Thursday, February 18, 2016

2016 Interview - Ana Isabel O

Internationally known biologist and writer Dr. Ana Isabel O is constantly embarking on new projects. Educated in Europe and a self-taught Victorian patchwork maker since the early 90s, Ordonez has presented her work in France and Luxembourg. As a scientist she holds Masters and PhDs in Genetics, Forestry and Animal Biology and has lectured extensively throughout Europe, Africa, Japan, China, New Zealand and South America on insect-plant pathology and biological control research. She has also written several articles on the value of nature. Ordonez, however, has not confined her interests to the world of science. A true Renaissance woman, she is also a reputed jazz editor, independent filmmaker, music/art promoter and producer. In 2012 she contributed tirelessly to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial tribute with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, because she believes in her heart that true valuable art of any kind must never be forgotten. 

Five years earlier, in 2005 with trumpeter Herb Robertson she had founded Ruby Flower Records with the plan to produce avant-garde music, exclusively for connoisseurs and purist audiophiles with the slogan "Creatively speaking...Where the talents blossom". About three years ago she decided to expand the company's offerings to also include poetry and literature for children. Because of the great success of her first books in 2013, she has written and illustrated three new sequels entitled: Aye Aye and Licec the Black Panther (Volume iii), Aye Aye, Professor Tekyp and the Hyperbrits (Volume iv) and How Roibeard Helps Sorley the Cheetah (Volume v). In our conversation she talks in great detail about the books, the animal characters within and their issues.

What stimulated you to continue the story of Aye Aye? 

I fell in love with the characters, thus it had to be a sequel, even if I don't know where it will lead me.  However the writing is spontaneous : I believe in what I do,  I have the courage to be what I'm and I figured out that I need to share my thoughts. Each book's style in the sequel is the product of a million different factors, which are impossible for others to replicate-- It’s my fingerprint. Writing is one of my passions, a form of expression, so I write my little heart out. I have always enjoyed storytelling, especially narratives told through fiction voices. See? Animals are wiser than humans.Their influences are so diverse, so vast. I love incorporating elements of fiction and fantasy into their realities. It’s amusing; I also enjoy mocking myself and laughing. When you write children's books you talk to imaginary characters so…I guess I embrace my crazy or let's say my inner child?  Like a child I'm driven by boundless energy, enthusiasm and passion but I like to go at my own pace, nobody rushes me…no pressure in my own Universe.

The Aye Aye sequel is first and foremost an historical fantasy which explores the impact of animals and reality on the spiritual and physical realms. 

I love the way you teach about each of the animals, so that kids know what each looks like and how they are perceived in the scientific world as endangered species. I think Licec is the most intriguing/mysterious of all the characters. Is he based on your real adviser and mentor? Or is he based maybe on you?

No, I would not say that at all. I had to live a complicated but extraordinary life. However it has nothing to do with Licec. The narration on that volume comes out of the sensuous and emotional things I experienced with Licec. I sympathize with the cries from his heart, the one who is not able to control experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience manipulated with an informed and intelligent mind,  kind of looking in the mirror. I admire his narcissistic side. I was stunned and astounded by Licec: at one point I was absolutely wild for all he said and everything I wrote and did was desperately "Licec". If you watch it closely artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn't say this, I'm an artist too.  I like many of them; in fact many of my friends happen to be artists. But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something. I mean, Licec taught me so much. And I love the fact he says he can't understand anything, I write or say (laughing).  It makes me laugh; we have so much fun so I find myself liking him, more than most philosophers. Among the things I'm in awe with Licec is that he knows all about notes or knows all about certain phrases, or how to write symphonies in a different language. I'm still fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As an artist, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical. This is the sort of polar opposition to being a writer, a dreamer I suppose. Licec fascinates me, but I could never discipline myself to the point where I could learn all the details that one has to learn.  This is the sort of opposition: somebody who deals directly with abstract experiences is able to create, to mend, to help souls this sort of thing. Licec was a big deal, satisfaction! At that moment, I don't think I could live without. Life has been good to me, how lucky I was I could meet him...It was water or bread, or something essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when he wrote a poem or played a piece to me. It sounds like a mentor right? A high caliber artist, a truly inspiring character who taught me how to transform everything I live and feeling in histories. Absurdity at its best, a protection, Dada stuff. All I say and write about Licec is depicted with love and respect for all he represents.

Explain the mysterious banana devices that Aye Aye uses to interpret Licec's stories. How did that come about? Is it based on fact or pure imagination?

The banana devices are from my imagination. When I was drawing them I was also laughing madly. Here is the thing: Licec can talk, so we decided I was going to record all he said, well almost all. His dialogue is Socratic using the question and answer method…. If you ask him a question he will pass through ten subjects before he answers- if he wants!- (laughing). 

Many people think he's nuts but when you get close enough to him you can tell that every single thing he says is filled with wisdom and philosophy.  The stories are recurrent but if you are patient enough, you will discover there is a new thing. You have to love Licec, to listen to him. If you are going to count your time you won't understand a clue of what he's saying. