Allen Say Interview Transcript 1
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
The author and illustrator Allen Say was interviewed by Scholastic students. You may also be interested in the transcript of a more recent interview with Allen Say.
When you were younger and thinking of being a cartoonist, did you ever think of being an animator?
No, that [animation] came much later. When I was growing up, there was no such thing as animation. I was a war child; war was going on. There was no television; movies were utter luxuries. I was eight years old when the Second World War ended; I had probably seen three or four movies. Animation came much later with Walt Disney and Popeye. So the answer is no.
Do you sometimes write in Japanese?
Yes, not often.
Are most of your stories true?
Yes and no. I always say this to children: there is really no such thing as a true story. Once you put it on paper it becomes fiction. History is a big fiction.
Why do you usually write about your family?
Write what you know is what I've learned. Also, I suppose in a way my family was dysfunctional from the word go. You always like to imagine it otherwise, and based on what I remember of it, I try to put it together in a way that I would have liked to see it.
Do you think it's important that your readers know something about you personally - your own heritage and history - when they read your books?
None whatsoever. I always resent this. I think the person is entirely superfluous. For that reason, I really think that my work will be appreciated much more when I'm gone. Then I think my books will be read for what they are. The reader doesn't have to make the association between the book and the author, the person that thought it up. I'm vehemently against the celebrity and personality cult.
Do you write any adult stories or chapter books?
I have tried to write adult stories in the past; but not since I've been doing children's books full-time. I've never had the desire to write books for adults.
Even though you write picture books, some of the themes are a little more adult. Who do you think about when you are writing?
I never think of children. If I ever think of an audience, it has been my great mentor, the cartoonist Noro Shinpei, who died this year. So I'm truly a ronin, a masterless samurai, an orphan. Or I think of Walter Lorraine, my editor. Walter and I have this agreement that I can do anything I want, so I often don't show him my work in progress - it's a deal we made long ago.
How did you come up with the idea for Home of the Brave?
In the epilogue of the book I mention how I was honored with a retrospective show at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I kept going back to L.A. (I live in Portland, Oregon) and seeing the ongoing exhibit of the internment camp at Manzanar. [Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of the ten internment camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II.] I kept seeing these photographs and artifacts, suitcases that people used to take their belongings. Each person was only allowed to take one suitcase. I had already begun a book and had the first four frames [paintings/illustrations] finished when I suddenly went off in a different direction. Home of the Brave had initially started out as a love story. However, after seeing the photos and artifacts from the internment camps that is when the story changed. After about the third time I was down there, something just took over. I just completely went off in another direction with the same story I was currently working on. I'm describing the mystery of creation, I don't quite understand. It just happened after seeing this exhibit several times. It wasn't a conscious effort on my part. I start out with paintings. In the process of painting a story emerges, which in turns suggests the following image, frame two. Then I follow that process. The picture of the two girls (which is in the book Home of the Brave, p. 15) was a family portrait that I copied from a photograph taken in 1942 by Dorothea Lange. Lange was in California when she took the photo. The name of the family is Mochida. They were big-time farmers and lived near the Bay area. It's a photograph that Lange took when the family was just being bussed out to an internment camp and they are wearing nametags. I kept looking at the picture, and I was very much haunted by these two girls in the photo. It occurred to me to lift the two girls out of the photograph and introduce them into my book. I decided to use the two girls in my book, and the story evolved. The two girls in the picture and their family came to a signing of my book (Home of the Brave). Miyuki is the older girl, and Hiroko is the younger girl. They are "normal" American people. They are seemingly very happy; they do not seem to display any anger or resentment. It is just something that happened to them.
Home of the Brave seems like a nightmare. What is the best way to share it with students?
Read it and discuss it. Talk about it. This is an introduction to recent American history, which so many people don't seem to know. It is astounding. Steve Wasserman, Editor and Chief for The LA Times Book Review, posed three questions [to me]. One was, "Do you worry that this story is too nightmarish for children?" That question really upset me. Here was my answer, "My handling of this subject is mere intimation of the nightmare that real children were forced to watch and endure." However, after the editor read my response, he then edited his own question and changed the word nightmarish to the word difficult.
