The goodbye picture

In the last pages of Once Upon 21 Times… Little Red Riding Hood is the goodbye picture of the 2003 summer workshop at the Itabashi Museum. We had spent five days together: 22, 23, 24, 25 and 26 July. We had worked very hard. And we were very happy. So much so that the energy we concentrated lasted for the necessary years to be able to make an impossible book a reality, even for the publisher of impossible books that is Vicente Ferrer. What happened during those five days? I, also in the picture, hidden among the Little Red Riding Hoods, was both a witness and part of the event. An example that shows us that communication is possible, that work well done is successful, that shared effort pays off.

Once upon a time there was a director of a small municipal museum in Tokyo specialising in exhibitions of illustrated books; once upon a time there was a translator who learned to speak Spanish in Seville; once upon a time there was an illustrator who became a publisher so he could read the books no one else was making; once upon a time there was an illustrator who saw those books on a stand at the Bologna Fair and was entranced looking at them for an hour; once upon a time there were twenty more illustrators who asked for holidays at work, prepared their portfolios, paid their registration fees, and worked hard for a week to measure themselves against a Spanish editor they knew nothing about, or almost nothing; once upon a time there was one of the illustrators who decided, after the course had finished, to maintain the spirit of the group. And me. There we are in the photo —missing Tomoko and Yuka—. Looking very happy. What happened?

Japan has something very mysterious and anarchic about it which gives chills to those of us who carry the memory of the Middle Ages, bourgeois cities, and revolutions. This is something that is clearly conveyed when you walk through its cities of skyscrapers and small houses, when you see travellers in kimonos on the subway. Joaquín Jordá said that the brain stroke he suffered had changed the order of his mind into oriental and feminine. This was something also evident in the workshop: Japan Foundation financed the course from their skyscrapers in Roppongi; as with transformers, the conference hall was a classroom or a workshop depending on how we arranged the benches, chairs, and easels that we took out of a closet, to which everything went back clean and tidy, after picking out every last hair or piece of paper from the carpet. The only things that did not change were the enormous windows on the right wall that opened to vegetation. Neither did the whiteboard that rested near the door.

Every morning the whiteboard displayed the instructions for the day, containing mysterious combinations of kunrei-shiki symbols, one of the phonetic transcription systems of Japanese; like this, the participants greeted us with a sweeping ‘good morning’ and ‘did you sleep well?’, showing the power of alphabets in the land of syllabaries, in the only place in my known world where my gaze slips over the written signs without being able to grasp them.

This is another reason for those chills. Japanese people who go out into the world have felt it in their own skin when arriving to the first airport: signs disappear. Perhaps that is why the instructions prior our arrival (buses, schedules, maps) were so detailed and precise. Perhaps that is why, when we arrived to pick up our luggage at Narita, a man holding a sign with my name in perfect handwriting was waiting for us: my suitcase had broken and they wanted to let me know the issue before I discovered it for myself. I cannot imagine that level of courtesy anywhere else in the world!

Kunrei-shiki also served to play games and break the ice at the first meeting outside the classroom: the welcome dinner for the teacher with the group of students. We went —by public transport, of course— to a delicious restaurant in a basement where, with the priceless help of our translator, we came up with creative games which she, tirelessly, transcribed from Japanese into Spanish, from Spanish into Japanese. This was not, however, the only language of communication. From the beginning we used English, Portuguese, Italian, and automatic translation machines, in addition to using drawings, our eyes, hands… Lack of communication has to do with the decision not to communicate.

We so enjoyed the dinner! This dinner and every dinner. Japanese gastronomy is extraordinarily varied, and we are very curious people. We enjoyed it alone and in the company of others, using the magic words ‘esemesé’ and ‘moriawase’, or trying new dishes with the English menu of our favourite restaurant Jyu. This was our destination after the daily trip to bookshops. On our way back to the hotel, we passed through an underground tunnel accompanied by our bicycles. The retail street into which we emerged had many shops, and on the opposite pavement a nine-storey building full of books! The Junkudo bookshop became our favourite, with its floors specialising in art, children’s books and imports. We were surprised to find a variety of books unavailable in our Spanish bookshops. The children’s section was spectacular: in addition to Japanese versions of British, North American, Italian, German and French classics, we could also find many original books in English, and even some in French and other languages. Japanese books were an immeasurable surprise: immeasurable because of the large number of titles, and immeasurable because of the impossibility of understanding beyond the pictures. However, we began to become familiar with some authors such as Toshiya Kobayasi or Shinta Cho; and publishing houses such as Parol-Sha. Japanese books are read backwards: which is why we had to get used to recognising covers on the part of the book that corresponds to our end. One of the workshop’s most enriching experiences took place on the morning when the participants brought to class their favourite books to share with others and explain why they chose those books and not others. The selection criteria revealed everyone’s academic and sentimental biographies, as well as their wishes, ambitions… Vicente also showed his collection of illustrated books by Japanese authors, explaining the selection from his wise perspective as a student of international illustrated literature.

The workshop hours, from nine to five, were full of effort. Vicente’s oulipian approach was embodied the freedom and rigor with which each person concentrated on their work. At their desks, Vicente commented on the individual works of the workshop students. From the third day onwards, and while each person advanced in their project, in a nearby room, an office-storage, Vicente, with help from the translator, carried in this ‘private space’ the interviews presenting the professional portfolio each participant had prepared. If they spoke English and the translator’s assistance was not needed, she could rest for a moment.

And the work created the miracle: on the fifth day, they all presented their books. Now the whiteboard served to display them. Time was limited, and while one person explained to the group the reasons why they had chosen to make Little Red Riding Hood that certain way, the next one prepared their images on the whiteboard. The work spoke for itself. It is incredible to think how close the work presented that week was to the story that appears as the final result in the book published in 2006.

Our forest of easels competed with the forest on the other side of the windows. And we took the photo, satisfied as we were. It was not a goodbye photo: perhaps we sensed we still had a long way to walk together.

Begoña Lobo

Text published in the magazine Educación y Biblioteca, no. 163 (January/February 2008), special ‘Black belts of their inks’.