Saturday, August 27, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese fine artist embraced by the children's book industry (Interview: Part 2)

I'm back again for the second half of my interview with Benrali, Guyanese author of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: A World Beyond Stars! If you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In this second half, I picked Benrali's brain about his work and the influences behind it.


S: Tell us a little bit about the folkloric elements in your books. Also, what does it mean to you to use folklore as a base, or perhaps a, sort of organizing principle for your stories?

Art by Benrali
Guyana's folklore has always been of interest to me since it is a unique blend between what the indentured Indian servants and African immigrants brought and what the native Amerindians believed already. But with Manni I felt the folklore just blended well for this project. I may or may not keep using folklore for my projects since one of the things we are taught as an illustrator is that each project is different. Folklore, fantasy, ghazals, moongazers and magical sea turtles just seemed to blend well for Manni. I do hope another project comes along that asks for that same blend but who can say? Each book is sort of like a fingerprint; unique in its own way. 

S: Another thing that interests me about your work relates to the illustrations.  On your website and other places your picture books are described as "finely created artist books." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. What are some of the artistic techniques or influences behind your work as an illustrator?

B: I tend to think of my work as a weaving of multiple periods, styles and schools of thought. I am grateful to Parsons School Of Design and their excellent faculty for broadening my horizons as to all the artists, periods and styles that came before. I am merely scratching at the surface of the training you get as an undergraduate but I wanted to mention it. I can't say my current books have all of these elements but some schools of thought and artists which I have gravitated towards are Balinese rainforest paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Indian and Moghul miniature paintings, Henri Rousseau, as well as some fantasy artists. The list goes on but these are a few.

Detail from Manni: A World Beyond Stars

S: Of major, major interest to me is the relationship between identity and culture and how Caribbean children's authors and illustrators work out those things in and perhaps through their work. You have spoken elsewhere about going through a process of searching for or developing an artistic style for your illustrations. You suggest that the process was really one of searching for an identity within the multiple influences of your Caribbean heritage. Can you speak to us a little about what a Caribbean heritage means to you in terms of your work and the ambitions you have set as a children's author/illustrator?

B: What does Caribbean or Guyanese heritage mean for me? Since I grew up in the States there were no Caribbean artists to look up to as role models. Everyone knows that to be an artist you have to look at art or to be a writer you must read. It wasn't until college that I began the "un-brainwashing" process and started learning about Indian & African art, art from other cultures, periods, styles etc. The saddest part is that most Guyanese & Trinidadian children don't realize they have been brainwashed until after they hit college.

For me it was too late because so many images of American heros from movies and cartoons were already were implanted in my mind and it was impossible for me to undo all the mental damage that was done. How can you turn back time and give back to kids role models, heros or a foundation of their own background when time cannot be turned back? Also, to be honest, I can't think of any Guyanese children's book authors or artists which my parents shared with me. My parents didn't even make an effort so like most kids from Guyanese parents I was left to just deal with it and figure things out as I grew older. 

In regards to your question as to what about Caribbean heritage spurs on my ambitions as an author/illustrator. I can say  our blend of music Calypso, Soca, Reggae and Indian Chutney music makes me proud but I am honest when I say there is nothing within Caribbean or Guyanese books/art that spurs on my work because there are so few examples. Of course there are artists and writers but again, they were not made available to me and they are probably few to begin with. Why is there so little material in Caribbean and Guyanese visual and literary arts to act as a foundation? I believe art and writing novels or picture books were not of high priority for our parents or our grandparents so I am very understanding to that.

One of the most important books which all Caribbeans and Guyanese should read is Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean Never have I found a book that answered so many questions  as to why so many things are as they are in Guyana and Trinidad. In regards to the arts, England didn't bring slaves and indentured laborers to Guiana and Trinidad to educate, polish and give a good education; they were brought to the plantations for one thing and that thing was certainly not to create books of poetry with fine detailed art work. 

S: You have two books published under your belt. What have you learned so far about the business of picture books and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

B: I never considered myself a children's book author but I am grateful that the children's book industry has embraced my work. There will always be children so its a market that is there even though it is changing. Whether you are speaking of children's books, nonfiction, or any other genre, the whole industry is changing. I will still write but I probably will start getting into e-books since they are so inexpensive to produce and readers are reading more and more of them. I would really like to get into film and animation and I have a few books which lend themselves well to the screen. At the moment though my third book is due to come out late this winter or maybe in the spring. It is a collection of short stories and poems.

S: Well, thanks so much for chatting with us Benrali!

B: You're welcome Summer and thank you for the opportunity!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese artist mastering the fine art of illustrated books (Interview: Part 1)

Well, I warned you that I would be having some interesting folks on the blog soon and I must say, it has been very interesting indeed probing the creative mind of Benrali, author and illustrator of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: From A World Beyond Stars. Benrali is the pen name of Aman Waseem Ben Ali, an emerging Guyanese author, artist, poet and screenwriter. 