Do you usually do a lot of research for your books?
Yes, I do.
Did you have to do a lot of research for Home of the Brave?
Probably not as much as some. I didn't travel to the Southwest to view kivas [an underground Pueblo Indian ceremonial structure]. I rely heavily on photographs. I read up on Indian mythology - whatever I could find to learn more about kivas. Some of the internment camps were built on Indian reservations. When you think about it, they were all built on Indian land, and I wanted to make that connection. Nothing is resolved in my book; it is a comment on history. History is cyclical, ongoing.
What are your own experiences of World War II?
Running all over Japan, trying to avoid the bombs falling on us - B29s (the flying fortresses). I attended seven grade schools, which was due to constantly moving around. I was born in Yokohama (Japan). We moved to Yamaguchi Prefecture, near Hiroshima. Grandfather's Journey, Tree of Cranes, and Tea With Milk form a trilogy, which was unintentional, it just happened. They are fairly accurate stories of my mother and grandmother (on my mother's side). My father was a Korean orphan and never knew his parents. My mother was born in Oakland, California. Her father, my grandfather (the protagonist in Grandfather's Journey), was a very gentle and privileged gentleman - he never had to work a day in his life. He discovered steamships, so he traveled all over the place, including South America and came to California. One day he received a letter from his father: "Get home and marry this woman we've chosen for you, or else." Otherwise he would've been disowned and there was much to inherit - he was the second son. He rushed back to Japan and married my grandmother, and took her to Oakland, California, and put her up in an apartment. My mother was born; she obviously was a disappointment because women couldn't inherit in those days. It had to be a male heir. Five years later my grandparents had another girl, who was a clone of my grandmother, a miserable, horrible woman. They quit trying to have sons. To proper Japanese parents, America wasn't a place to bring up a proper lady. So at the age of 18, after my mother went to high school, my grandparents dragged her back to Japan. This is the story of Tea With Milk. They hired tutors to mold my mother into a proper Japanese young lady, and my mother rebelled. She got herself a job at Daimaru Department store in Osaka (it still exists). She was not an elevator girl, which she is in my story Tea With Milk. She worked in the office doing translation. She met my father at the store; he was a customer. She ran off with the first man who spoke English to her. My father spoke with a British accent because he was reared by an English family in Shanghai. My poor mother was very impressed with that.
We just read and enjoyed several of your books. We would like to know what you like to read, and who are your favorite authors?
I'm very eclectic in reading. I read fiction and nonfiction. Frequently I read three to four books simultaneously. I don't read for the plot or story. My editor finds this strange. I do a lot of rereading. Some stories I've read over ten times. I usually open a book anywhere, and if I don't like it, I skip pages. Or I'll start a new book. I'm a very slow reader. I don't believe in speed-reading. I'll frequently read a passage over and over again, to find the mystery and meaning. I have a fear of the English language. I've always felt like an imposter using it. It's a very precise language compared to the Japanese language, which has a very loose form.
Which of your books was the easiest for you to write, and what was the hardest? Why?
They are all difficult and painful. There is no such thing as an easy book. If it were easy I would toss it out, it is probably no good. Writing isn't fun - painting is fun at times. I'm in the position where I write something and it goes out into the world, and I'm opening myself up and all these reviewers will say whatever they want (often wrong).
Do you write the story or draw the illustrations first?
I do the illustrations first. I almost always draw first, except for the one I'm doing now. It's rare when I know the story beforehand. The story I'm working on now is biographical; it's about an 84-year-old woman. My book, El Chino, is also a biography. This new book will be in that style. Based on a true story.
What advice do you have to inspiring artists?
If you write something and it seems pretty to you, toss it out. Chances are it's cute and no good. Same thing with paintings.