Telling America's Story, an Immigrant Story

An Interview with author Sara Nović and illustrator Alison Kolesar



The image of America as a nation of immigrants is at once inspiring, romanticized, and seemingly forgotten at times in our current political landscape. The melting pot that is the foundation of every American’s childhood history book has, in all its complexity, shaped the country from its very beginning—with every individual arriving to start a new life and bringing a unique story all their own.


Author and deaf rights activist Sara Nović, whose debut novel Girl at War won the American Library Association Alex Award, has taken up the challenge of reminding readers about the countless complex and colorful human beings who have come and left their mark on the United States throughout its history—at times, in spite of it.


Mantle Image We Are Immigrants Sara Novic Alison KolesarTitled America is Immigrants, Novic’s latest book launched on October 15, 2019. Filled with vivid, full color portraits painted by Scottish-born, Massachusetts-based illustrator Alison Kolesar, the book represents a pantheon of pioneers, performers, scientists, artists, writers and otherwise notable men and women, from each of the world’s 193 countries.


Choosing and researching subjects for each nation was a time-consuming and fascinating responsibility for Nović and Kolesar that came with no small amount of pressure. While each person in the book warrants a biography of their own, Nović offers a tantalizing peek into each of their lives that lasts no more than a page or at times even a paragraph. This brevity, alongside colorful illustrations, keeps the book feeling light and easily digestible on one hand, yet on the other, Nović does not shy away from the stories of discrimination and hardship faced by the individuals depicted.


A particular example of this is Nović’s choice to begin the book with an explanation of why two very important groups of people are absent: Native Americans and enslaved Africans. While both peoples were instrumental in, and horrendously victimized by, the process of building America, Novic notes they are not immigrants by virtue of their disenfranchisement and forced migration. Therefore, she made the decision to credit upfront that any discussion of the achievements or hardships of immigrants in this country is incomplete without acknowledging this foundational aspect of its history. Nović then directs readers to a selection of other critical works including Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States to explore this reality further before America is Immigrants begins.


The overall effect is a book that can be read sequentially, or in no order at all, pored over or picked up casually from a coffee table. It is meant for everyone and exposes readers to reminder after reminder that America is, and has always been, formed not just by those who were born here, but those who arrived from every walk of life and foreign geography imaginable. So while the book may function as generally light-hearted inspiration, its sheer breadth it calls into question what America could, or has ever, gained from denying its immigrant origins.


I had the opportunity to interview both Nović and Kolesar before they began their book tour. Below is our discussion lightly edited for clarity.



The Mantle Image Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright, by Alison Kolesar



Morgan Forde: What was your inspiration for writing America is Immigrants and choosing this particular format: one person per country per page?


Sara Nović: This book was very much a collaborative effort from the start; my badass editor Caitlin McKenna came to me with the initial idea of doing an illustrated book about immigrants. Obviously it’s a topic that is weighing heavy on my mind and the national consciousness at the moment, so I jumped at the chance to take it on.


The format of miniature profiles and illustrations was one that particularly appealed to me because it lends itself to a broad audience—it’s accessible to a wide age range, and to people who normally don’t have the time or interest to sit down and read a book straight through.


Initially, I’d envisioned the book pretty strictly in this format; the idea of lists of immigrants in certain categories came later, in part because there were so many intriguing people I wanted to include, and in part because I found the sheer volume to be very moving. For example, the Manhattan Project round-up reminds us that something many think of as an exemplar of American military might was possible only because of the many immigrants and refugees who worked on it.



MF: I thought the choice to go for illustrations as opposed to photos was a very unique one. Is that a decision you made upfront? How did you find Alison?


SN: We knew we wanted to have illustrations, rather than photos, from the start. Since the biographies are so short, they’re more about telling an anecdote from a person’s life, rather than trying to cram in a summary. To that end, they’re necessarily subjective, so I think having an artist’s interpretation complements that aesthetic. We started looking around on Instagram and Pinterest, and eventually we found Alison on a site called Women Who Draw. I can’t say enough good things about her work. She is also the speediest painter I’ve ever met!



MF: What was your research process like? Did you decide to include certain people as you found them or were you consciously trying to maintain a balance of historical versus contemporary figures or types of professions?


SN: During the course of this project, I think we created one of the world’s largest and most unwieldy spreadsheets. Caitlin, assistant editor Emma Caruso, and I would troll the internet and insert anyone of interest onto the sheet under their country of origin, alongside their basic statistics and accomplishments. For some smaller countries, or those with limited diasporas in the United States, we had to do a lot of sleuthing, including reaching out to friends and even embassies for recommendations.


Sometimes it was easy to choose the person about whom I wanted to write. When I couldn’t decide, we’d put it to a vote. I’m really thankful to Caitlin and Emma for their collaboration on this project—I definitely could not have done it alone.


Once I decided on a person, I would read everything I could about them and try to find the right angle. I thought a lot about balancing types of professions, genders, time periods (though I wanted to lean toward the contemporary), and expected versus unexpected representatives of a particular country. Sometimes the Albert Einsteins won out, and sometimes I’d go a more nontraditional route. The overarching goals for me were 1) to tell interesting stories, and 2) remind people that so many of the products and services we use and cultural icons we cherish—especially the things we consider most classically “American”—would simply not exist without immigrants. I learned so much while writing this book. Bless my family for putting up with my constant texts of did you know…?!



MF: I appreciated your decision at the beginning of the book to address why you chose not to include enslaved Africans as "immigrants." Was there a particular reason you decided to do that upfront?


SN: How to address who was and wasn’t in this book was something I agonized over for a long time. On one hand, I’ve seen people say things like “we’re all immigrants” as a way of whitewashing America’s brutal history of slavery and Native American genocide. On the other, one book can’t contain everything, and I wanted to keep the scope of the project focused on the “immigrant from every country” concept. Still, I felt it was important to broach enslaved people’s experiences at the start because they, too, brought diverse cultures, languages, and histories to the States from away. To conflate that with immigration, though, is to ignore the dehumanization and loss of agency they suffered.


Some really good resources I turned to with respect to the history of enslaved people were Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Dionne Ford’s Slavery’s Descendants. I also found Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and the Spencer Wells’s documentary The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey very helpful on the history of Native Americans. Since this question of inclusion was one I thought about so much while working on this project, I wanted to place it at the forefront of the book, in hopes that readers would also hold it in their minds.



The Mantle Image Nasser Wedaddy
Nasser Wedaddy, by Alison Kolesar



MF: Alison, had you and Sara worked together before at all? What were your first impressions of the book project?


Alison Kolesar: From [Caitlin McKenna’s] very first description of the book, I knew I wanted to be involved. Sara and I had not worked together before and have yet to actually meet, but will be doing a couple of book signings together after the official publication date.



MF: How long did it take you to create all the illustrations? Were you working off of specific photographs or did you get to take creative license with how you portrayed each subject?


AK: I did the bulk of the work over a period of about five months. At one stage I was trying to do nine illustrations a week. The deadline was somewhat tight and I knew I just had to plow ahead, though it meant at times that I got rather ahead of the writing and there were a few people for whom I painted portraits who later got replaced or included in a round up rather than having a page to themselves.


For the most part I found the photographs I used for reference and Sara and the editorial team helped by coming up with ideas for the backgrounds. I tried to vary things by showing some people in close up and others further away and some backgrounds I hand painted while others were created digitally. Most of the painting was done in watercolor, but a few images were in pen or pencil and for some of the backgrounds I created repeat patterns (like the skaters behind Rafael Arutyunyan or the signing hands behind Laurent Clerc).



MF: When you were illustrating a historical figure versus a person who is still alive today did that impact you at all in how you chose to portray them?


AK: When you know that lots of people will recognize your subject, it does create a bit of extra pressure to try and get a good likeness! Of course I didn't necessarily know all the people ahead of time. I was pleased one day when my son came in, saw one of the paintings and recognized a musician that I had never heard of before I painted him!



MF: How was this process similar or different to other projects that you've worked on?


AK: This was one of the largest projects I've worked on and it has definitely been the one that gave me the most creative scope. I loved both the actual portrait painting - the human face is endlessly fascinating - and coming up with ways to let the backgrounds help tell the story.



America is Immigrants is available now at your local bookstore.



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Immigration, Migration, Migrants