Over a period of about ten years of thinking and researching for other projects, the book’s author, Jenny Higgins gathered snippets and hints of stories that interested her and plopped them in a file. Along the way, she developed an interest in children’s books, and alphabet books in particular, and at some point, she made the connection: she could make an alphabet book about the women of this place, and she could start with Agnes Ayre (A squared!), a botanist, artist, and suffrage activist. Ayre, she decided, would also narrate the book.
Agnes Ayre’s ABC of Amazing Women follows a similar format to Higgins’ other books: it takes a scrapbook approach that allows the story to emerge not just through text, but through vignettes, photographs, letters, drawings, and more. For someone like me, a magpie easily distracted by shiny things, this is a perfect format. I can pop in and out of the page, exploring all the shiny bits as they come to me. And more than this, I can see how images and text work together to create the “big story” for me.
The book’s illustrator, Jennifer Morgan, talked about the role of the illustrator. “I can tell a story the author didn’t even intend,” she said (I’m paraphrasing here). In other words, by putting a picture to a story, she has the power to create that story for readers/viewers.
Jennifer also talked about the stories that pictures and documents tell (and indeed, don’t tell): she told us about the size of Agnes Ayre’s botanical drawings (massive!), about the black and white photographs that made it impossible for her to figure out Agnes’ exact hair colour, about her desire to show the handwriting on postcards, and also, about the struggle to balance image and text on the page and their ultimate decision to layer the various elements.
All of this made me think back to my own research process. I spent many hours working with text-based archival materials. But even then, I was never solely interested in the words. Texture. Smell. Size. Colour. I use all of my sense in the archives (well, except taste, which would get me kicked out pretty quickly)
I also drew inspiration from online image archives. The Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio and the Suriname Museum’s Flickr account were particular inspirations. Through them, I could travel through time. I was able to follow Hindustani indentured labourers when they first arrived in Suriname, and later, as they settled in the colony. I could see photographs and paintings of plantations. I could see what life was like for the well-heeled folks in Paramaribo, getting insight into their tea parties, family dinners, and outings. I could also catch glimpses into the lives of the enslaved.
Gerrit Schouten’s dioramas (a few are on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; others are at the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo) offer a window into life in the early nineteenth century.
Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen’s drawings, gathered in an album, present both people and plantations in the mid-nineteenth century (because they’re in public domain, I was able to turn some of them into postcards that I’ll have available at my book launch!)
Like the text-based archival materials that I consulted, none of these images are neutral, of course. They show what the artists wanted us to see (and what they themselves wanted to see), and also, perhaps, in the case of Schouten, who sold his dioramas, what audiences wanted to collect.
These drawings, paintings, and photographs – many others like them – stayed with me as I worked through text-based archival material, and also, as I travelled in and around Paramaribo. While What the Oceans Remember includes only a handful of images, hundreds of others shaped my thoughts, reflections, and imaginings.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.