Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review & Author Interview: "T Is For Tokyo"

T is for Tokyo by Irene Akio, from ThingsAsian Press

by Sharon H Chang

This Mother's Day 2015 I'm so pleased to share with you an extraordinary picture book by multiracial-identifying artist, illustrator, author and mother -- Irene Akio. Her debut children's book T is for Tokyo was released by ThingsAsian Press in 2010 as part of their series "ThingsAsian Kids" (great titles btw, definitely check them out). It's a stunning bilingual English/Japanese pictorial and cultural exploration of Tokyo that children and parents of all ages will find themselves mesmerized by. Like Irene who was born in Northern Japan and spent summers there but grew up largely in Michigan, the book's narrative is built upon a child's bi-national awareness and budding identity. Little Mina asks her father in the very first pages, "Papa, tell me again about the city I was born in," and he answers:

"You were born in a city called Tokyo. It's bigger than you can imagine..."

artwork copyright 2010 by Irene Akio

This sets the stage for 56 beautiful pages of Irene's illustrations which are at once enchanting, absorbing, captivating and enthralling. The images and curiosity-propelled storyline gorgeously capture iconic elements of Japanese culture and encourage a respectful interest all children can tap into. For those of us from mixed heritage backgrounds, the paintings also specially convey the emotion, connection and nostalgia we often feel for things familiar but far away. Indeed the book is really less about Mina and her father (who are never pictured), and more about the experience of being awash in color, artistry, thought and experience; about connecting viscerally to the meaning of traditions and practices over time and space. And isn't that what culture and identity really mean to us all at the end of the day anyway? It's not just the things we see or do, but our sensations and perceptions that add dimension and make us who we are.

I highly recommend this book for kids and grownups alike. It would be an excellent addition to your child's reading collection; a necessary compliment to any library, school, bookstore, etc. boasting culturally relevant family resources; even a great coffee table-top addition. Irene herself became a mother in late 2013 and has one child, an active little toddler. "I feel immensely happy to have this little person in my life," she said, "The joys and silliness and wonder [my daughter] brings into my life far outweigh the continued exhaustion and endless challenges that motherhood brings." In celebration of motherhood and moms-who-kick-ass everywhere, I asked Irene if she'd tell us something about her accomplishments and who she is. Gratefully she took time out of her busy schedule not only as parent but also purveyor/proprietor of Irene Akio Illustration & Cards to share with us today a little more about herself, her family and her awesome book:

artwork copyright 2010 by Irene Akio

How do you and your family identify racially-ethnically?
I identify as bi-national, as well as multi-racial. I consider myself Japanese and Asian/White American. Though I don't mind being considered Japanese-American, I don't really think of myself as such because Japanese-American culture is another experience altogether. My father is Japanese and has lived most of his life in Japan and my mother is White American (Irish and English) and has lived most of her life in the United States. Though I was born in Japan and spent my very early life there, I grew up largely in White-cultured Michigan, spending summers in Japan with my father. I moved to Seattle about 11 years ago, and it instantly felt like home, I think in part because Japanese and other Asian cultures are more present here. The trees and the coast even smell a bit like Japan to me. But none of my family was interned in the American West during World War II. The stories my family tells about the war are about the fire bombings of Tokyo and my grandma selling her kimono on the black market to get food for my dad and his brothers. My Japanese-American friends even use different words for certain Japanese foods and objects - I think many of them are Hawaiian-Japanese words. But I definitely consider myself Asian-American, which to me encompasses a much larger cultural spectrum and points more to the racial identity and experience. My husband is primarily White American. I don't think his family talked about their ancestry when he was growing up as much as mine did. I want Japanese culture and muli-racialism to be a part of my daughter's identity, but some of that will be up to her to figure out.

You are an incredible painter and illustrator. How did you become an artist?

artwork copyright 2010 by Irene Akio
It's kind of a roundabout story. I had an amazing art teacher in high school that introduced me to techniques, perspective, and other concepts and exposed me to a variety of art. After high school, I did very little art for over 10 years but kept up crafting of different kinds for fun: origami, knitting, pop-up cards. When I met my husband, he was working in a lumber yard. (He is an artist as well, though is currently studying mechanical engineering.) I told him I had always wanted a huge crafting table, so he saved pieces he found in the free pile at work and we built a 16 foot long table and each took half for doodling and crafting. He discovered an ink portrait I had done years before and encouraged me to start painting again, which I did!

