Stephanie Nettell talks to both of them about one of the most exciting literary projects of the year.
‘I feel that the ghost of every slave lives inside me, and that one of my reasons for being on this earth is to let them speak through me, to give them life again and to let their voices be heard – because while they lived their voices were not heard.’
And so Julius Lester in retelling The Tales of Uncle Remus is simply fulfilling a destiny: to reclaim the stories for black people. In the Uncle Remus character telling stories to a small white boy, Joel Chandler Harris may have used a narrative device we today find distasteful and which was not even an accurate reflection of black life and culture, but the stories themselves remain strong and authentic. ‘I wanted black people to have the experience of the tales, to recognise that they come out of the lives of our ancestors, and that we can take a pride in them, learn from them, and make them part of our culture again. But I certainly want white people, too, to enjoy them, to love them and sense some of the magic that is in black culture.’
The mischievous, shrewd, affectionate and funny little stories of Brer Rabbit and his friends and enemies have almost disappeared beneath a burden of embarrassment and contempt combined with their near-incomprehensible dialect. To lift this burden Lester at first considered having adults in a slave community tell the tales, as in reality happened, but decided this would get in the way of the stories; he finally decided to create a voice only, but one so distinctive and contemporary that an image of the storyteller would come to the reader’s own mind.
‘The language I use is a combination of the English I grew up speaking in the South and what’s spoken on the street now. Black English, the English which certain strata of blacks, though not all, use among each other, has been the centre of education debates in the States for about fifteen years – teachers found that texts using a language the kids themselves spoke made it easier for them to learn to read standard English.’ It’s a language as concerned with sound as with meaning, lending vigour, colour and humour, and is a life-force of the book, but it had to survive anxious editorial scissors. Lester in his introduction is at pains to explain his entirely unexceptionable use of the historic present to give immediacy.
‘That simply reflects the battles I’ve been through with editors to protect changing tenses, and to protect using language to convey emotion regardless of strictly correct grammar. My experience of a manuscript going through editors’ hands is that there are so many queries and requests for changes that it’s like fighting a war: black writers in this country have a problem with white editors who don’t want to respect the “rules” of black speech because they are uncomfortable with them and they want to reach as wide a market as possible. Whereas I want to reach that wide market and still reflect my culture.’ The storyteller of Uncle Remus shoots off into quirky and vivid little asides – just like a real storyteller – but they are the lonely survivors of many more who fell to the editor’s knife. ‘It’s been an on-going battle for all the years I’ve been in publishing.
‘The asides have all sorts of jokes meant for adults: when I was growing up traditional storytelling was an adult activity, though the kids could sit nice and quiet in a corner and listen.’ Storytelling in America for both adults and children is an accepted event hut, good storyteller though he knows he is, and much as he enjoys writing them, Lester shirks telling stories in public, and even to his own children. He doesn’t know why. Perhaps it is because he is uneasy as a ‘literary person’. ‘Writing is something I enjoy and is important to me, it’s one of the ways I communicate with people and one of the ways I express my love for the world, but it’s not really what my life is about.’ And perhaps because he has tried to keep his four children free of the influence of having a well-known writer and academic as a father – he is amazed now to find his two elder ones majoring in Afro-American Studies and English at university.
Lester has taught at the University of Massachusetts since 1971 (far longer than he intended, such has been his enjoyment of students) in Afro-American Studies and in Judaic Studies, offering a wide variety of courses – from the black novel to the civil rights movement to Elie Wiesel. Despite this background he resents approaching folktales like Brer Rabbit in an academic way, searching for symbolic roots in myth. ‘They served two purposes within the slave society, educational and psychological: anyone who is weak and powerless can identify with a Brer Rabbit who survives by his wits, so that people who are unable to triumph within the context of their lives can triumph vicariously through the tales. But although there will inevitably be a significance in the stories beyond the reach of a white audience, the beauty of them is that they have a universal appeal regardless of the culture they come from.’
As the power of his latest book, the adult novel Do Lord Remember Me, suggests, Julius Lester is the child of a South where black ministers, like his own father, loved to tell stories – the Uncle Remus project is a natural part of a life-long pleasure. ‘The real accomplishment for me is putting the stories into order, creating a link so that instead of the original random collection they read like a series of adventures. There will be four volumes, and this for me is the really creative aspect.’ Like all his writing, novels, stories and black folktales, it reflects his heritage, and more vitally, he says, fulfils his responsibility to his ancestors.
`I began work on the Uncle Remus stories with preliminary sketches, the way I had worked with animals in the past, but found I wasn’t getting the story across. Then I realised they weren’t about animals at all – they were about people who took the forms of animals – so I had to re-think my whole process. I ended up taking Polaroids of myself and my wife in animal poses, and I found I’d arrived at a way of turning animals into people without losing any of their essential animal quality.’
