Alex Gilvarry’s acclaimed debut throws a Filipino fashion designer into the snarling jaws of New York’s fashion world.
The title of Filipino-American Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, can be a little intimidating, or as Random House president Howard Kaminsky pointed out in the book’s testimonial video, annoyingly problematic. Its cover is grim: a mascot-looking prisoner reading a fashion rag as the darkness of his prison envelops him, the seven-word title stamped throughout the cover like a protest or a plea. It sounds like the kind of book that should only be read by anyone whose idea of a good time is watching CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.
But Non-enemy Combatant is actually funny. It’s about a Boy Hernandez, a Filipino designer who moves to New York, and sets out to conquer the fashion world. Mostly everything goes according to plan — until Boy’s ties with a terrorist are uncovered and he is taken away to “No Man’s Land,” a notorious prison the likes of Guantanamo Bay.
From inside a six-by-eight-foot cell, Boy recounts his foray into fashion, name-dropping big designers such as Alexander McQueen, Carolina Herrera and Diane Von Furstenberg. His confessional was later compiled by fashion journalist and editor Gil Johannssen, who introduces the heavier political threads that surround Boy’s case — and corrects Boy’s misappropriations (Boy, for example, attributes a Nietzsche quote to Coco Chanel and mistakes Flaubert for Proust).
Boy’s similarities to certain Filipino fashion industry figures, namely Bryanboy and Timothy Garcia, have led people to think that Gilvarry based his protagonist on these larger-than-life characters.
Gilvarry explains, “I wrote about half the novel when my friend Liz Moore said ‘You know there’s this guy Bryanboy. I don’t know if you know about him. He kind of looks exactly like the character you’re writing about.’ So I checked him out and his website. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The similarities were crazy. Bryanboy sort of looks like the man I had been imagining as Boy.
“Bryanboy was one of the blogs I started reading more and more as I finished the novel so probably a little of him filtered in. In fact, I wrote him in the book, I mentioned him a few times. He’s one of the bloggers who writes about Boy to make him a little more famous in the Philippines,” Gilvarry says.
Gilvarry, a Norman Mailer Fellow who has contributed to The Paris Review, is striking in a Fil-Am sort of way (later, some people would tell me they picked up his book because he is “so gwapo”). He stands 6’3” and his warm voice makes for a perfect NPR commentator. He occasionally visits the Philippines and researching for Non-Enemy Combatant brought him more often in familiar places such as Manila and Samar, places that eventually became Boy’s past. Despite being born and raised in Staten Island, New York, Gilvarry admits his Filipina mom allowed him to grow up in a half-Filipino environment. He doesn’t speak Tagalog but his mom’s way of speaking English made him aware of the rhythms of the immigrant language.
Thus, Gilvarry’s Boy reeks of basic Filipino nuances — he maligns idioms and pronounces f’s as p’s or v’s as b’s. But Boy also bulldozes stereotypes in a world where Overseas Filipino Workers are usually portrayed as hardworking laborers who juggle jobs just to send money home; their voices clipped with Americanized English while hanging on to a hard Filipino accent as a crutch and a lifeline.
Non-Enemy Combatant comes at a period in the US where legalities surrounding immigration have formed a heavy cloud in an already volatile socio-political atmosphere. It has been the subject of many polarizing discussions, particularly now that the US presidential election is looming.
“America is a country of immigrants in some ways. Of course, now we don’t see it that way, people there don’t see it that way. There’s a big fear of the immigrants more than ever in recent history, I think. It was really just from inspiration and you can get a lot of metaphors out of the story of migration,” Gilvarry says.
Through Boy, Gilvarry weaves a gripping tale of post-9/11 New York, a city that has learned to stand ground and lick its wounds while still bracing against semblances of threat that hang in the air. The landscape may have changed and an enemy has been taken down but for Gilvarry, New York is still charged with the climate that has pervaded over the past decade.
“The biggest change was Osama Bin Laden is now dead, right? And I found that the climate hasn’t changed as much as we think it has, even though it has been 11 years since 9/11. We’re still at war with terrorists, we’re still very afraid of them,” Gilvarry says.
Non-Enemy Combatant not only skewers post 9/11 distrust and discrimination, it also addresses the dearth of the Filipino voice in American literature, something that he has always sought out as a publishing editor and as a reader of immigrant novels.
“I don’t think Filipinos are very well understood in literature and in American Literature, too. I feel like in the US, they already have Korean-American literature, which calls to mind a bunch of authors. Chinese-American literature, that calls other authors to mind. But we don’t really have Filipino-American Literature. But of course there are many who are coming around now. But I wanted a Filipino-American novel to tell that story because I don’t think it has been told enough, at least.”
As Filipino-American writers like Gilvarry, Miguel Syjuco, Lysley Tenorio and Gina Apostol pave the way for Filipinos in the greater fabric of world literature, we can only expect that the stature and myth that surrounds us Filipinos will expand to broader horizons, and that we will be known not only for our labor exports and YouTube cover songs.
“I think editors are now more aware of Filipinos and Filipino American literature and it’s only gonna get better and better for everybody as we build our canon,” Gilvarry says.
This article was originally published 22 September 2012 in The Philippine Star’s Supreme