‘We go on eggshells as creators because of the diversity discussion’

‘Where is the limit of the imagination? When I was asked at the end of last year if I wanted to give the Annie MG Schmid lecture, I knew immediately that that question would be my starting point, ”says Marit Törnqvist. “The discussion about the importance of cultural diversity in children’s books, at a time when so many different people from so many different backgrounds suddenly meet, is right now the most important in our field, but it is literally going on in black and white. The idea that everyone should feel represented in the literature is, of course, a wonderful endeavor. But who is going to tell all those stories if many of us simultaneously experience that we cannot make stories about people from a culture we do not belong to? ”

It is a day after the festive book presentation of Törnqvist’s new picture book Turtle and me – a slightly surreal story about a man who tells his grandson how he got a turtle as a boy and how the animal was rescued during the search for his roots became part of his identity. But first we will talk about her lecture entitled ‘Where are the boundaries?’, And about whose story you can tell as a children’s bookmaker. We do this in Törnqvist’s attic studio in a characteristic canal house in Amsterdam. The figurative prints that hang there, however, reveal that Sweden is not far away. There, in her home country and homeland, Törnqvist started her career as an illustrator for Astrid Lindgren, and she also designed the interior of the children’s museum Junibacken, where Lindgren’s stories are depicted. Only later did she create a furore in the Netherlands, including the collection of poems You are the sweetest (2000) by Hans and Monique Hagen and own picture book stories such as Little story about love (1996) and The happy island (2017). “A child from two worlds,” she calls herself.

Passionately, the acclaimed picture bookmaker, who also makes a name for himself as an international reading promoter, talks about his concerns about ‘Fortress Europe’, where ‘the fences are getting higher and people are being selectively hospitalized, while vigorously advocating for more diversity’.

“I find this,” says Törnqvist, “a skewed contradiction. This is not to say that we children’s bookmakers do not want to respond to the need for more cultural diversity. We really want that. And it should. Only: how should we do it? this? Who can and can you empathize with? And also: should everyone do this? For myself the following applies: I always tell my own story, based on what I feel or think. I can not do anything else. But I know colleagues, who feel that they can no longer afford that the stories, told from their privileged white perspective, are no longer of this time, while at the same time they feel that they are not sufficiently able to tell the story of the other because of the genuine respect they feel for a culture that is not their own. And those who dare, struggle with the fear of being accused of cultural appropriation. We go on eggshells as creators and some of us get stuck. The diversity discussion threatens to stifle creativity. ”

‘With a drop of paint it would have become a politically charged book’

But is the world of art in particular not limitless?

“It is, yes. In principle, art is absolutely limitless. At the same time, there are natural boundaries in all of us. Only how we draw them varies from person to person. In my lecture, I quote Stefan Hertmans, for example, who believes, ‘ that literature must prove that empathy exists. That is the task. ” I like that. It shows that there is great diversity, also among us writers. Not only in terms of cultural background, but in how we approach life and in how we are constantly looking for what we can and cannot tell in our work. It is precisely this border area that is most interesting for art. Making art means taking risks. If you do not know this anymore, then you create out of fear and everything gets tame. Therefore, in the end, you should always listen to what your voice has to say. One requirement is that we are aware of what is happening in the world and that we are open to others. If you walk around with blinders on, you fall into clichés and can grossly exceed boundaries. ”

The reader’s?

“Yes. Although I am aware, from personal experience at home and abroad, that no reader is alike. For example, at a literature festival in Nairobi, the children reacted very differently to my books than the children I later visited in an earthquake zone in Iran. In Nairobi, I felt like they were looking for books about colored children and left other titles. In Iran, I experienced how children completely identified with the girl from The happy island who are looking for happiness on a self-built raft, while before they had no idea what a sea was. The difference in response may be due to the fact that the Iranian children had a book background. Maybe it also helped that they looked more like my book characters than the kids from Nairobi. Such differences in appearance and reading experience show how complicated it is to make a book for everyone. ”

Is there really such a thing as universal expressiveness?

“I think you should talk about universal emotions. Children from all over the world know loneliness, hope, courage, fear. When a story revolves around that kind of emotion, everyone can experience it as a mirror. But which of these emotions do you see reflected? , depends on where you live and what you’ve been through.At least you increase recognizability if your stories are not tied to time and place.Bi Turtle and me I have deliberately chosen that again.

“However, the image has less universal narrative possibilities than the language, it quickly becomes more specific. Therefore, I always concentrate on how I can make sense of my image through colors, light and composition. But even then, image can limit identification – which, incidentally, is different from empathy. I realized this while writing the lecture. To begin with, I would start with the introductory sentence from The happy island: ‘On a raft / Built of wreckage / Food a girl./She was on her way / To the horizon’. And then I thought, what if I had made her dark? Suddenly I realized: with a drop of paint, it would have become a politically charged book. I hope one day to get to the point where it does not matter how I draw that child. Whether it is colored or blonde, boy or girl, it should not change the story. But the world is not that far yet.

“Suddenly I realize that for my last Dutch exams I wrote a prayer against illustrations in children’s books. I thought they limited your own imagination. “Laughs:” Then I was admitted to Rietveld Academy. This prayer arose in part from my frustration over Carl Hollander’s illustrations of Pippi Longstocking, which I saw when I came to live in Holland from Sweden. as a little girl. Of course I knew the Swedish version. And the picture of Hollander, who later became my best teacher at Rietveld Academy, was simply not right. Pippi to me is extremely Swedish. And the clothes Lindgren describes are just that, Swedish “Girls traditionally wore in the 1940s. Not at all as extravagant as all the hats and dresses Hollander had put on her. I was angry about it and scratched his drawings black.”

Is not the imagination boundless anyway?

“An illustrator must always take into account the original story, he is less free than the picture bookmaker, who as mentioned can create without limits. Because of my duality, I am aware of how little one can know about another country and the culture if one does not live or grew up there, even though those countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, are close to each other. Yes, there is an exterior: the forest, the red houses, you can just draw them. But it is limited: what you take with you from your home country is so deep inside you. The landscape, scents, sounds, colors. Recognition points are therefore very important for children, especially if they are not yet experienced readers. They open the door to history. I experienced that in Nairobi and Iran.

Turtle and me is, among other things, about homesickness for your hometown, so I put in a lot of different landmarks from many different worlds. The main character seems Middle Eastern and I drew a hookah. It all feels close to me, I spent years with Syrians and Afghans. But the mountains are the ones in Lapland where I have been a lot. And the houses are from New Orleans, where my brother lives. Children will recognize themselves in the opening scene, where a grandparent tells a child about the past and far away.

“But along the way, I have tried to turn the mirror into a window, and what actually follows is a very mature tale of living and dying, loving and letting go, leaving and coming home. The story comes deep from myself, but I think every child will understand and hopefully travel with me. “

Also read: this review of ‘The Happy Island’ by Marit Törnqvist

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