Tell us how you eventually came to create T Is For Tokyo.
After building the craft table, I started making new ink drawings and posted them on my facebook page. A friend and former colleague saw my art and asked if I'd be interested in illustrating a book about Tokyo as a part of a series being put together by the press she worked for. I had never worked in color, but told her I'd give it a shot. I pulled out a watercolor set that had been my mom's and created what I felt were two or three very mediocre paintings and sent them to her and the publisher. But they like the style well enough and so I signed on to do the book. Originally, I was only going to do the illustrations and picked some of my favorite things about Tokyo and Japan to illustrate. After the paintings were done, they asked if I would be interested in writing a story to go along with the illustrations. I don't really think of myself as a writer, but I really enjoyed the whole project and was grateful for this opportunity that just fell into my lap.

The book is bilingual English/Japanese. What led to that decision?
The publisher decided to make it bilingual and also designed the layout of the book (which I think is wonderful). Things Asian Press is a publisher that focuses solely on books about Asia and they have a series of kids books about different cities in Asia. Though I have studied Japanese, I cannot write fluently.

How does the book speak to your racial / ethnic experiences growing up, and now to your family's experiences?
I grew up going to Japan every summer. As an adult it is much harder to get back there as often, and equally difficult to hold on to the parts of Japanese culture that I love when very few of the people I spend my daily life with are Japanese or Japanese-American. When my friend Janet approached me about doing the book, it felt like an amazing gift to spend a period of time looking through old photos and thinking about my time there and all the beautiful things that are unique to Japan. My father also wrote a children's book, and somehow it makes me feel like I have followed in his footsteps. His book is about a Brazilian exchange student who goes to stay with a family in rural Japan. My parents started an exchange program in northern Japan as a response to the xenophobia they witnessed and our family experienced. The program was a big success and still exists, though they haven't run it for years. I know that my daughter will likely spend even less time in Japan than I did as a child, but I love that we can look through the book and I can show her some of the things I love. And when we do go, it might be a bit more familiar to her.

artwork copyright 2010 by Irene Akio

What are you working on currently? What can we expect from you next?
Taking care of my daughter takes up a lot of time, but in my spare time I continue to make art. After I published the book, I started a greeting card business and continue to create cards and prints from my paintings. Most of my subjects are animals, but I dabble with portraits and other subjects, and am trying my hand at linocut printing. I have been wanted to do a line of Japanese themed cards, but am still thinking through the details...maybe Japanese mythical creatures or the zodiac animals.

I sell mostly wholesale, but enjoy vending at a few craft shows every year, too. You can find my cards in a handful of stores around Seattle (and elsewhere in the country) and currently I have prints for sale at Kismet salon on Capitol Hill. I will also be doing a show of both prints and original work at Two Bells Tavern in July and August. With my husband in school full-time and our daughter growing and changing all the time, I feel like we are in a constant juggling act. I try to think of it as a three-ring-circus fun adventure sort of juggling act, though.

Are there any more children's books in your future?
I actually have written a story that I'm hoping to illustrate this summer. My daughter loves books more than anything, so I have been reading lots and lots of kids books and it inspired me to write one. It's very different from my first book, and I'm almost afraid to mention it because I fear I won't finish it. My husband and I have very different styles of drawing but potentially complementary, so we've been talking about joining forces for this project. I'll be sure to let you know if we pull it off!


Irene Akio

Please support affirming children's literature and artists/writers of color. Your single act of support can make a difference. T is for Tokyo is available for purchase here. Visit Irene's website Irene Akio Illustration & Cards, and follow her on Facebook.

1 comment :

  1. The beauty and grace and vibrant excitement of one of the world's great cities is translated wonderfully through a child's eyes by a writer and artist who clearly knows Tokyo well. Her world of ramen lanterns and brightly colored candy and wish-granting figurines is as welcoming as the beckoning cat that waves from the pages of T is for Tokyo--a bilingual book that will prompt dreams of exploring Japan in parents as well as in children.