By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Rafu Intern
“That was probably the strength of this book: I didn’t know what I was doing.”
So said Allen Say, author of the new children’s book “Almond,” at the Japanese American National Museum on March 7. “Almond” was released just four days earlier, in celebration of Hinamatsuri.
In 2000, JANM held a retrospective of Say’s original drawings and paintings, and since then, Say has released several of his books at the museum.
The book talk was part of the day-long community event Challenging Borders, put on in tandem with the museum’s current exhibit. In the exhibit, called “Transcendients: Heroes at Borders,” artist Taiji Terasaki honors people from L.A. and beyond fighting discrimination and injustice at borders — physical and not — around the world.
Say’s latest tells the story of Almond, a seven-year-old girl faced with a new girl in school — a violin prodigy. Almond feels she is known only for her beautiful hair, and longs for a talent, like her new classmate. Say combines sparse words with pastel drawings and charcoal sketches.
At the talk, Say projected pages of his new book and described his process. To create “Almond,” Say drew in pastel atop photographs, a new style for his work. Many of the photographs upon which Say drew resulted from moving the camera while the shutter was open.
“That blurred thing — the wonderful thing that happens — most people throw [those pictures]out,” said Say. The book is “set between reality and dream,” he added. “It’s a very narrow space.”
Say admires 18th-century artists Sengai Gibon and Yosa Buson, whose sumi-e paintings combined text and image — just like picture books. In an interview with the American Literary Association, Say said he views picture books as a form of haiga, the “combination of haiku and picture that sets off a resonating music that you hear with your eyes.”
Say was born in Yokohama in 1940 to Japanese and Korean parents. Determined to become a cartoonist after the war, Say apprenticed himself to the artist Noro Shinpei at the age of 12. At 16, he made his way to Los Angeles in search of work, and has lived mainly in the United States since.
While attending high school in Azusa, Say continued to study art. For years Say worked as a commercial photographer, alternating photography with drawing and painting. In the 1970s, he wrote and illustrated his first book, “Dr. Smith’s Safari,” and began illustrating for other authors.
In the late 1980s, Say quit photography completely and committed to writing and illustrating books for kids. Say has now both written and illustrated nearly 30 books.
Like “Almond,” many of Say’s books deal in dreams, in longing for something else. Say’s “Grandfather’s Journey” tells the tale of his ojii-chan’s back-and-forth journeys between Japan and the United States. “Sleeping and waking are two sides of the same continuum,” said Say, describing his work on “Grandfather’s Journey” in 1998.
When asked how he feels returning to Little Tokyo, Say expressed similar feelings conveyed in “Grandfather’s Journey.” “Of course it’s not the same place anymore…and, it’s the same thing that I feel everywhere I return to. It’s not there anymore. The Japan that I knew I grew up in doesn’t exist.”
At the end of “Grandfather’s Journey,” Say recalls his own childhood in Japan. “I miss my old friends. So I return now and then, when I can not still the longing in my heart,” Say writes. “The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”
Dorothy Yumi Garcia, a teacher who attended the book talk, has been collecting Say’s work since the ’90s. Garcia teaches children’s literature, and brought a class of students to Say’s exhibit at JANM in 2000. She feels that Say’s work plays a crucial role in the world of children’s literature. “I mean, how many children do you see illustrated that are Asian, not from the internment, and not looking like a doll?” she said.
Garcia believes teachers have a strong responsibility to represent everyone in their classrooms. She has a collection of 3,000 books, most of which are “children’s books that tell stories of underrepresented people and underrepresented situations — incarcerated families, very early gay families, black, white, tan.”
In her classes on children’s literature, Garcia asks students to examine which books receive awards. “You have to be very mindful of the sources who are rewarding these things and what they’re about,” she said.
Garcia feels that Say’s work offers a fresh breath from the tropes present in literature about children of color. Often, children’s books can “over-exoticize people who built this country.” Instead, Say’s work “tells a story that’s…not always about your suffering,” said Garcia.
“Not every children’s book about somebody who’s Asian needs to be about the camps. While that is important, a lot of Asian children just play video games. And not everybody likes sushi, and sometimes they just want a burger.”
Find “Almond” and Say’s other books at the library or at JANM’s bookstore.