An author, a poet and a graphic novelist, who are participating in the Singapore Writers Festival this month, discuss the power of prose, poetry and picture. In the last of a three-part series, picture book illustrator Debasmita Dasgupta shares how before the words, the visuals come to her first

For nearly a year now, every time Debasmita Dasgupta looks at her phone, there is a girl staring back. On the wallpaper is a character that the graphic novelist has created for a book, but she has yet to tell the story.

“I know her story. I know her name. She keeps staring back at me, asking, ‘When are you going to tell my story?’” says the Singapore-based internationally published author-illustrator. “I call myself a visual storyteller because before the words, the visuals come to me first. I see my characters and I must draw them—and then they start talking to me. Sometimes I have them on my mobile-phone wallpaper as a reminder that I have to tell their stories.”

Growing up, Dasgupta was exposed to all kinds of books, including picture books and comics, and cinema, thanks to her theatre actor-director father and writer mother. She attended the Patha Bhavan school in her native India. In its formative years, the institution had the influence of many illustrious figures, including film maestro Satyajit Ray.

“My childhood was filled with these creative beings around me, and they were a big influence on my life. I knew somewhere, somehow that these early experiences were going to express themselves. Of course, I didn’t know it then,” she shares.

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It was in 2009, when she was working as a communications specialist who would draw after work, at night and over the weekends, that she met the founder of a Delhi‑based independent publisher, Katha Books. “We were having a conversation that was not related to books, and she said, ‘We’re doing this series on Tagore for his 150th birth anniversary, why don’t you illustrate one of the books?’ I had never done anything like that before, but she saw something in me.”

With no formal art training, she started participating in workshops and residencies and, by 2010, had moved to Singapore. She came across a Ted talk by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, an Afghan women’s rights champion who shared about her life during the Taliban regime, and how her father would dress her as a boy to go to school.

The speaker revealed that her father had told her the Taliban could take away everything, except one’s knowledge. Basij-Rasikh went on to study in the US and later returned to Kabul to start an all-girls boarding school. (With the return of the Taliban, it was reported that the students and staff of the school were evacuated to Rwanda in August.)

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“I was inspired not just by her story, but I also found a connection with my father,” Dasgupta shares. She created a comic strip about the story and shared it on a Facebook page she created, titled My Father Illustrations, which went viral when Basij-Rasikh shared it with her students and their fathers. “I got e-mail messages from Afghan men thanking me for telling positive stories about them,” she says, and she continued illustrating father‑daughter stories from around the world, and eventually had about 350 stories from 56 countries.

She was approached by various publishers in the US, UK, Europe, Singapore and India to draw for both fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults, including Mina vs the Monsoon, which was nominated for the Kirkus Reviews Prize for Best Picture Book of 2018. She released her debut graphic novel Nadya a year later, about a 13-year-old girl confronted with her parents’ divorce. “Nadya is not just a story about separation, it’s also a story about facing your fears. We all have fears, which are not going to go away. It’s about facing those fears.”

In response to the Singapore Writers Festival’s theme of Guilty Pleasures, Dasgupta has written and illustrated an animated e-picture book, Gulabi’s Guilty Pleasures, which is one of the festival’s keynote commissions this year. Recommended for children aged seven to ten, it tells the story of Gulabi, who tries hard to be good, but sometimes doesn’t want to do as she’s told. “It’s not about being disobedient or being a rebel but, if you want to do something, if you believe in something, if you love something, you will find your way, so don’t give up.”

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While many of her works are centred around strong female characters, Dasgupta, who is also an arts-for-change advocate, says, “I don’t want to be didactic. I don’t want to be preachy. I don’t want any of my books to have any messages. It’s all about inspiration. If it touches even one person, if it inspires one story, and one positive action can lead to another, I feel good about it.”

She founded the collective ArtsPositive to bring together creatives to partner global non-profits to create art, particularly illustrations, that addresses various issues, from health to stereotypes. One notable project is More than Skin Deep; she worked with poet Claire Rosslyn Wilson and writer Isha Bhattacharya to create a book of illustrated poems inspired by the courage and resilience of acid attack survivors from around the world.

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Gulabi’s Guilty Pleasures by Debasmita Dasgupta is available to download for free. Singapore Writers Festival 2021 runs from November 5 to 14.