By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Aracelis Girmay and Ariana Fields to the WNDB blog to discuss What Do You Know?
Congratulations on your latest book, What Do You Know? Could you please tell the readers a little about what the book’s about?
AF: Thank you so much. We are so excited and honored to share this book!
AG: Yes. Thank you for inviting us to talk about it with you. To answer your question, the book imagines that love is an entity that goes from place to place, being to being, asking what those places and beings know. Love asks a bear, a historian, courage, a volcano’s ash: What do you know? And they all answer. The book is a catalog of encounters and at the heart of the formal repetition is a question about attention and wonder. I think a lot about the poet Lucille Clifton who has said before that “poetry is a way to wonder,” and I think that this book is made out of that. It is a trace of our wondering and the form has given us a path to (our) wonder. We hope that this book is a humble invitation to readers. We hope that they will wonder with us and that they will add their own responses and stretch the possibilities beyond what we ourselves imagined.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
AG: The book’s form comes from this beautiful moment in a poem by the brilliant Sharon Olds. The poem is called “Looking at Them Asleep.” In the poem, she describes coming home late at night and going in to kiss her sleeping children goodnight. It’s just so powerful–the way she describes them in their different habits of sleep and mysteries: one child “is sideways in his bed, / one knee up as if he is climbing” and the other is on her back “in abandon and sealed completion…” The last words of the poem go: “oh my Lord how I / know these two. When love comes to me and says / What do you know, I say This girl, this boy.” When I was teaching at Hampshire College I had the honor of working with the amazing librarian Rachel Beckwith. She printed this poem out and read it aloud for me when I was very pregnant with my son (now six). It settled in my heart very specifically because of that. And so just after my son was born and Ariana was coming over a lot to help and visit, we had started making things together. It was a way of spending time. This is one of the things we worked on and it became one of the things that we wanted to give more of our hours to.
AF: “When love comes to me and says what do you know…” What a question to be asked! And how might we all, human, non-human, and non-breathing beings and objects respond? That poem and that question took me back to some of my earliest memories of joy when I really wanted to be a roly-poly under a rock doing roly-poly things.
How did each of you find yourselves getting into the poetry and illustration worlds respectively? What drew you to picture books specifically?
AF: I’ve always been interested in land and movement and how bodies interact with landscape.
I have been taken by visual art for as long as I can remember. Our mom used to paint, draw and sculpt a lot and had many different artists’ books around. I would sit quietly and watch my dad draft for hours and look at his architecture books. I would also try to paint like Picasso and Van Gogh, and then like Kahlo, without having any understanding of what was happening in the images. I just knew I felt something big when I looked at their paintings and I wanted to be able to visually show what I was feeling as well.
When I studied printmaking in college I really felt myself become aware of the power in visual modes of storytelling. I was drawn to relief printing because of the tension map of what the hand has gone through that is interwoven within the printed image. In political posters especially. When I looked at José Guadalupe Posada, Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, Elizabeth Catlett, and Arturo García Bustos prints, there always felt to be an extra element of force. Digging into a surface to tell a story that yells out for revolution, calls out for peace, or shows a moment of beauty feels intense and organic in a way no other medium had felt to me at the time. I used to have a difficult time expressing myself verbally. I could express myself through drawing, skateboarding, and snowboarding. Movement was the storytelling mode for me and I found movement in visual art. To combine that movement with text and voice is so special, and to see those elements come together in picture books feels magical to me. It is beautiful that stories can reach people in more than one way.
I earned my graduate degree in landscape architecture and felt lucky to learn more about how other species can tell their histories through the marks they make.
I view the earth as one large print. There are many macro and micro-stories marked into the earth. Many beings have left their marks and will continue to leave their marks through that kind of “storytelling.”
AG: Marks in the earth as “storytelling.” I love that. And the print as carrying some of the history of the hand is something I’ll be thinking about.
As for my own route to poetry: I was really interested in documentary, social change, and oral history work when I was in college, and from writers like Lucille Clifton, Anna Deavere Smith, Kate Rushin, Sonia Sanchez, and James Agee, I had understood that poetry had something to do with this work. That part of the stir and imagination and depth of feeling with which people told their own stories had something to do with poetry and history. I had studied Documentary Studies with a concentration in long-form nonfiction and oral history. And as a reader and a listener, I kept following the poets and writers I loved for, among other things, their engagements with history and the kinds of strange, unpinnable traces of histories poems can be. Kamau Brathwaite, June Jordan, Mahmoud Darwish.
I have also always loved picture books. The constraint and possibility of them. That they are often written with children in mind, and so they carry kernels of deep love, hope, concern, joy, playfulness. The picture books I love are openings into feeling, comfort, wildness, imagination. Whatever they do, they do it with great belief in what they are offering. I think imagining that there is a child there, on the other end, receiving and running with your offering, can be a great inspiration to picture bookmakers. And so I love to see what folks do with this great honor and possibility, and with such a brilliant, imaginative, diverse audience to write/illustrate toward.
How would you describe your experiences creating a picture book, especially as sisters collaborating on the same story?
AG: In many ways—and maybe especially because it’s not a narrative—the book and our collaboration really lent themselves to ongoing experimentation. Since the book follows a strict structure it felt like we could wander and experiment endlessly within the constraint. Tinkering here, cutting things, reordering with images and pace, and leaping or proximities in mind. We have always been really close and in each other’s lives but we are also 11 years apart so we have so many shared places and relationships between us, but also really different references and aesthetic sensibilities.
Maybe because there is so much difference and we know each other so well, we would sometimes go back and forth on one idea across several months listening for the meeting ground between us. Our life and work rhythms are different, too—which, I think, was a gift and a challenge. When one of us would want to speed up, the other needed to go slower and vice versa… In the end, I think that our sisterhood, along with the slowness and differences in sensibility really made me understand time as one of the dimensions or materials of the book. We spent such a long time with this book, and so, to me, it’s really obvious how many different versions of our relationships to each other and the world are carried in it. It seems to me that some of the aesthetic differences and ideas and surprises between pages (and our attention) have to do with that exactly.
AF: I’ll just add that illustrating felt good and difficult at times. There were moments that just didn’t feel right. The image and text felt like they had no relationship, even if it was an image I liked. There was a lot of back and forth feedback between Aracelis, Claudia, and Eugenia at Enchanted Lion. I feel so grateful for their support and encouragement through the making of this book. They asked me questions I had forgotten to ask myself and they allowed me time to explore different visual ideas.
After much time going back and forth with different images that just didn’t feel right, I finally found a rhythm. A scene that felt connected to the text, the emotion, then the movement, and then the colors that would bring it all together. I am especially interested in movement as expression. Making these illustrations, I remembered what lines can do and from there things opened up. In a way, the entire experience took me back to a self that I know and love. While illustrating and sitting with the text I found myself answering the question “What do you know?” for myself, and that was fulfilling and gave me the courage to keep making until it felt right.
Would you say there are benefits and/or challenges of working with family?
AF: The benefits are that you can get frustrated and still talk it out as siblings do and then continue on with the work. But the true benefit is the gift of now being a better communicator than I was before. For me as the younger sister, it was challenging to hold onto my own expression while also holding our collaboration and aesthetic differences close. I spent a lot of time trying to find the balance of work that felt right to both of us.
AG: To me, the gift of this particular collaboration is that all aspects of our relationship meet inside the work. There is no such thing, I think, as compartmentalization for us. So however we were doing or feeling with one another affected the book’s becoming. And vice versa. Our communication needs are pretty different, and so there were definitely moments when one or both of us would get frustrated. And so often the frustration carried other frustrations or dynamics between us. The same is true for the joy and deep care. That each moment of co-making carries so many other moments inside it. For better or for worse. Our mom and brother got so many phone calls from both of us along the way. Our partners were also part of the long conversation of this book. In that way, because we are family, our collaboration was between the two of us but also with our larger, shared family. And then, of course, with Claudia and Eugenia at Enchanted Lion. It has been really amazing to understand our collaboration in the context of other collaborations and relationships.
What books drew you in as children? What stories inspired you to tell your own stories?
AF: When I was little I was interested in any books that had animals in them. I remember loving Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with all the bright, textured colors. My favorite was Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi though! I loved animals and I was interested in knowing what their poop looked like too. I remember we had a lot of nature books and magazines around, I loved learning about different animals. As I continued to grow I became more interested in paintings. My Aunt Pat had an Ernie Barnes painting that hung above her fireplace that I would stare at while I was eating and I’d think of all of the movement and emotion happening within the painted scene. I then soon noticed Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, Frida Kahlo, and Picasso paintings and became even more interested in learning about the depths of visual art. For me, the inspiration for storytelling comes from the many different forms of language, especially in movement between different beings and their growth and interaction with their environments.
AG: When I was really little, we had an encyclopedia set that my parents let me roam through freely and independently. I spent so much time staring at the pictures in those books, and remember doing so before I could read. Later, when I could read, I remember feeling like I could not get enough. I especially wanted to learn about people and animals. But it really wasn’t until I was in high school and read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye that I really began to understand some of what writing could be and do.
What advice would you give to young writers and artists today?
AG: It has helped me to remember to pay attention to what nourishes— my body, my imagination, my spirit. To experiment and play. To try things out. To collaborate with others in the making. Also: there is so much world to learn from. Study, study. Across the fields and in all of your languages.
AF: It’s helped me to remember that there is always room for growth and that it’s okay to let my imagination run a marathon when it needs to. Try new things, speak up, collaborate with others and also be aware of the more-than-human elements all around us. There are teachers everywhere, and it’s important to listen, but also never forget you have a voice. And it’s okay to rest and give your mind a break. I know that the last one can be difficult to do so I had to put that in there.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked?
AG: I love this! It actually makes me want to ask you a question, Ariana. Can you talk about influences that we might be surprised by? Like, who or what has deeply influenced your artistic practice in ways that we might find surprising?
AF: I’m hugely influenced by how people hold themselves, the ways we move, skateboarding, and animations. Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville is one of my favorite animations.
I’m influenced by the desire lines/trails we all make that map our movements. I’m intrigued by how things choose to move about. How our environment can influence our movement especially in activities such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing. I’m usually more taken by the action of making than the thing that is made.
Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
AG: Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. I cannot recommend it enough. This book was a gift from my dear friend Aisha, Auntie Moon to my children. It is a gorgeous and lyrical tribute to the beauty, power, and possibility of our names. To me, it reads like a love poem. A book about the dreams and histories our names are imbued with. I read it to my kids all the time and feel it nourishes our attention. Hopefully, we carry its spirit with us when we meet others and listen as they say their names. I also love The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza by Juan Felipe Herrera and illustrated by Elizabeth Gómez. The very back of the book, which shares the story of Juan Felipe Herrera’s actual elementary school teacher, offers a brief glimpse of how lasting and profound the encouragement of a beloved teacher is. My kids and I also treasure the beautifully illustrated Ladybird Sunstart readers—a gift from the kids’ grandparents. And if I had to limit myself to adding just one more, it would be I am Every Good Thing (a gift from the kids’ Auntie Cheryl) by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James. It is a powerful, uplifting, beautiful encouragement of a book that centers our Black boys/children.
AF: We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade. It holds an important message for all ages but especially young readers. It is a hopeful book that focuses on the importance of environmental protection and respecting the land and people’s rights and heritages.
Ariana Fields is a graduate of SFAI (printmaking) and the City College Masters of Landscape Architecture program. She is interested in visual modes of storytelling, representations of movement, and works on paper (from drawings and printmaking to mapping and design). Ariana is currently working on garden design projects in Brooklyn and New York State. She is interested in root systems and the relationships between fungi and plants, and thinks of her work in spatial design as an extended study of adaptations that organisms and bodies make in our ever-changing environments. When she’s not working on projects, she spends a lot of her time skating, surfing and climbing, and is interested in the movements inspired by those practices.