#OwnVoices, #OwnVisions: Writing and Illustrating an Arab American Character
When I began writing FARAH ROCKS FIFTH GRADE, my debut chapter book series, I was excited that Capstone books had taken a chance on the idea. It was thrilling to know that I was writing the first chapter book series to feature a Palestinian American character -- Farah Hajjar, who is modeled on my own childhood and some of the experiences I had growing up.
Growing Arab American was difficult because there are so many negative stereotypes in the media about our community - and very few books and films with authentic representations to counter them. So while writing FARAH ROCKS was fun, it was also worrisome: I felt the pressure to present a character who felt real and who would be embraced by Arab and non-Arab kids alike.
Part of my worry was about how Farah would be illustrated. I still have memories of seeing stereotypical representations of Arabs in movies like Aladdin. Nothing was more vital than making sure Farah was portrayed in a realistic, positive way.
Enter Ruaida Mannaa, a talented artist and my wonderful illustrator! When I first saw the initial sketches of Farah-- a character who had, until then, existed only in my mind -- I knew Ruaida understood what mattered to me about capturing Farah’s essence.
Ruaida is of Lebanese origin, which makes FARAH ROCKS a book series written by AND illustrated by Arab women. Recently, I interviewed Ruaida about how she developed the look of Farah!
Susan: You have an interesting background. Where did you grow up? Tell me about your cultural background.
Ruaida: I was born in Colombia, and my background is Lebanese. Both my parents are first generation born in Latin America (mom in Brazil and dad in Colombia). So I definitely grew up in a multicultural environment! Listening to Arab and Brazilian music, eating delicious foods, attending the loudest parties and hearing different languages.
Susan: How long have you been an artist? When did you first know you wanted to make this a career?
Ruaida: I’ve always been creative and passionate about art. This passion became my career very organically. I studied graphic design, worked as a designer and teacher for a few years and then got my masters in illustration from SCAD. I love that my job allows me to always learn something new, each project takes me on a new path and pushes me to think outside of the box.
Susan: What did you think about when you were hired to illustrate a book about an Arab American girl?
Ruaida: This was my first project with my current agent, and I was so excited when I learned about it and even happier once I got the gig. I instantly connected to Farah and her family and really loved the Arab words thrown here and there in the dialogues! Growing up I didn’t have any characters I could relate to in terms of cultural background, so being part of this project is a tremendous honor.
Susan: How did you go about sketching the character and the designs (such as the tatreez, etc)? Do you work in a specific program or by hand? Did you do any research?
Ruaida: Farah went through a few different stages to get her to look the right age, get the right expression and bring her personality to life. I used my niece as reference for the shape of her face, eyes and eyebrows, so she would look more like a real Arab girl. I always try to include some elements of Palestinian art in her clothing and in the decorative elements of the pages. I did a lot of research on Palestinian embroidery and ceramics, each book has a pattern that I create using traditional symbols from images that I collect. Everything is created digitally using Photoshop.
Susan: Who are some of your influences? What types of things inspire you?
Ruaida: There are so many! I love the work of Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt, especially their approach to design and the use of color and patterns. But I also follow a lot of contemporary illustrators like Carson Ellis, Julia Sarda, Leo Espinosa and the list goes on. I love seeing different styles and ways in which artists interpret reality. But most of my inspiration comes from researching different cultures, traveling and reading. Creativity is fed by curiosity, so I'm always trying to learn new things and visit new places, paying lots of attention to folk art and traditions.
Ruaida Mannaa is a Colombian/Lebanese Illustrator and Designer. Her background includes several design projects as well as experience as a Digital Design professor. Ruaida believes that creativity comes from curiosity so she is constantly exploring and visually interpreting the world around her. Ruaida grew up in a multicultural family, surrounded by different languages, loud parties and delicious food! So culture and cultural exchange are definitely her greatest inspiration.
Ruaida graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a Master of Fine Arts in Illustration. She is currently based in Barranquilla, Colombia, where she works with clients all over the world.
You can learn more about Ruaida at her website.