A Lens on Mohamedou Slahi at Guantánamo: A Conversation with Debi Cornwall and Larry Siems


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.

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About Debi Cornwall

Debi Cornwall is a conceptual documentary artist who returned to visual expression in 2014 after a twelve-year career as a civil rights lawyer. She is a 2016 nominee for the Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer, winner of the Duke University Collection Award for Women Documentarians, and an alumna of Brown University and Harvard Law School. Her work on Guantánamo Bay has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the British Journal of Photography, and Polka Magazine, among others. Her first book, Welcome to Camp America (Radius Books, 2017), will be available in September 2017 in an English/Arabic first edition. The book juxtaposes images—from Gitmo, its gift-shop souvenirs, and environmental portraits of men once held there, after they have been cleared and released—with once-classified government documents and first-person texts.

About Jean-Philippe Dedieu

Jean-Philippe Dedieu is a CIRHUS Fellow at New York University. His research focuses on migrations, ethnic and racial discrimination, global citizenship, and political transnationalism. He is the author of a first monograph La parole immigré: Les migrants africains dans l'espace public en France, 1960–1995 (Klincksieck, 2012). His articles appeared in African Issues, African Studies Review, Critique Internationale, Droit & Société, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Ethnologie française, Foreign Affairs, Genèses, Politique étrangère, and Revue française de science politique. In 2015, he was awarded a Weatherhead Initiative on Global History Fellowship at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs of Harvard University.

About Larry Siems

Larry Siems is a writer and human rights activist who currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Knight First Amendment Institute, and previously served as director of Freedom to Write Programs for the writers advocacy organization PEN, first at PEN USA in Los Angeles and then at PEN America in New York. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Guardian, The Nation, Ironwood, Epoch, and Southern Poetry Review. His books include Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families and Friends and The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America's Post 9/11 Torture Program, and he edited and introduced Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantánamo Diary.