Graphic voices of Guantanamo

Portland writer Sarah Mirk's new illustrated book tells the tales of lives in limbo at the "War on Terror" prison.

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Forty prisoners of the “War on Terror” are still held in the United States prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Out of the 779 prisoners who’ve entered the military prison following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., they are the last ones left. Most of the others were released or transferred to other countries. A few died, having never left the prison. Some of these men were picked up off battlefields, or captured by intelligence officials. But most were turned in for lucrative bounties offered by the United States.

The 40 who remain exist in a dystopian legal limbo, not charged with a crime but unable to return home. The George W. Bush Administration insisted the Geneva Convention did not apply to these men, and over the years a confusing bureaucracy has sprung up that keeps them in this limbo. While protests against police brutality erupt nightly in cities across the U.S., those men go to bed unsure if they will ever be released. Portland writer Sarah Mirk’s new graphic book Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts From the World’s Most Infamous Prison asks us to consider the lives of those men who were released after years of imprisonment, and those who still remain.

The dilemmas of observing. Illustrator: Hazel Newlevant

Mirk might be best known for her work as a former online editor for Bitch Media and her reporting for The Portland Mercury. She now spends most of her time in comics, as an editor on The Nib and through publishing comic zines daily on her Instagram. In Guantanamo Voices she’s stepped back into the role of journalist, employing an international lineup of artists to bring her reporting to life.

There’s a lot to unpack to talk about Guantanamo. Mirk efficiently gets across the basics in a five-page visual overview of the history and statistics of the camp, from the unusual beginnings of the naval base to its repurposing after 9/11. To dive into the murky history and ramifications of the camp she relies on her interview subjects. Only two were former prisoners. The rest include government officials, former staff, and people supporting prisoners. These unique perspectives give both a macro and micro view of the prison. Each subject becomes a way to understand what happened. And what is still happening.

Mirk shows empathy for all of her subjects. It helps that she keeps the interview format: The artists draw them addressing the reader directly sometimes. She also allows for their complexity. Who they were before they ended up entangled with the Guantanamo machine defines how they interact with it. Even the public affairs officers Mirk meets at the base, whose job is to justify its existence, come across as real.

Sarah Mirk.

Mirk bookends the interviews with an account of her own trip to Guantanamo in 2019 on a media tour. Her exchanges with soldiers and explorations of the now-abandoned Camp X-Ray are illustrated by Hazel Newlevant, whose soft lines and washed-out colors make every scene seem as if it’s saturated in sunlight.

This juxtaposition of light colors with the serious subject matter serves as an introduction to the visual style of the book. Mirk set a light color palette for the book, which helps unite the different art styles. The heavy subject matter feels lighter in a way that doesn’t undercut its seriousness. The book isn’t trying to shock the reader into realization. It seeks rather to illuminate the dark corners we’d rather not look into.

While the stories overlap in time, there’s still a sense of forward momentum through the book. Starting with Mark Fallon, the counter-terrorism expert who criticized the government for its use of torture, Mirk shows how the groundwork for Guantanamo was laid. It’s one of the longest and most text-heavy sections of the book but gets a lot of the heavy lifting out of the way. Gerardo Alba’s art balances the text with fine visual detail, keeping the text from overwhelming readers.

Locked inside. Illustrator: Omar Khouri

A bulk of the book concerns the obscure legal system that governs the lives of those in the prison. In addition to the lawyers who worked with prisoners, Mirk includes two interviews with those who worked for the government. These sections are some of the most revealing, capturing the tension between the men’s duty and conscience as they are tasked with justifying the government’s twisting of the law.

Unsurprisingly, the chapters about the former prisoners and the lawyers who represent them are some of the toughest. Mirk and the artists do a good job of pulling out explanations of the legal system that are easy to grasp but infuriating in their ramifications.

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There’s a small reprieve in the book – an interview with Mansoor Adayfi, illustrated by Kane Lynch. Adayfi recounts his relationship with the animals that lived around the prison, and they become a way to explore how the machine attempts to dehumanize the prisoners and how they hold on to their humanity.

The penultimate chapter interviews Katie Taylor, the director of Reprieve – Life After Guantanamo, an organization that resettles ex-Guantanamo prisoners in Europe. Those who make it out of the prison don’t get the opportunity to pick up the pieces of their lives where they left off a decade or more ago. The live in uncertainty, sometimes a terrifying uncertainty. But Taylor helps draw the line from 2001 to 2020. “You create a feedback loop when you allow something like this to exist,” she tells the reader as Chelsea Saunders depicts the atrocities of present-day America.

A life of uncertainty and decay. Illustrator: Hazel Newlevant

Even within the color palette for the book there is great variety in the art. Two artists who adhere closely to it are Maki Naro and Kasia Babis, who both illustrate stories of lawyers working to get men released from Guantanamo. Naro mixes fine line work with colors that shift saturation between panels, highlighting the emotional intensity of the story. Babis relies on a limited number of pastels and soft and loose line work to capture the surreal nature of navigating a shifting secretive legal system. Her work is restrained, capturing subtle facial expressions, the big emotions are implied off-panel.

Alba and Lynch’s colors lean more towards muted realism, using bright colors sparingly for punch. Omar Khouri’s thick and jagged line work stretches black across panels, consuming the subject matter. It meshes well with the subject, Moazzam Begg, a British Pakistani who was abducted from his home and spent two years imprisoned in Guantanamo. It captures the violence, physical and psychological, that Begg endured.

In his introduction to Guantanamo Voices, Omar El Akkad calls the book “an antidote to forgetting.” America has a long history of forgetting. But right now is a time for remembering, and it’s more vital than ever before. In the first chapter Mirk identifies Guantanamo as a machine, built for a singular purpose, unquestioned by the guards and staff that keep it operational. It is also, she reminds us, largely forgotten by the general public despite its extraordinary costs, and at a time when the discourse around prison abolition has expanded into the everyday and fears of authoritarianism are rise. The question the book raises – about what it means to imprison people, without access to a trial, and what that means to us as a nation – hits harder.

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  • Sarah Mirk’s Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts From the World’s Most Infamous Prison will be published by Abrams Books on Sept. 8, 2020, and is available by pre-order from the publisher.

About the author

TJ Acena is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He studied creative writing at Western Washington University. His prose has been published most recently in Somnambulist, Pacifica Literary Journal, and Hello Mr. He fell into arts journalism by accident in 2015, becoming the theatre reviewer for PQ Monthly. In 2017 he was selected as a Rising Leader of Color in the field of arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He currently writes for American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to his work here. You can find out more at his website. He also sporadically updates a burger-review blog for Portland as well. Twitter: @ihavequalities

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