Friday, January 10, 2014
What I've been working on
Back in October I learned that The Folio Society, in collaboration with House of Illustration had announced their 2014 book competition. I missed last year's contest by a hare's whisker, so I was really exhilarated to catch this one in time.
Folio Society is a publishing house in London that specializes in illustrated novels. A great deal of their backlist includes classics, though they commission illustrations for newer work as well. It is basically my dream job in contest form: they select a book, put the call out for illustrations. You are to submit three illustrations from scenes in the book in addition to a cover, and if selected you are paid a commission and produce six more pictures, to all be published by the end of this year.
I think it is set up this way to help unknowns have a shot at the top -- the contest makes clear concessions for students in particular. But a lot of Very Big Deal illustrators who regularly get editorial work for the New York Times have illustrated Folio Society books, so it comes with a great deal of prestige within the profession, to say nothing of the blind joy that is finding a publisher that illustrates books for grown-ups.
So it was with great interest that I learned that this year's book was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
It's a meaty choice for a contest -- and clear way to separate the big players from the dabblers. Aside from the rich visual imagery and the mental anguish of the narrator there is the incredibly complicated subject of colonial Africa. A topic, I would argue, the author does not address in a way that satisfies the modern reader. (Not terribly surprising, as the novella was written in 1899.)
There is additionally the problem of Way Too Many Pictures Out There of "rush walls, peaked grass roofs...a whirl of black limbs," concerning Africa. As an illustrator I take responsibility for the images I put out there, and if there's one thing I want to do with my work it's to contribute to stereotype REDUCING images, rather than make images that reinforce stereotypes.
The novelist Chinua Achebe objects to this book, on essentially the same grounds that I do. He particularly objects to the reduction of Africans as a "whirl of black limbs", arguing that Joseph Conrad continually reduces the Africans to body parts, as to things sub-human, as this is the only way his white brain can understand them.
It's a book I'm not sure we need to perpetuate. It's a book I'm not sure we should celebrate by giving it new clothes. But the book endures. Even while I was working on this Tin House put out a lavishly illustrated version of the text, which I found to be a little bit of a cop-out. It has a beauty to it, but it seems to me the book demands a more forceful, direct approach. Additionally, to abstract figures to the extent that Matt Kish has done denies the Africans the opportunity to be PEOPLE in this book. And if we must allow the book to continue, I feel the least we can do is finally give the native people a chance to tell their side of the story.
I am much more interested in modern Africa than I am in historic Africa. But of course, modern Africa was shaped by the brutalization of the continent by many, many Western projects -- and arguably continues to be shaped by them -- and so I suppose in some sense it is valuable to look backwards to see what it is we have done. And in this case, I intended to really look.
It goes without saying then that this book is certainly not one I would have picked on my own. However, the best projects are actually those which challenge us, because otherwise we never grow. And in truth I was already trying to develop a deeper understanding of the continent through reading the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who encourages us never to be seduced by the single story.
To that end, I approached this project not as a single story, but as two stories. The story of Marlow and the Europeans, wandering into the land of "incomprehensible" natives, and the story of the natives encountering uncomprehending foreigners. It was in this way I hoped I could do justice to the text and making it a bit more manageable for modern readers.