One of the many amazing features in Drawing from Memory is Allen Say's uncanny ability at storytelling and revisiting ideas and concepts he has previously discussed and make them just as personal, just as sincere an experience for the readers as if they were experiencing them for the first time. Masterfully blending original drawings with photographs, the book possesses a sense of time, place, history, and most important, culture that permeate the pages.
From the onset, Say introduces a subtle metaphor that shapes not only the progression but also the thematic structure of the book. Born near the sea, Say reveals that his mother valiantly tried to keep him at home due to a fear of him drowning. Although this parental control allowed his mother to introduce reading and drawing to Say, particularly comic books and illustrations as the seeds of his own career, the unfolding narrative is one of exploration, of constant, almost restless momentum forward that finally lands him in the apprenticeship of Noro Shinpei and later living in the United States. Forced to hide his growing passion for art from his father, Say found encouragement and praise from his teacher, Mrs. Morita, following his family's relocation after World War II. Eventually, after securing his own apartment at the age of twelve, Say happened upon a profile story of artist Tokida in the Asahi newspaper that led to a meeting with Shinpei that dramatically altered the course of his life.
To state that the illustrations are stunning is an understatement as Say blends various styles and approaches to capture a specific emotion and sense of place. Scratchy pencil line art and vivid watercolors mix with black and white family photographs and finely honed, sharply ink washed pages that convey a stark sense of realism alongside the more fantasy elements of the story. Not only do these variety of styles and techniques display Say's artistic diversity and talents, but they also help reinforce and convey the vast range and sense of passion, excitement, dismay, joy, and turmoil that his actors undergo.
Designing Drawing from Memory more as an illustrated book than a traditional form of sequential, graphic art, Say nevertheless employs a grid pattern on certain pages that audiences and fans of comic strip art will enjoy and appreciate. The text is told in the past tense and thus provides readers not only a window into Say's personal history, but also Say's interpretation of events as objects of memory rather than immediate experience. Yet, the inclusion of explanatory notes or pictures as evidence or specific examples may divorce some readers from the sense of place and time Say is covering. This is not so much a fault in the narrative progression of the autobiography, but potentially rather a slight bump or small diversion from the story flow for the sake of comprehension and clarity.
Well-written and very introspective, Drawing from Memory serves as a nice companion for fans of Say's fiction and a valuable resource for educators who utilize his work in the classroom. As a pedagogical tool, Say's book can also provide teachers with an invaluable way to introduce biography and autobiography into the curriculum, as well as graphic literature, giving students the opportunity to craft and create their own personal stories within a similar, illustrated format.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson