Illustration Series

Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."

JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.


Acclaimed author Arshia Sattar says like all great illustrators, the artist Shilo Shiv Suleman brought her own story to their collaboration.

Illustration from 'Pampa Sutra' by Shilo Shiv Suleman published by The Kishkinda Trust, 2009. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Let me say at the very outset that with a complete lack of modesty (or perhaps betraying a complete lack of imagination), I am going to talk about the illustrations in a book for which I wrote the text.

What does it mean for a writer to work with an illustrator? It's a question I am beginning to think about - and this is after my third book for younger readers, all of which have been illustrated at greater and lesser distances from myself. I have worked with an illustrator that I knew (and we planned the book together with the designer and the publisher), an illustrator who was a complete stranger and contracted by the publisher and an illustrator who worked closely together with me. Or, rather, I with her. There are no prizes for guessing which was the most fulfilling of these collaborations or which of them produced the most beautiful book.

I am not instinctively a writer for younger readers. I very much want to be. I envy the light grace of Seuss and Sendak and Lindgren but I take heart from the complexity and weight of some one like Hans Christian Andersen. I grew up with books of illustrated fairy tales from all over the world and for the child that  I was, they opened up worlds of seeing in completely new ways. The people looked different, as did the plants and the animals, even the skies and the seas were not like the ones I knew from my own life. The fairies and the monsters in those books, especially, were nothing that I could ever have seen with my mind's eye. I remember those illustrations in ways that I do not remember the stories themselves.

The most important thing I have learned from working closely with an illustrator with a powerful imagination of her own is that an illustration does far more than represent the text it accompanies. A responsive illustration, as against a representational one, gives you a book with more than one story in it. There is the story that the words carry but there is equally another story told by the pictures. Shilo Shiv Suleman, with whom I did Pampa Sutra, brought yet another story into the book, the story of her personal relationship with the region. Her central images of the river that flows through southern India are layered with other images: a feather she found on its shores, a silver bracelet she bought in the village market, a faded tourist map, a favoured bit of local decoration. In fact, even the river girl resembles her.

A great illustrator, as I believe Shilo to be, seduces the writer to locate herself in her text. My own personal history with the region in Pampa Sutra is more oblique, coming to it as I do through the sacred geography of a text that I spend my adult life with. And so it is that the monkeys get more attention in the book than they normally might. Simply because they are my monkeys. And I wonder again about the writers of the children's books that I have so loved: where they are in the stories they tell? Where are their dreams and their fears? Where are their monkeys? Perhaps the monkeys swing from the sentences, perhaps they chatter in the commas, perhaps they stare back at me from the spaces between the words. Now that I realise they're there, I'll go back to the stories to look for them.

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