Before they were allowed pen and paper, Guantanamo prisoners wrote poetry on cups using pebbles, scratching verse across Styrofoam. At the end of each day, the cups were disposed of along with the evening’s halal military rations, crackers and cheese spread with some wet hunks of mystery beef. Sometimes, the detainees would only write a line or two before asking the mutarjim, the translators, to pass the cups from cage to cage so the next man could add to the succinct descriptions of imprisonment and torture, pleas for mercy and demands for justice. That the cups found their way into the garbage only added to their power. A detainee could memorize the poem, but still, he’d have to let it go and start again tomorrow.
One cup. One day. One draft.
Picture one of these poets in his orange jumpsuit, cross-legged on the floor of his cell. Imagine the squeak of the pebble on the foam and rasp of his fingertips as he turns the cup.
What if I told you he was a member of an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell? That he aided suicide bombers who were responsible for the deaths of almost fifty people, including three children?
If you knew that, would you give him that pebble?
Would you let him keep that cup?
It was this question I asked myself as I wrote “Beyond Love,” which Jim Shepard so kindly selected as the winner of the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize. This was the final draft of an especially frustrating writing process. As one who often bases his work in large amounts of research, my first draft, simply titled, “Guantanamo,” served merely to underscore the prison’s existence, that these injustices happened. In retrospect, while I had a dynamic setting, I was valorizing an innocent man. Sure, it might’ve been right for another story, but not this one. I was too hung up on convincing the reader of a message: that, well, it sucks to get locked up in GTMO. Who doesn’t know that?
Venting about this problem to another writer, he posed a question: how do I feel about torture? And the more I thought of it, and the more I researched, I began to realize the very idea of prison, of locking someone in a six-by-eight cell with little human interaction, is depraved.
So, I had a character, Saeed. I loved his perseverance and his frailties. He has a sick mother, a wife, and a baby on the way.
I knew how innocent men had been sent to Guantanamo but had yet to research the guilty. In reading about terrorism, I found many radicals are well-educated, some with master’s degrees. They have family, children. They have people who depend on them.
However, they’re so disillusioned with domesticity that for want of purpose they move beyond family, beyond love. They twist themselves into believing they hold these beliefs so dearly both for their families and in spite of them.
It was this contradiction that breathed new life into Saeed. It allowed me to explore the realities of his character instead of the horrors of GTMO. In fact, hardly any of the action takes place in Cuba. It doesn’t need to, but boy, was it hard for me to let go after years of researching and making the effort to include almost every detail in my previous drafts.
But Saeed is not just a GTMO detainee. He’s a man, a husband, father, son.
Would I let him keep that pebble, that cup? I’ll let the story speak for itself.
Once again, I’d like to thank Jim and the editors at CRAFT for their time and consideration and for allowing my work to find its way into the world. I’ve carried this one in me for a long time. I hope you enjoy it.
JAMES WINTER teaches at Kent State University. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or is forthcoming in One Story, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, PANK, Midwestern Gothic, and Dappled Things, among others. Currently, he has finished a collection of short stories, of which “Beyond Love” is included, and is wrestling with the final edit of a memoir.