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  • Guantanamo Boy (2009) and the Task of Critique
  • Alex Adams (bio)

From the inception of the post-9/11 war on terror, a high-profile political debate has taken place concerning the military and moral permissibility of state torture. Apologists for torture often either posit utilitarian arguments such as the “ticking bomb” defense of torture, which claims that torture is acceptable in certain conditions, or they claim that torture is not acceptable, but that the interrogation techniques used in the secret archipelago of war on terror black site prisons are not forms of torture and can thereby be condoned. These positions are contested by those who pose arguments against torture that are often human-rights-based or deontological (that is, based on normative moral judgments), and which emphasize both that torture is never morally permissible and, further, that the interrogation technologies of the war on terror in fact do constitute torture. Cultural productions are major sites in which this debate is articulated and amplified. Representations, arguments and narratives justifying torture have been extensively critiqued (Brecher; Luban; Rejali), whereas anti-torture stories and the argumentative positions they narrate have received less critical attention. This essay reads Anna Perera’s young adult novel Guantanamo Boy (2009), an anti-torture intervention “for kids” (Pauli), which represents and criticizes the state torture perpetrated at the American military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. My central argument here is that Guantanamo Boy, and the political position of which it is a narrative iteration, represents a limited condemnation of torture. That is, although it provides a critique of torture and of Guantanamo Bay, which is in many ways compelling, the novel fails to address adequately the way that those who justify torture decisively frame the debate and, as such, it does not engage clearly enough with the surprisingly resilient questions that such texts raise. This essay unpicks the precise message of Guantanamo Boy’s anti-torture pedagogy and critique: my main concerns here are first, with the narrative frame through which [End Page 245] the text critiques both the context and techniques of torture, and second, with the equivocal representation of Islam and Muslims found in the text. In these two respects, I argue, the book does some effective political work. However, this work is based on an intellectually and ethically timid critique that fails to address the ideological foundations and argumentative complexities of the positions assumed by those who would justify or normalize torture.

Literature for younger readers, as a key socializing tool with an often (but not necessarily) explicitly pedagogical character, has always had a radical and politicizing potential (Lampert 10–18; Mickenberg and Nel). Literary and cultural contributions to public understandings of torture can articulate critique and encourage important aspects of citizenship, such as political engagement, antiracism, and interest in human rights. However, my reading of Guantanamo Boy underscores that this is by no means a straightforward or unproblematic task. The details of the ways in which novels engage moral and political issues reveal the complexity and difficulty of intervention in such debates, and the all-too-frequent lack of the subtlety necessary for clearly articulating such knotty ideas. Following scholars who argue that “children’s war fiction makes plain the task of war fiction more generally” (Miller, “Ghosts” 273), and that the educational nature of young adult literature makes more explicit the teleology and didacticism inherent in realism itself (Eisenstadt 193), I argue here that the problems highlighted by a close reading of this text are not restricted to anti-torture interventions within the horizon of children’s literature, because many similar texts produced for general audiences reproduce the limitations I identify here. Children’s literature provides a useful platform for the discussion of the exact nature of anti-torture critique, as it often (but by no means necessarily) provides a forum in which the pedagogical tendencies of literature are made very plain; in addition, children’s literature is often more readily accepted as having the “co-constitutive link with both history and politics” (Lampert 18) that I argue is characteristic of cultural production more generally. This transparency makes the type of explicitly pedagogical children’s literature exemplified by Guantanamo Boy particularly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 245-261
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-31
Open Access
No
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