It is a measure of Jerry Pinkney’s brilliance that his rabbits, foxes and bears, dressed in dungarees, waistcoats and neckerchiefs, behave and express emotions like humans yet remain totally their own furry selves. Today his work is naturalistic, lush and full, the work, it seems, of a man fond of life and fond of people. ‘After art school I was much involved with abstract work, and, although my work is now very realistic, I’m really on the borderline. Below the surface there’s a tremendous use of a decorative quality: I exploit pattern – feather patterns, the coat of an animal, a person’s hair – much more than a realist might.’
He is anxious about describing himself as a nature artist, preferring to emphasise only his enjoyment and research interest, but ‘I must admit that I’m getting many more assignments that deal with nature. Before, I was adding in animals as devices, but now I’ve even done a pop-up for National Geographic on creatures of the deep.’ And the jungle parrots, the wood owl and raccoons and the garden cricket in the honeysuckled night of Half a Moon and One Whole Star are the work of no simple nature lover but a passionate nature artist. (This was a book he designed entirely, including the panels and typography, to maintain the flow of the story in its different setting.)
The Uncle Remus illustrations are humorous, less exotic, from a quieter, greener farmland. Re-interpreting the stories visually, Pinkney, in his relationship with Frost, the original artist, faced a different problem from Julius Lester’s with Joel Chandler Harris.
‘The difficulty was to get Frost out of my mind, because he did such a wonderful job I couldn’t help but be inspired by him. I wanted to bring something new to the book, but I didn’t feel, as people do about the stories, that there was anything I wanted to erase, just things I wanted to improve.’ There is not ‘Black Illustration’ along the lines of ‘Black English’, but ‘I do think there are certain things I’m more sensitive to than, say, a non-black, simply because that’s part of my culture.
‘Above all, an artist should be simply an artist, but yes, I do enjoy black assignments, and I think awards like the Coretta Scott King’ (which he has received twice, including The Patchwork Quilt) ‘help stress that black artists are out there. And it is easy for me to reach back and bring things from my own life, my own childhood, to the work; I can use my entire family, my sons and daughters and my wife, and often these stories relate to something I’ve heard my father talk about.’
Surprisingly, there was no collaboration between Lester and Pinkney over Uncle Remus. They have never met, and Lester for one sees no reason why they should: ‘I stay away from illustrators – the illustrator should have the creative freedom to work, and, since I have strong ideas and if I get involved I express them forcefully, it’s better to stay out of the way!’ Pinkey was already working with American publishers Dial, who chose him for his skill with animals. ‘Close collaboration to me means with a manuscript, and that is certainly very close, not with an author.’
Pinkney, like Lester, was born in 1939, and has four grown children, all with an artistic bent – one son ‘working towards the same goals as a freelance illustrator, who works with me when I’m extremely busy’, another an art director with Ogilvy and Mather in New York. Pinkney himself has worked in an amazing number of fields since studying commercial art and design in his native Philadelphia: for a greetings card company, record and book jackets, advertising (about half his work), National Geographic covers, china design, commemorative stamps (serving on the US Postal Stamp Advisory Committee), Sesame Street … Till about five years ago he would suit his style to each project, but now it has developed into ‘a very signature style, a Jerry Pinkney style, and I take those assignments that are looking for that style. There is a new artist on the scene, and it’s pretty exciting!’
He works in pencil line and water-colour washes. He has always been strong in colour, which may be why his success is relatively recent. ‘Most of my books till Patchwork Quilt have been black and white or two-colour; then Half a Moon was an extension of Patchwork Quilt, using full colour for a subject, nature, I enjoy.’ The British tend to think of him as a marvellous discovery, but he has illustrated about forty children’s books over more than twenty years, and (like Lester) is festooned with awards for, among others, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Tonweya and the Eagles (Lakota Indian stories, with whose author he did work closely) and The Patchwork Quilt.
From the beginning, it seems, ‘people somehow felt that my style lent itself to ethnic books.’ (It may change: there is nothing specifically ethnic, only American, about Half a Moon.) Although Lester believes there is little that is directly African in the Uncle Remus tales, the roots of black culture in Africa are important to Pinkney as an artist. ‘African art and design are part of the things I collect, part of the books I have, and if you look at African art, which deals with pattern, and you look at my art, you must see it plays a large role.’
The successful illustrator and one-time professor remembers the small boy who drew pictures when the papers on his newsstand weren’t selling but never dreamed there could be a living in it, and frequently visits junior schools. ‘I try to encourage young people who are interested in becoming artists – I always tell them their work looks good. What they are asking from me is the same thing I asked for – someone to pay attention.’
The Tales of Uncle Remus: the Adventures of Brer Rabbit is published by The Bodley Head (0 370 31089 6, £9.95) in June.
Stephanie Nettell is Children’s Book Editor of the Guardian.