The only time Benjamin Lacombe had been to Colombia was for the tour to launch his book Frida, along with his colleague Sebastien Perez. ‘Why did a Frenchman want to write a book about one of the greatest Latin American icons?’, they asked him in Mexico as soon as he arrived.
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The tone changed when her readers discovered that for the illustrator she was not an exotic painter but an artist who had profoundly marked her work. “It wasn’t just making a book to make money. It was because he was really connected with this artist. Colombia was one of the last countries I toured in and it was like a big celebration. People were crazy about the book. It was so nice that it will be difficult to do better, I have a great memory”, explains Lacombe.
Since then, his Latin American readers know that the stories and characters that Benjamin addresses are not only traced with his brush but directly with his soul. He is now one of the star guests at the Bogotá Book Fair, where he presents a disruptive new version of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, The Little Mermaid. In this proposal, the character has a more androgynous character as he makes a metaphor with an apparent forbidden love that the famous Danish author had with his friend Edvard Collin.
The illustrator undertook the task of researching and reading the writer’s letters and found messages of unrequited love with parallels that coincided with the publication of the story of the endearing siren (1837).
Benjamin Lacombe (40 years old) is one of the most recognized illustrators in the world with forty books published and two million copies sold: Little Red Hood (2004), The Little Witch (2008), Snow White (2010), Alice in Wonderland of Wonders (2015), Macabre Tales (2009), Notre-Dame de Paris (2011), among others.
Smiling, from his office – a space in his home surrounded by brushes, sketchbooks, books and a painting by the French artist Valerie Belin that stands out, in front of a large avenue in the middle of Paris – he spoke with EL TIEMPO before his arrival in the country.
How was your connection to the character of The Little Mermaid?
I loved the movie. I think it came out in 1999. I also loved reading the story, which was very different. I remember how I was especially struck by reading the part where she finally becomes a woman, a human, and every step was like a knife in her feet. Even if you are a child you can feel it perfectly, and you understand that there is something that she is almost willing to lose to become what she wants to become. That resonated a lot with me. In the end I understood why it impacted me so much. Because he clearly spoke of finding your place in the world, of being born in the body or in a society that doesn’t understand you. When you’re a kid, there are certain parts of stories that resonate with you and you don’t know why, but I love going back to stories from my childhood that really impacted me at the time and illustrating them now. There I can understand everything differently. It’s almost completely rediscovering history.
Your first book, Cherry Cherry, quickly achieved recognition in 2007. What is your creative process like?
It’s a lot of fun when I illustrate many of the characters that I drew when I was a child. It also depends on the level of knowledge I have about history. My job as an illustrator is not only to read the text, but to read everything that is around it. What was the author’s inspiration? At what point in his life did he do it? Did he have a diary? Did he write letters to her? anyone in the meantime? All this to understand his mental state and his connection to creating the story and its meaning. The more you find out about what surrounds the story, the better you understand the author’s state of mind, for me it’s like having a dialogue with someone who is no longer living.
He also puts his own interpretation to the story…
I must also understand my point of view on the story, for me illustrating is not just putting an image next to a text. If you’re telling the exact same story, why are you illustrating it? I think you need to have a connection.
Why are picture books so special?
If you compare them with any of our cultural entertainment you know that, for example, when you watch a movie, except with some directors like Hitchcock, Lynch, Cameron, the filmmakers give you things and you have to take them because your imagination doesn’t have the time to think about it. He only has time to see what the director shows. The same with video games. But when you read a book, your imagination has to do everything that is described, how the character speaks, how it works, so many things that the reader has to do and can imagine. For example, when I illustrated Macabre Tales, most of the things that Edgar Allan Poe talked about, like Berenice, how ugly she was, her terrible face, I never showed her face. You only see her behind her veil, you see her shadow, you see her hand, you see her brother’s face looking at her as if terrified but you don’t see her so each reader could imagine something different each time.
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What messages have you received from your readers?
There are many people who have told me that they had read The Little Mermaid, but with my book it was completely a rediscovery, like a new book. This has also been very interesting for me, because I made them discover it in a new way. Your love story. This letter. It’s crazy to think that inside this book there is a part that was hidden for 150 years and had never been published.
What other reflections would you like your readers to take away?
First of all, what does it mean to be born in the wrong body and not be understood by the rest of the people around you, even by your family, because this is exactly what the little mermaid is experiencing. It’s like she doesn’t feel understood most of the time. She is alone and that describes her as different. She doesn’t fit. The second great theme of the book is what you can do for love. Because she does everything and even forgets herself for being so in love. In the end, she can go back to the ocean and return to her eternal life, but she does it because she’s so in love with him that she says if he’s not there she doesn’t want to live anymore, which is a very strong message. and very beautiful. When you truly love someone, you always put the other person first, and that is true love.
What does all this research leave you?
It’s a story about how an artist can use the platform of their art to express themselves and speak through character, because I really think that this is what I understand the author did with The Little Mermaid. There is a love letter within the final text and it is basically expressing something that is super deep within him: “I think I don’t fit in this world, I’m different, I don’t feel good in the body I was born with”. You can have pain in your life, you can have difficulties, you can be sick like Frida, you can be born in the wrong body, you can be in a very dysfunctional family, and in life like Lewis Carroll, but you can express your feelings to create something that It’s beautiful, like Frida. She did all of her work out of pain and created something that still resonates and shines for many people.
GABRIELA HERRERA GOMEZ
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