Fann Chat: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Illustrator Fahmida Azim

Fann Chat: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Illustrator Fahmida Azim

Fahmida Azim is an award-winning illustrator and author based in Seattle. This year, Azim won the Pulitzer Prize in Illustrated Reporting and Commentary for the comic “How I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp.” Published in Insider, the piece tells the story of a Uyghur Muslim woman named Zumrat Dawut and her escape from a Chinese internment camp. Azim’s work has appeared in Eater, NPR, PBS, The New York Times and many more outlets. She also illustrated Seema Yasmin’s 2020 book “Muslim Women are Everything” a collection of stories about Muslim women who are trailblazers in their fields, and the picture book “Amira’s Picture Day,” written by Reem Faruqi (2021). We chatted with Azim about her journey to illustrating and writing, and how it felt to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an illustrator and writer?

Fahmida Azim: I feel like I’ve been an illustrator since I could pick up a pencil because one of the first things I did is what kids do: draw. I just never stopped drawing. My parents would just give me a pencil and paper to keep me quiet and behave and I just kept doing it forever. I wasn’t always quiet and behaved but the pencil and paper just never left. 

The writer part wasn’t until recently. I honestly didn’t think I could do writing. I would have ideas for books, I just wouldn’t do anything about it. I would just tell my agent, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a book about such and such thing?” She’d be like, “Well, are you gonna write a proposal about it so you can write it?” I was like, “No, I draw. I’m not going to write, that’s silly.” But there was one idea that she really pushed me on. So I wrote a proposal about it and that ended up getting me a book deal to write and make my own graphic novel. And that was a two-book deal. Then I got a picture book and then it just goes from there. 

But what inspired me to be an illustrator? I don’t know, it’s kind of a really neat superpower, isn’t it? Being able to just put stuff you see in your head out in the world? I really liked reading as a kid, I would draw fanfiction and then other kids would buy it. I would draw fan art and other kids would buy the fan art from me and then I use that money to buy more books or buy more drawing supplies. It felt right. I just didn’t know illustrator was like a job job until I was in high school and my art teachers really encouraged me to go into it.

Fann Staff: Is there a big influence in your art and your work?

Fahmida Azim: I think I would consider my biggest comics influence to be Jillian Tamaki. She’s a Japanese Canadian American comics artist, and she also writes her own comics and children’s books. When I first read “This one summer”, [it was] the first time I saw Western graphic novels that aren’t about superheroes or trauma. It was just a story about a girl and her summer and her family and all that and it was so beautiful artistically. It showed me [that] there’s a market [and] a place in publishing for stories that were just really thoughtful and in graphic novel format or in comics. I love her work. I started as an editorial illustrator. I thought I would stay that way forever, until I got into publishing children’s comics. It was kind of a drawn out but inevitable route here that I didn’t think I’d end up in. In retrospect, it seemed obvious.

Fann Staff: Is your creative process different in writing versus illustrating?

Fahmida Azim: The thing with illustration is that it pairs with prose. It’s telling the story already; usually, the text comes first, and then the illustration is based off of the text. It’s different from fine arts … Illustration is prose and like storytelling, and fine arts is like poetry and the deconstruction of the form and method. Illustration is using all of that technical knowledge from the fine arts world and using it to tell a cohesive story, something you can put in a book. It’s already integrated, the writing part and the illustration. Usually, I’m given the writing to illustrate. 

When I have to make the writing first in order to illustrate,sometimes I’ll get different pieces of the puzzle. I’ll get different parts of the writing first or parts of the illustrations first, but they are symbiotic to me. I use different parts of my brain when I’m writing versus when I’m illustrating, but it’s all in the name of telling and showing a story.

Fann Staff: What was your favorite story to illustrate in “Muslim Women Are Everything”?

Fahmida Azim: I had a lot of fun doing Gisele Marie Rocha and Yuna, the musician. The whole book was a dream come true. [It was] what I wanted to do: I got full creative freedom to draw these  badass women who are living their own lives and come up with material myself. It was really fun to draw women excelling in fields in ways that you wouldn’t think. I’d be splitting hairs if I had to say one was more fun than the other, but I think I really liked Gisele just because she’s like a heavy metal rocker and I vibe with that.

Fann Staff: What was the process of creating the story for which you ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize? I’m sure it was quite complex.

Fahmida Azim: I didn’t come into the process of making the story up until the tail end of it. I brought it all together. But Anthony Del Col, the writer, and [art director] Josh Adams, worked for Insider. Anthony pitched the story to Insider about doing a comic about the Uyghur genocide because he felt like it’s an important story that is underreported, and it got greenlit by the editor in chief. And so he started doing all this research he and [editor] Walt [Hickey] got Zumrat, the woman whose story became the comic. They went through all the Uyghur organizations and got lots of stories. Zumrat wanted to tell her story the most. She was interviewed by Anthony and [there were] hundreds of interviews with her and her translator. 

