Innosanto Nagara: “The Wedding Portrait”

AG: Congratulations on the release of your newest book, The Wedding Portrait!

Your picture books focus on activism while having roots in very personal stories. You wrote A is for Activist for your son. My Night in the Planetarium is based on a childhood experience, and the starting point for The Wedding Portrait is a photograph of your own wedding. How do you think about your personal history in relation to the stories you want to share with kids?

IN: Thank you! And thanks for doing this interview. You’ve always been one of the first people to review my books going back to my self-publishing days, so I really appreciate this opportunity.
Making a batik with my son in Jogja.

To answer your question: I guess the best way to put it is that my books are deeply personal. My starting point is always the stories that I want to tell to my own child. But in many ways that’s just the framework. My Night in the Planetarium is built around an incident in my childhood, but the book is about much more: an introduction to Indonesia, colonialism, revolution, how power corrupts, what we do when we have a bad president—and the role of art for social change. Similarly The Wedding Portrait starts with the story of a photograph, but it’s really about civil disobedience, direct action, and why we sometimes break the rules when faced with grave injustice and repression. The subjects I choose are personal in that they are the things that I have a personal history with in one way or another. I write what I know. But the core message in all my books is more universal: that in an uncertain world where we cannot promise everything will always go the way we want it to, we do have “agency” to do something about it.

AG: With The Wedding Portrait it seems you’ve created a unique photo album. Your illustrations connect the photograph of taking your wedding party to a protest to the powerful images from movements around the world. This feels like a hopeful message about the interconnectedness of our actions.

IN: Absolutely. I grew up under a repressive military dictatorship that cultivated a true atmosphere of fear. And my family was sometimes in the direct line of fire. But I still had a great childhood, with a confidence instilled in me that my actions and choices matter. Eventually the dictatorship was in fact overthrown by people power, and I’ve had the privilege of participating in and supporting many successful movements over the years. So I know we can make change, and even in our bleakest moments, there is opportunity.

AG: The Wedding Portrait also serves as a primer for kids on tactics for “breaking the rules”—from civil disobedience to direct action. You’ve used a conversational style that’s perfect for storytimes. I can picture kids sitting around you in a circle while you flip through the pages. Did this book grow out of discussions with kids in your own life?

IN: Yes. It’s not so much that it’s important to me that our kids know the vocabulary of direct action type organizing—though there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we talk with the kids in our community about the type of organizing work people in our circles are doing, there are certain themes that recur. Especially recently, as people in this country are mobilized, it’s important that the kids not just hear about all the bad things that the administration is doing and saying, the wars, the shootings, the neo-nazi’s, the deportations. They also need to hear about what kinds of things people are doing about it. Some parents within a certain demographic may feel they are able to shelter their kids. But for most people in the world, families who face daily threats of discrimination, state violence, the possibility of deportation, etc., these are conversations that have to happen. And even for those who don’t have to have those conversations, it’s actually best for them if you do. If we don’t have these conversations with our kids, they will be having them with their friends, the radio, the TV, the internet. So the challenge for us is how to talk with our kids in a way that is empowering, not traumatizing.

AG: What images inform your creative process? Do you keep certain objects close by when making books?

My messy desk.

IN: My desk is a mess, so I wouldn’t say I keep anything on it for inspiration. But when I am working on a particular image, I gather references from all over the place (and some ends up living on my desk, which is why it’s a mess). It could be physical photos, it could be textures, it could be other illustrations. I also do a lot of internet searches and I create a folder of reference images for every illustration I’m working on. Or I ask people to send me photos of themselves or their families. Or if I can’t find it, I’ll go outside and take photos with my phone. Or I get the kids in my community to pose for me. Or my coworkers. Almost everyone I know is in my work someplace, even if they are not recognizable.

AG: Your bright illustrations capture so much character and emotion. I want to zoom in on one that I find particularly moving: the image of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag in South Carolina. It’s based on a recent photograph many of us are familiar with, but here you’ve treated the background so light radiates out from her and touches the statehouse. When you create portraits of activists, what do you hope to reveal?

IN: That’s actually a really good question. Bree Newsome is such an inspiration, and having had the honor of communicating with her in this process, what you’re seeing in the image makes total sense. But I don’t usually know where I’m going with it when I start the illustration. I had a sense of how I and how everyone I knew felt about her action—the superhero, wonder woman memes that were circulating around the internet. But she really shaped that with her own personality. The issues were grim. There had been a massacre. The flag is a symbol of racism. But her big smile, her triumphant holding up of the flag, even her arrest picture—all radiated a confidence and positivity that is what made that image of her so iconic and aspirational. My hope was to capture some of that in my illustration.

AG: In the epilogue you write, “The stories I’ve told you here are not the whole story. The whole story would take books and books and books to tell.” What do you mean by that?

IN: The vignettes in The Wedding Portrait are just snapshots—examples that I would use when talking to kids about these ideas. Most are from movements that I have in some way participated in or supported in solidarity. But I recognize that some stories are not my story to tell. So I would point to books by and about the folks from those communities for further reading. Also, I note that these are not the whole story because we use notable actions and campaigns as a way to inspire. But it’s also important to recognize that real change happens only because the unknown, unrecognized, and unseen actions of many. Especially when talking with kids, it’s important that they can see themselves in the story whether or not they are the one who is the first to raise their hand at every opportunity.

AG: What’s next for you?

IN: My son is in second grade now. So maybe a chapter book? 🙂

AG: Sounds great! Thank you!!

(Here are links to my earlier posts about Innosanto’s books, A is for Activist and Counting on Community.)

Hardcover: 36 pages
Publisher: Triangle Square (October 17, 2017)
ISBN-10: 1609808029
ISBN-13: 978-1609808020

The wedding portrait is available through your local independent bookseller