Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: Talking About Flamingos and Watermelons with Zahra Marwan
If you were to graph the number of children’s picture books in which immigration plays a significant role, you’d see a marked uptick when you hit the last decade. Part of what makes this so interesting is the wide array of books that have come out. Wordless, metaphorical, deadly serious, or done with exquisite illustrations. Some are memoirs while others are wholly fictional. Sometimes it feels like I’ve seen so many, and yet I’ve never seen anything like Zahra Marwan’s WHERE BUTTERFLIES FILL THE SKY. There’s a lightness to it, even in the midst of a deadly serious topic, that isn’t like anything else out there.
Here’s the plot description from the publisher:
An evocative picture book debut that tells the true story of the author’s immigration from Kuwait to the United States.
Zahra lives in a beautiful place where the desert reaches all the way to the sea and one hundred butterflies always fill the sky. When Baba and Mama tell her that their family is no longer welcome here and they must leave, Zahra wonders if she will ever feel at home again–and what about the people she will leave behind? But when she and her family arrive in a new desert, she’s surprised to find magic all around her. Home might not be as far away as she thought it would be.
With spare, moving text and vivid artwork, Zahra Marwan tells the true story of her and her family’s immigration from Kuwait, where they were considered stateless, to New Mexico, where together they made a new home.
You may have seen Zahra’s photo essay at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast last week. If you haven’t, definitely give it a look as well.
And now, a talk!
Betsy Bird: Zahra, thank you so much for joining me today! Yours is not the first immigration picture book I’ve seen, and it won’t be the last, but it is one of the most engaging. You have this artistic style that makes everything about the book just engrossing. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired it and why you created it?
Zahra Marwan: Ah, that is so kind! Thank you so much for having me talk about so many things I love. I revolve a lot of my work around memories and how things feel, extracting things from the places I grew up in, and often working around very personal moments.
I created this book because I remember how displacement felt as a child, and sometimes still suffer the consequences of what made us leave. I had such a happy childhood, and a very large family full of intellectuals and humor and people who are loud and temperamental, there was no external threat for me to understand when we left.
I was born into one of the most oppressive situations my country had to offer. Statelessness has denied my family belonging for generations, in spite of my mom being a Kuwaiti citizen and my dad’s family having deep historic and cultural ties. I was cultivated in a Kuwaiti household, and am deeply fond of my cultural roots and home. I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be had I been legally Kuwaiti, yet know had we stayed stateless, I would be suffocating under openly discriminatory policies, which some citizens support.
My uncle who’s still stateless told me, “I know your life isn’t easy over there, but it’s better than what it would have been here.” I also created it to continue speaking about statelessness, to give it voice.
BB: The book is serious but there’s a lightness to the telling. A sense of humor that comes through even when events become awful. Most remarkably, the book walks this fine line between the playful and the solemn that is amazing. The scene of going from one country to another, like your family has been literally tossed into the air and landed elsewhere is a perfect example. It’s your story and you can tell it any way you like, but can you tell me a bit about how you reached the tone that you did?
ZM: My dad was a large man who danced light on his feet. We would be invited so many places because of his long, booming stories and loud laughter. He was so full of life. He loved being alive. Seeing him, you wouldn’t think he claimed and carried his younger brother’s body after he was killed with a grenade the day Iraq invaded, after forces had robbed his corpse. You would never guess the oppressive statelessness was weighing on his shoulders. He held his head high, and didn’t raise us feeling neither inferior nor victims. My family makes light of a lot of our shared pain, from the poverty my parents experienced in their youth, war, to immigration. I’m from a family that makes light of our adversities, who make room to laugh.
BB: The aunts in the book are some of my favorite characters. They serve as almost a kind of Greek chorus, witness to what your family does or has to do. Are they true to life?
ZM: Yes! My mom has three sisters who are very loud and unafraid. The kind of women who are spiritually devout yet tell religious fundamentalists to get lost in public. The kind of women who every trip home, no matter how strange my Kuwaiti sounds, bring me cake and embrace me as if everything is normal. The kind of women who never let me leave empty-handed. Traditionally, women wear black in Kuwait. And my mom and aunts have beautiful hair. They love to gossip, and no matter the petty fights between them, they are always there for each other.
BB: Part of what I love so much about the storytelling is how you meld Kuwaiti motifs with New Mexico imagery. There are these visual echoes between the two lands in particular. Were there particular images that you knew you absolutely had to include from the start?
ZM: The variations of turquoise and blue of the sea in Kuwait are so beautiful, it’s almost unreal. The Sandia Mountains, meaning watermelon in Spanish, turn bright pink almost every evening. I had to include a rug, which most of our downtime was spent on among family. There is a traditional brass teapot where I have a bureaucrat hiding. And flamingos which naturally migrate to Kuwait in the winter. The colorful mesa in New Mexico, and the hundreds of balloons that decorate Albuquerque’s October sky.
BB: Tell me about the ancestor bulls in the book that watch over the main character. You mention at the end of the book that using them in this way is a faux pas “but one that is meaningful to me”. Can you tell me a bit more about them?
ZM: I used a bronze sculpture of a bull from the Dilmun Civilization to invoke ancestors. They inhabited Failaka, an island 10 miles off of the Kuwaiti shore. I used them as a way to reclaim place and history as my own. Yet, in Islamic societies, sculptures are considered to be from the “age of ignorance” since they used to be worshipped. Often making the work of talented contemporary sculptors like Sami Mohammed hide the work they had created for public use away. When we settled in Rio Rancho, I would wait outside with a backpack for a bus to take me back to my grandpa’s house in Adailiya. I used to wonder in this unfamiliar place, if at least family who had passed away were watching over me.
BB: I love that. Finally, what’s next for you?
ZM: I’m working on a story with Feiwel & Friends about Van Gogh’s time in the Yellow House in Arles and the famous sunflowers he painted. I saw one of his paintings at the Milwaukee Art Museum during a short trip before the pandemic started and the description mentioned that he spent months decorating and making paintings in anticipation of Gaugin’s arrival. It really moved me, this notion of preparing a space for a friend. The way we are alone thinking of others.
So many thanks to Zahra Marwan for so patiently answering my questions. WHERE BUTTERFLIES FILL THE SKY is out today so run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookseller to see a copy for yourself. Thanks too to Ariana Abad and the folks at Bloomsbury Kids for arranging for this interview.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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