From those interviews, Anthony wrote the script, and Anthony and Josh went on a search for an artist, but they didn’t think they were able to get this to the finish line because every time they approached [someone], they would pull out. Every time they went to an artist, the artist would say something along the lines of “My day job is trying to pursue a contract with Chinese companies soon. If I do this I’ll get fired”, or “If I do this, my company is going to tank. Everyone’s telling me not to do it.” Another artist lives in a country that had a huge Chinese presence, and they felt that if anyone found out they worked on this story against China, their life would be in danger. [Anthony and Josh] were starting to lose hope until someone recommended me and it came to me. 

I was going to say no, because I had [another project], but I heard the story. I heard [about] the trouble they were having, and I thought I had to do this. I can’t walk away from this. This is important and urgent. I really care about this and I’m pissed off at Xi Jinping. And you know what? The deadline was tight. But whatever I have to do to tell Xi Jinping to go f— himself, I’ll do it. You can’t just get away with genocide. I’m self-employed. What’s he gonna do? Tell my boss? I guess there could be bad things that happened to me, but it was worth it. I went on the project, and I did a ton of research, went back and forth between Zumrat and the translator to get the details of it right. I had to get it done before Christmas, and I had two weeks to do it. Everyone, including myself, was surprised that I did it.

I’m just glad that it’s the story we got out into the world and it was important. It was a complete shock to the system when I found out that it won the Pulitzer. The category it won for — illustrated reporting — didn’t exist before this. Yeah. That’s also why it was such a shock. It used to be called editorial cartooning, but over the last year or so they reformed it to be illustrated reporting, which is a much broader category to tell more long-form stories than just an editorial cartoon can do. That’s why I didn’t think we were going to win, too, because the editorial cartooning is different from what I was doing. It’s still comics but it’s different. It’s not just a one panel commentary on politics. When I went to the Pulitzer dinner, it was very fancy. I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I just won a prize for journalism and I’m not a journalist.”

Fann Staff: As you said, illustration is paired up with prose. I’m sure you were as much of a part of telling a story as anyone else.

Fahmida Azim: When it comes to comics, the artist is kind of integral to the entire medium. You needed everyone in the whole group to get this story done. I was happy to work with this team. They made my life as easy as they possibly could have and I really appreciated them taking me on, understanding how hard it was. They picked me when they could have just had a white guy do it, but they knew that they needed someone [specific] for such an urgent and special topic. They needed someone who would have an understanding or a deft hand at it. I’ve had experience with editorial illustration, drawing pretty serious stories about Muslim women and all the things in the world that they have to go through. So I’m glad they waited for me, and looked for someone that they thought could tell the story better. When it comes to comics, the illustrator is kind of like the production crew. You have the writer writing the script. The artist is the director, the cinematographer or the actor or the stage and just everything else that goes into telling a visual story. 

Fann Staff: I was reading a couple of your other interviews and you talked a lot about the importance of visual representation and seeing yourself in art in general. Was there ever a moment where you saw something that you identified with that further motivated you to continue your work?

Fahmida Azim: I didn’t really have a mirror for myself in that way. Growing up, there wasn’t Muslim women, or women that I could identify with. I think that’s why I just kept drawing those figures for myself. There was a very large lack. I grew up in D.C., right after 9/11 in the DC, Virginia area where all of the military branches are located. So there wasn’t a lot to grasp that I could identify with. It’s a very interesting place. It’s a very diverse place. But the politics of everyone’s identity is [brought to the] forefront because of its proximity to the capital. 

Persepolis was my first time running into a brown woman in comics telling her own story. That was awesome. Before that it was Mindy Kaling, the first brown lady I saw on TV on her own show. I’m [specifically] thinking of a brown woman who’s had her own story told herself. 

Fann Staff: Is there anything else you would like people to know about you? 

Fahmida Azim: I feel like when I talk to other brown girls, other Muslim people, there’s this sense that there’s things in this world that we can’t do or aren’t allowed to do. I think that comes from living in this  rock and hard place that we exist in, where there are people who are Islamophobic telling you what you can and can’t do and people even within the community that are telling you what you can and can’t do. [There’s] outside pressure from all sides. But, that’s an illusion, the things that they tell you that you can or can’t do. No one can really take away from what you are because you are that thing, no matter what anyone says or does. So long as you want to define it that way, or whatever way works for you, you can choose that life and you can have that life. Bodily autonomy is super important to me and I think what we owe each other is helping each other be kind of self deterministic, and have the choices to live the life that we want to live and is best for us. If someone’s not helping you do that, then you should let them go. Let them live their life in the restricted manner they made for themselves and then do what you must to be true to yourself. I know that sounds really corny, but it worked for me.

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