December 12, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #273: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Today I'm sharing my interview with author-illustrator Maxine Beneba Clarke. Maxine has been an author and an author-illustrator, but Randa Abdel-Fattah's Eleven Words for Love: A Journey Through Arabic Expressions of Love marks Maxine's debut as illustrator only. Enjoy taking a peek behind the curtain at the collaborative process she had with Abdel-Fattah to illustrate this special bilingual book.

About the book:
Let's talk Maxine Beneba Clarke!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Eleven Words for Love? What were some of the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Randa Abdel-Fattah’s text?

MBC: I’ve long been an admire of Randa’s writing. In fact, she was one of the writers of colour who inspired me on my writing journey. When my first short fiction collection Foreign Soil was due to be published in 2014, I approached her about potentially providing a cover quote for the book. She was just so generous and warm and encouraging. And over the years, we’d seen each other at writing events and festivals. Randa had such success as YA author, then several years ago, she told me there was a picture book text she was trying to get published. By that stage, I’d had numerous picture books published, including The Patchwork Bike (illustrated by Van T Rudd), which won the Boston Globe Horn Book Prize, and the illustrated poem When We Say Black Lives Matter. I said I was happy to provide feedback on the draft text, and when Randa sent through the text (which was a very early version of the story), I was really taken with the concept of the book – the idea of a bilingual text about different forms of love. I suggested pitching the book to the publishers of my picture book, and offered to come on board as illustrator. I actually wasn’t sure, at that stage, whether I was right for the book, but we both loved the idea of a Black-Palestinian collaboration. After the text was re-jigged a little, we pitched the idea to Hachette Australia, and they loved it. It’s actually the only book I’ve illustrated that was not written by me. We had a lot of discussions along the way: the process was very collaborative. Across the pages of Eleven Words for Love, you’ll find multicultural playgrounds, cross-cultural friendships, the sign language spelling for love, and the silhouette of Rose’s iconic pose (with Jack) at the ship’s bow from the movie Titanic - in addition to Al-Aqsa mosque, the keffiyeh, and other nods to Palestinian culture and heritage.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in illustrating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

MBC: I really wanted to make this book beautiful, and to do justice to Randa’s exquisite words and vision. I put so many hours into drawing, and re-drawing, and trying to capture emotion or feeling on the page. I’d done this with When We Say Black Lives Matter as well, but being Black myself, there were a lot of things I really didn’t have to think twice about. Drawing Al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock, which is such a beautiful building – a work of majesty, and a triumphant sculpture in and of itself and the oldest surviving work of Islamic architecture –I really feared I wouldn’t be able to adequately convey its beauty. How could an illustration in a picture book possible capture that?! I hope I did it justice. Capturing a complex emotion was also difficult at times. For example, the feeling of family being taken ‘too soon’ – thinking of how I can represent that in a way that’s not terrifying for a child, but still speaks true to that experience. And coming up with the idea of showing the child protagonist gazing at photographs in a family album, with both joy and sadness.

LTPB: How do you keep your process fresh with every new book? Are there any topics or stories in particular you’re still hoping to explore in the future?

MBC: My illustration style of using brightly coloured backgrounds for my work with each illustration being 100% hand illustrated is fairly distinctive. With each new book though, I try to do something a little different with my illustration style – adjust it in a way that’s specific to the subject matter and the story. With my first self-illustrated book Fashionista, I added hand-cut fashion-magazine collage detailing. With When We Say Black Lives Matter, I used a ‘stained glass’ technique with many of the illustrations to evoke Black churches as places of sadness, joy, activism and sanctuary. 

With Eleven Words for Love, I came up with the concept of a family photograph album, with a lot of the illustrated scenes bordered in white, to form old polaroid photographs, and bits of illustrated scrapbooking tape holding the photos down. This helped guide the construction of a lot of the illustrations.

I’m becoming more interested in natural and built environments, so the picture books I currently have planned are very heavily grounded in place – whether that place be a garden or a city or a room.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

MBC: I used dissolved and undissolved watercolour pencil on heavily textured jewel-coloured card stock, and then for the love-hearts, I added hand-punched collage from a variety of different papers.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

MBC: I’ve just doing the final edits for the stage adaptation of my memoir The Hate Race, which is debuting here in Melbourne at Malthouse Theatre this coming February. In terms of books, I’m currently working on a verse novel for young adults, and a picture book set in a vibrant inner city neighbourhood. No sneak peeks just yet, but I’m really having fun with them!

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

MBC: Oh wow, that’s a really difficult question. I thought you were going to ask whose autobiography I would want to illustrate. Of which there would also be so many possibilities…Prince! James Baldwin! Audre Lorde! Beyonce! Odetta! Viola Davis! Zadie Smith! Sun Ra! Octavia Butler!

To illustrate my own picture book autobiography….hmmmm… there’s every possibility I’d ask the illustrator of my very first picture book, street artist Van T. Rudd. But also South Sudanese-born Australian photographer Atong Atem or Black Panther artist Emory Douglas – I’d love to work with either of them. I’m also an admirer of the work of Indigenous artist and illustrator Tori-Jay Mordey. So many possibilities…

Eleven thank yous to Maxine for talking to me about this lovely book! Eleven Words for Love: A Journey Through Arabic Expressions of Love published from Candlewick Press last month!

Special thanks to Maxine and Candlewick for use of these images!

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