February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Say What?: Allen Say’s ‘Drawing from Memory’ charts the story of his improbable journey | Under Cover

Allen SayWhile growing up in Japan, your father discouraged you from drawing. And in your new book we first see him from behind.

It’s the only time I show him.

When I saw that illustration, I knew it meant trouble.

You’re very perceptive—no one’s picked up on that. That was the only way I could depict my father and live with myself—to show him from behind and not his face. We had a very bad relationship. I’m going to be 74 years old this year, and the last time I saw my father, I was 21. That should tell you something. [Laughs]

After your parents split up, you went to live in Tokyo with your grandmother who told you that if you studied hard and got into a prestigious middle school, you’d have your own apartment! What was it like to be living on your own at 12?

It was a boy’s dream come true. But I have to stress that Tokyo was a very safe place back then. I could walk on the street any time of the day, and I was never molested, never approached, never bothered. I could stay up as late as I wanted, and I did. I read Tolstoy and Hermann Hesse by candlelight, because frequently there were blackouts. I loved it.

Around that time, you read about a poor 15-year-old boy who apprenticed under Noro Shinpei, one of Japan’s top cartoonists. So you decided to see if he’d take you on, too?

Noro Shinpei is a pen name, of course. Noro means slow, and Shinpei means an army private—slow army private. He was making fun of the Japanese military system.

Sounds like the perfect teacher for you.

He was. I owe him everything. He’s the most important person in my life.

What was going through your mind when he said yes?

I thought my whole life was set in motion, and I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it. Afterward, the whole day long, I sat in the corridor of my grandmother’s house in complete elation.

I have to tell you something else, Rick. I didn’t realize this until recently…. When I left Japan, I was just about to turn 16. That time with Sensei was the happiest three years of my life, and I’ve essentially spent the rest of my life trying to reconstruct all the wonderful things that happened to me.

So why’d you leave for America with your father?

It was traumatic to go with him. But I felt that I was a huge burden to my mother, who was supporting me. My father made it very clear—I don’t talk about this in the book—that once I got to America, I would be on my own.

Looking back, do you ever feel like you’ve been guided by fate or something divine?

I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve done a lot of things—I was even a Bible salesman and a roofing salesman. I never finished college, and I moved 39 times. I was a student of architecture at Cal Berkeley. For 20 of the most productive years of my life, I was one of those hotshot photographers. For a long time, I regretted that I’d squandered those years snapping pictures. But I came to realize that nothing I’ve done has been in vain—nothing has been wasted. I was preparing myself to be doing what I’m doing now, and it came to me as quite a revelation.

I don’t know whether this is my way of rationalizing that the way I lived was OK. [Laughs] People talk about the lighting in my paintings, and that comes from photography and architecture. I’ve used all that stuff, and I feel I’m stronger for it.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.