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 Tutle's
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.