This year’s freshman common reading, Guantánamo Diary, is Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s harrowing account of his imprisonment and torture in the infamous jail where he remains, despite having never been formally charged. Writer and activist Larry Siems edited Guantánamo Diary, and will deliver this year’s William Starr Lecture, which is traditionally given by the author of the common reading selection.
The talk, “Finding Mohamedou, Finding Ourselves: Uncensoring the Guantánamo Diary,” will be held on Thursday, September 24 at 5:30 pm in the Villard Room of Main Building.
Siems, whose career has balanced writing and activism, has served as the director of Freedom to Write Programs for PEN America, the U.S. branch of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization. He is also the author of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program (2012) and editor of Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families and Friends (1995).
Siems calls Slahi’s first-person account of the brutal interrogations inflicted upon Slahi by his U.S. captors “extremely humane.”
“It’s a dehumanized, dehumanizing world that Slahi lives in, but he stubbornly holds to his own humanity and insists on observing and recognizing and preserving the humanity of all those he’s dealing with, too,” Siems says. “And so, as a result of that, the book isn’t completely a journey to the heart of darkness at all. There’s a lot of light and redemptive moments in it.”
Susan Zlotnick, dean of freshmen and professor of English, says, “Incoming freshmen have grown up in a world defined by the events of 9/11 and the conflicts, including the War on Terror, that followed. This book, which recounts Slahi’s extralegal rendition, imprisonment, and torture in the name of national security, fills in some of that recent history for our students. Moreover, Guantánamo Diary asks its readers to ponder ‘big’ questions about guilt, innocence, and justice as well as to reflect upon the consequences of a never-ending war."
The freshman class received the book in early summer and was asked to read and discuss Slahi’s text on Vassar’s Moodle. The idea, says Steve Taylor, director of academic computing services, was to enable the nearly 700 freshmen to “interact with each other and with some faculty members on intellectual issues related to their summer reading assignment before they become inundated with all the demands of being on campus.”
Siems has been signing in once a day to interact with students and says he is impressed with their “willingness to engage, their real sensitivity to the emotional richness and complexity of the book, and their willingness to dig into difficult and challenging questions.”
Students also have been viewing and responding to video presentations by faculty members, who further challenge them to share their reactions to and understanding of the text. In the video prompts, faculty pose such questions as: How do we reconcile human rights violations with our need to be safe and secure in the world? Does the language the government uses to describe Slahi—such phrases as “enemy combatant”—confer upon him a form of “indefinite legal limbo”? And does the treatment of the prisoners in Guantánamo stand in opposition to our understanding of America as a nation ruled by law?
The discussion surely will continue during Siems’s lecture and question-and-answer segment.
The Starr Lecture is free and open to the public. Local and regional alumnae/i are encouraged to attend. This event is sponsored by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, the Freshman Writing Seminar Program, and the Vassar First Year Program.