Go Waterboard Alice
I spent last week in London where, in addition to not blogging, I happened to stop into a bookstore. Here's a new release that caught my eye because it's a book that would never ever be published in the United States, post-Bush or not.
Guantanamo Boy is, from what I can tell, a typical young adult problem novel, wherein teen readers are encouraged to project their turbulent but essentially mundane inner lives onto a social issues narrative, thereby nurturing an overinflated sense of self-importance. Usually these books are about drug addiction, poverty, crime, sexual abuse, divorce. What Ann Hulbert describes as "earnest," "schematic" fare built on "trite symbols" and "studiously packaged pedagogical lessons."
The problem in Guantanamo Boy, of course, is that Khalid "a 15-year-old British schoolboy, whose predominant interests, when he travels with his family to Pakistan to visit his father's relatives, are football, computer games and a girl he fancies called Niamh" is kidnapped by the CIA and tortured until he falsely confesses to being a terrorist.
Now, I've written more posts than I can count denouncing my country's torture regime, but somehow I can't bring myself to cheer for a teen fictionalization of it. I have not read Guantanamo Boy, so there's a chance that I'm wrong and it's a truly wise and appropriate treatment of the subject. But come on, the title is a pun that should be banned under the Geneva Conventions.
This interview with author Anna Perara is not promising.
Perera was determined that, despite its punishing subject matter, the teens who read the book would experience that same feeling of peace by the end of it.
To Perera's credit she chose not to appropriate any stories of actual Guantanamo detainees "because those people's stories belong 100% to them and didn't want to take that from them or imagine myself being them." But the book nonetheless retains the problem novel ethos.
"To me, all books are devices that help people understand the world that they live in, appreciate it, and ponder their own existence. What I hope is that teenagers will see the similarities between themselves and issues that are on the news every day."
Except that mom's rule about no texting after 10 pm, no matter how horrendously unfair, is not actually similar to institutionalized torture. If there's one lesson books should teach teenagers it's that not everything is about you.
Besides, there's an argument to be made that putting yourself into the mind of an innocent victim may be cathartic but not actually useful in terms of torture as an issue. Torture is only a personal, psychological trauma for the relatively small handful of people who are subject to it. For society as a whole it is a moral, political trauma. Our problem is not (or not exclusively) our failure to empathize with the victims but rather our failure to confess our sins as the perpetrators.