Born in America to Guyanese parents, Ali graduated from Parsons School Of Design in New York and went on to attend and graduate from Hendriks Graphic Design Institute in Long Island, USA. The scope of his artistic training is evident in his gorgeously illustrated books, which weave together many styles, schools of thought and periods and which Benrali himself has said, are "proof that the Caribbean has no limits in regards to 'style'".

Well, without further ado, I'm pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation with Benrali. (Click here to read Part 2 of the interview).


S: Benrali, your work is very interesting to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that your books, thus far, have been self-published. What made you decide to self-publish?

B: Well, slight correction: I actually didn't self-publish. Looking at the current health of the publishing industry, I decided not to go with a traditional publisher, but rather, to embrace the new cooperative approach to publishing that is fast becoming a viable option. I didn't pay out of my pocket for anything. I had financial backers and partners who helped me create the Dreamworlds Beyond Time corporation which prints and sells my books. Books are only a small portion of our current product line. I created books where the art could be easily used for fine art prints, greeting cards and yes, the bestseller t-shirts!

Greeting Card featuring art
from The Turtle's Dream and Keys
The cooperative approach has worked quite well for me, in fact, I would say it’s the best type of publishing for myself since I didn't have to pay anything except minor expenses that go into shipping. Having financial backing is sort of like having a grant and this gave me flexibility that I would never have received with traditional publishing.  I really like this co-operative method because it gives artists freedom they would never have received otherwise.  

S: It appears that your books weren't explicitly written for children, nevertheless, I think they would appeal strongly to children, which is why I chose to review them here on the blog. In terms of audience and genre, how do you view your books?

B: For the record, I do not label my books as "children's books" but "artist's books".  You may feel that it’s splitting hairs but it’s a very important facet. Children's books are usually carefully watched over from start to finish by editors and art directors and sales reps.  Throughout the project editors, art directors and marketing/sales/distribution rep have a lot to say about what goes where and what should be omitted. A children's book is truly a joint venture. When a traditional book is produced it is a product of many minds. 

An artist's book is VERY different.  An artist book, no matter what the art or genre doesn't have more than one person involved.  It is more like a fine art painting printed in multiples and is guaranteed to be only "artist’s voice" which may or may not appeal to the audience.  Think about an oil painting you are about to buy, how would you feel if you found out there were 3 or 4 other people picking out the colors and changing things around?  My point of view is not that an artist's book is better or worse than a traditional children's book or adult picture book; it’s just different.

S: On the front flap The Turtle's Dream And Keys, it says that you got the idea for the book from a dream you had. In truth, I was taken aback by the dream-like quality of the illustrations in the book. There certainly is a visionary quality to them. The story itself and the language in which it is told, is also dreamy, even a bit esoteric. In your experience, how do children respond to your dream world, and the images in particular?

B: I have to be honest when I say that mostly adults have bought my books.  I have received some feedback from children who love the art and I have heard of one kid who tried to count all the circles and sand in some of the drawings which was flattering but most of the people I get responses from are adults and lovers of art books.

S: You say that Manni: From a World Beyond Stars is the first book of this kind written using the ghazal, an Arabic and Indo-Persian form of rhyming couplets associated with 12th century Eastern mystics. I am fascinated by this marriage of poetry, mysticism and the picturebook form. Can you explain the ghazal to us. Also, what do you think it lends to your story?

B: My father used to produce records with ghazals when I was a baby in the 80's.  One of his records was title "Anjani Anjani" and the singer he used was Veena Ahuja. I mention this because this is where I first heard about ghazals and yes they are mostly used in songs.  When I started high-school I learned about an author and teacher, Agha Shahid Ali who was an authority on ghazals and ghazals written in English. After reading up on some of the rules for ghazals I decided since Manni was a sea turtle from beyond the stars why not give the narrator for the book, Ooni, a truly unique platform.  
I have never heard of a ghazal ever being used in a picture book but I loved the rhyme scheme. I'm almost sure that ghazal pros will object but they have to admit I did stick to the rules calling for exact syllable counts in each line and the second line rhymes throughout the book and the ghazal is sung by the orator which in this case is Ooni. It's his ghazal after all. The story is set in the hours of night when most sea turtles are born so I thought the lullaby quality of the rhyme would be ideal for this work.

S: Yes, I was in fact struck by the song-like quality of the rhyming scheme. Then, when I did my research, I found out that ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. Are there any plans to turn Manni: From A World Beyond Stars into a sing-along book perhaps? 

B: The thought did cross my partners' minds and I thought it was interesting too since I was at one time an aspiring singer songwriter. I even produced the infamous "demo cd" which went nowhere! Songwriting comes to me a lot easier than entire books so converting it into music shouldn't be that hard. I believe the book has found a more "artbook" and giftbook audience so I would have to think whether or not it would be marketable for children.

More: Read Part 2 of this interview.