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Allen Say: Drawing from Memory and The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice June 7, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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One of the most talked about non-fiction books this year was Drawing from Memory, in which author/illustrator Allen Say recalls his years as a young adult in Tokyo, living on his own from age 12 and apprenticing with one of the most famous cartoonists in the country. When I first read about the book, I thought “That sounds familiar…..” and sure enough, I remembered that I had read Say’s earlier chapter-book fiction tale about this same time period in his life, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. I went back to re-read and compare the chapter and picture book versions of this amazing artist’s life.

The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice reads like a memoir. It’s written in first person and filled with the kind of details that ring completely true in your head: descriptions of objects, specific, tiny actions. Each chapter covers a specific experience or incident, sometimes with several months going by between them. The enjoyment is in watching the narrator grow in skill as an artist and in appreciation for the people around him; the only real suspense comes from a subplot about whether his friend Tokida will get into trouble for joining anti-government demonstrations.

Drawing from Memory follows approximately the same timeline as The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. Say gives a little more background about his childhood, explaining that he was born in Yokohama by the sea, moved away when the war began, and after his parents divorced, lived first with his father on another island and then with his grandmother in Tokyo. My favorite sequence is when he is allowed to move into his own apartment at age 12 (after he first gets into a prestigious middle school) and the excitement of ordering his own food in restaurants and arranging his one room to be an art studio. I had to wait til I was 24 or so for the same experience, but I remember the floating feeling that Say draws so well.

It was interesting to find the small differences between the two books. Say’s art teacher introduced him to an advanced student who taught him karate; in his fictional version it is a neighbor who teaches him the martial art. Tokida is tougher in the fictional version; in Drawing from Memory there are no consequences for his demonstrating beyond a ripped shirt. An additional character who isn’t found in Drawing from Memory is Michiko, a school friend who takes Sei to see her family, still grieving for a brother killed after the war. But many passages in Drawing from Memory echo wisdom spoken by Sensei and insights discovered by Sei in The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. Sensei comments that “…memory is the most important asset of an artist. What we call imagination is  rearrangement of memory”  Earlier in the story, Sei wonders if he can ever draw anything from memory. Allen Say has answered his fictional younger self with this beautiful memoir and we are so lucky he did.

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