A year ago, I interviewed my dear friend Jen Uman about her blossoming art career.
At the end of the interview, she mentioned working on a children’s book entitled Jemmy Button, about an island-dwelling cannibal who is taken away and placed in high society. Fast-forward one year and the wonderfully illustrated book by Jen and Valerio Vidali was released on March 26 by Templar Books. Aside from loving Jen and thinking that this book is fantastic—as you can see in the video below, my son loves it, too—I also, as I mentioned two weeks ago, nearly killed her husband one time and feel eternally remorseful for that, so I thought it my civic duty to spread the word and sing the praises of Jemmy Button and the quirky relationship that spawned it. Enjoy.
VICE: How did the idea for this book come about?
Jen Uman: Valerio and I met on the internet. We connected because we loved each other's work. We created a long correspondence based on our opinions of color, art, and coffee. Without realizing it, we were becoming new friends. The strange thing was that he only spoke Italian and I only spoke English, so we used Google Translate to communicate. Our emails were barley ever translated correctly so there were a lot of times when we would get notes from each other expressing how much we "hoisted much illusion" rather than something being simply great. One day he told me the story of Jemmy Button, and we both agreed it was the perfect subject for a book project we could create together.
You said this Tarzanesque story is true? When/where/why did all of this happen and how did you two learn about it?
Oh, no. Jemmy Button was not raised by wolves, Chris. According to the facts, he was a cannibalistic, small, naked, savage man. Jemmy also came from a tribe that made up their own language. They had 100 words and repeated phrases over and over. Jemmy would have eaten Tarzan while repeating himself. Valerio first mentioned Jemmy when we were chatting about our own language barriers. It was a reference he knew all about but was super foreign to me. I looked for all the information about Jemmy I could find, but only two books told his story. Sadly neither book was published in Italian, so I read and typed all of the information to Valerio, hoping he would understand. My emails were translated so poorly it was hard for Valerio to figure out what I was trying to break down for him. It wasn't until we were together in the same room that we understood the story thoroughly and together.
What other difficulties did the language barrier create?
The awkwardness on the day we met gets top billing. When he arrived in New York, I took the train to meet him for the first time. I remember thinking, What the hell am I doing?, even though I knew I was doing the right thing. When I arrived we said “ciao” and “hi” and sat there. He would say things in Italian and I would say things in English, but we relied mostly on intonations and hand gestures. It didn't really work, but we kept at it, pretending it did. By the time we started the book, we had grown to understand each other in our own weird way. We would paint together some days without speaking, but we put so much of what we wanted to explain to each other into the work itself. We sat side by side working on the same page and slowly began teaching each other our own words and proper pronunciations. I’m not sure if Valerio still says “plahtt” instead of “plate,” but that one was a steep mountain for him to climb with the English language.
What message do you want children to get from this book? Don’t get kidnapped?
It's OK to live in trees. Respect where you come from. Homesickness is OK. See the world. Be bold, take risks, feel, smell, taste, touch. Experience everything and go home.
You said you two found parallels with Jemmy in your own lives. How so? Did either of you grow up in the jungle?
It is a jungle out there, to be sure. Jemmy adapted in a new environment and went home, seemingly exactly the same. But he was never the same. In one of the novels about Jemmy Button it was written that when Jemmy returned to his island he shed his clothes and went back to exactly how he lived in his natural habitat. When the visitors returned to visit Jemmy years later, he remembered everyone’s names and ran immediately onto their large boat to find a pair of shoes with spats to prove his attention to refinement and respect to their culture. The parallels for Valerio and myself float in between Jemmy’s abilities to adapt but also just wanting to go home, language obstacles, homesickness, travel, fear, and being naked. Valerio has an unsettledness that urges him to travel. He has lived in so many countries and has the fever for change. This is his gift, and he experiences it all internally and silently. I am a traveler who holds on tight. Wherever I am, I want to go home. Before I even leave for a trip, there will be a meltdown about leaving home for days. I have traveled a lot and respond to new experiences very well, but as traveling is Valerio's refuge, home is mine.
Has your Italian and/or his English improved?
I will forever curse in Italian, in my mind. I use the words andiamo and ma dai in everyday vocabulary. My favorite Italian words to use are fragole, dopodomani, giacca, and olimpia. I understand and write it better than I speak it. Valerio is completely fluent in English now, but since I taught it to him, he talks like me: a valley girl New Yorker who can deliver a great punch line in Yiddish. Sorry, Valerio.
When I interviewed you a year ago, you had just finished Jemmy Button. Why did it take so long to get it out?
Before we had a publisher, we entered the first five illustrations into book fairs around the world. Our work was recognized in an honorable way in many countries and our illustrations went on tour for a year before returning and being seen by publishers.
We had a lot more work ahead of us. It wasn’t until we finished all of the illustrations and had a publisher that we reached out to the writer Alix Barzelay. She was one of the few people who was a part of my and Valerio’s process as it was happening, and the only one who understood what we were doing. Alix had the craft and proficiency to write this story in the most honest and elegant way. I am still moved by the work she did for this project.
With new words came new edits and revisions. We went back to the beginning in a completely new way. The words written for these illustrations were written to be felt, and they hit every sense. There were a lot of explanations regarding our points of view and the necessary language for this book. We knew what we wanted going into this process, but needed to be clear with our publishers. The styling of this book is something we wanted to continue to create along the way and not settle into a shape that didn’t fit. The editors did not always agree with our perspective or words, but with a lot of patience and clarification (times without number) it worked, and that is why it took so long.
You’re an artist in your own right. Why not just illustrate the book yourself?
This book was a collaboration from the start. I cannot imagine having done this solo. This is my first illustrated book and Valerio walked me through it. I would doubt myself or be skeptical of an idea, and he always helped me keep it in perspective. I never expected Valerio to have his own skepticism but he did, and I was happy to be there with perspective when he needed it, too.
Do you have more kids’ books in mind/planned?
Of course! I have been working with kids for the past few months and today one of my six-year-old work buddies pitched a book idea to me about a blue banana with black spots. When you eat the banana you turn blue with black spots. I told her to count me in. We shook on it.
What else are you working on?
These days I'm developing a new website with my dear friend and partner, Grant Davis, called Zindagi, which is the word for "life" in Hindi and Urdu. It's a collaboration between Nashville and New York City, focusing on all kinds of forgotten gems of design from South Asia and their diasporas. I’m also working on a bunch of illustrations for a small publication in France, and this bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with bananas.
On an unrelated note, you used to be a massage therapist. Were you ever propositioned for a happy ending? And how does one handle a situation like that?
I was never a massage therapist, but I did do facials, which sounds worse. Or better?
I answered phones at an all-female spa for a while. Women with deep voices would often call to make an appointment. It was protocol to apologetically explain, “We are a women-only day spa,” in case it was a man, and every time the response was [insert woman making man voice here] “I AM A WOMAN!”
Previously - Fat, Sick, and Nearly Divorced
To buy Jemmy Button click here.
For more of Jen’s work go to http://www.jenuman.com/
For more of Valerio Vidali’s work go to http://vivavidali.blogspot.com/