Jean-Philippe Dedieu: How did you first become interested in Guantánamo?
Larry Siems: I came to this through my human rights work, and I came to human rights work through literature. I have a master’s degree in fine arts in poetry from Columbia. I’ve always been challenged by the idea of how writing and activism intersect and by poetry that makes action urgent and its nature clear.
When I moved to California not long after graduate school, I was deeply interested in the American political involvement in Central America. I was wandering around the city and I would see domestic workers and gardeners riding on the bus and reading letters. These were clearly letters that had been sent from home. And this was the last moment, the historical moment, when people were still sending letters. One day, it just occurred to me that those letters would contain a firsthand literature of this undocumented experience, both the Mexican border crossing experience and the largely refugee experience from the Central American conflicts. It connects with the whole literary tradition of epistolary poetry, and I just had a sense that there would be something deeply engaging and emotionally connective about those letters. So I went around for my book Between the Lines.1 I collected these letters for two or three years, slowly accumulating people’s correspondence and learning Spanish in the process. I loved the way documents unfolded themselves into stories, how you could read a letter and just by getting a few details—even just an inventory of the way people had spent the money when the money came home—you got a sense of what their house looked like, what their small shelter looked like or what their living conditions were. I developed a real fascination with the voices and the stories that primary-source documents contain.