

And far from beside the point, for me these pre-Guantánamo scenes are among the most important, fascinating, and illuminating parts of the book. They offer a kind of comparative study of intelligence prisons, which mirror each other in interesting and unsettling ways—in their social structures and in the dynamics between guards, interrogators, administrators, and prisoners, for example, and in the way abusive practices are clearly copied back and forth, as when Mohemdou is hidden from delegations of the International Committee of the Red Cross by both the Jordanians and the United States. This copying points to larger questions of collusion, of course, and the role of the United States in the legal and intelligence systems of other countries and in the lives of their citizens. Mohamedou moves through these detention facilities not because Mauritania or Jordan want him in prison, but because the United States wants him there. These are supposed to be separate prison systems, distinct legal proceedings, sovereign nations; instead, the U.S. and U.S. anti-terror operations have drawn them into a kind of global archipelago of clandestine prisons that serve its own intelligence purposes. Speaking as an American, we don’t often get such a clear view of the reach of American power, and how the power influences and disrupts individual lives. For me, one of the most vivid revelations in Guantánamo Diary is how it felt for Mauritanians and Jordanians, from senior government officials to prison administrators to interrogators and guards, to be made complicit in Mohamedou’s ordeal.

An obvious and asinine question, perhaps, but one that has to be asked: what do you ultimately hope that the release of this book will achieve? And what has it already achieved?

Not asinine at all. The immediate goal, of course, is to see Mohamedou released. You just cannot read Guantánamo Diary and not see that this man deserves the same honest judgement that he has afforded us. That is one of its great achievements: it recalibrates what in the United States are treated as policy and security questions into a question of individual, fundamental justice. With Guantánamo Diary coming out this year not just in the United States but in 24 other countries, and with readers everywhere experiencing this voice and recognising its dignity and endurance and wit and faith, I have to believe that Mohamedou will finally have his homecoming.

But I also believe we’ll be reading Guantánamo Diary long after Mohamedou’s case is resolved, and that when we read it years from now, we’ll see how much more this book has done—to speed the releases of other prisoners, to build public support to close Guantánamo and end arbitrary and indefinite detention, and to usher in a real process for reckoning with the torture and human rights abuses that have taken place in US detention facilities since 9/11. That’s a lot to hope for from one book, I know. So you can take it as a measure of how I feel about this book that it’ll honestly surprise me if I am wrong.

And what about Slahi? Beyond the royalties that will be held for him until his release, I mean. He is a man that seems spiritually undamaged by his experiences, and one hopes that the knowledge that millions of people understand more of his and his fellow detainees’ plight could bring some small amount of comfort.

Guantánamo’s walls remain thick: over two months after its US release, Mohamedou still hasn’t been able to see the published version of his words. He has been able to meet with members of his legal team, and so he knows something about the reviews and the response the book is receiving, and you’re right, that has to be heartening. But nobody goes through what Mohamedou has gone through—and is still going through—unscathed, and at this point, almost a decade since he wrote the manuscript for Guantánamo Diary, I think the only real comfort will come with action on his case. Writing his manuscript in the same isolation cell where he endured one of Guantánamo’s ugliest and most deliberate tortures was a tremendous act of faith: faith that the truth would somehow leap GTMO’s thick walls of censorship and make its way to us; and faith in us, that once we read these words, we would answer their simple demand for justice. Years of waiting and hoping he would be heard are over. I imagine it’s a different kind of hoping now, and a harder one. I do know he’s tired, and his family is tired, and he really should be home.

Guantánamo Diary is published by Little, Brown in the US, and Canongate in the UK.

Photograph by: Donna F. Aceto