Exactly the Job She Wanted
One day not long after Sarah Mirk ’08 graduated from Grinnell, she was in a printing studio in Portland, Oregon, making zines — short, handmade comics. So was the guy at a photocopier next to hers. Reading over his shoulder, she saw that his zines were about being a guard at Guantanamo Bay prison.
Whoa! she thought. What has he been doing?
Mirk’s journalistic antenna went up. She learned that he’d been deployed to Cuba with his Michigan National Guard unit. “He’d worked as a military police officer in the prison and just felt like he’d been a cog in a terrible machine that he didn’t agree with,” she says. “That was the first time I met somebody who made Guantanamo a real place.”
She also learned that he’d been invited by a group of former detainees to participate with them in a monthlong speaking tour of England. This sounded pretty crazy to Mirk, so she asked if she could come along and document it.
“And so I did,” she says. She traveled around the country in a minivan with the former detainees and the former guard and kept a blog about it called Guantanamo Voices. “It’s such a scary and confusing topic for a lot of people,” she says. “I really felt the responsibility to work on that as a journalist.”
She worked on the project off and on over the years. In 2017 she pitched a book, an anthology also called Guantanamo Voices, which will be published by Abrams Books in 2020. “Comics is a great medium for telling these stories,” Mirk says. “I really hope that the book makes visible the people who have been impacted by this prison.”
Her goal was to “get people to tell stories that have feeling to them,” she says. “What I’m trying to convey here is the heart in their story.”
She recruited 10 different artists to illustrate. Due to the high security nature of Guantanamo, photography isn’t a good option. “Artists can draw this place and fill the gaps that they need to creatively,” she says.
Mirk put her skills as a history major to work in her research. She completed oral histories with 10 different people — lawyers, detainees, military service members — about their experiences at Guantanamo and wrote the graphic novel script for each. “Writing the first draft of this graphic narrative about Guantanamo Bay felt a lot like writing a massive term paper for [Professor] Victoria Brown’s class!” she says.
Mirk started making comics in high school, but it was working at The Scarlet & Black that attracted her to journalism. “I was really lucky that Grinnell had a student-run paper that paid students to write articles,” she says. “I got tons of practical experience writing and editing for the paper, then was able to use those clips to apply for jobs and internships.”
If Mirk had known as a teen that she could craft a career as a comics journalist, she would have said, “Yes, that’s exactly the job that I want.” Earlier this year, she was hired as a full-time editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication, where she gets to use all her skills and experience in history, journalism, and comics.
“I’m always working to make history more accessible and political discussions more relevant,” she says. “I think my time at Grinnell has a lot to do with that.”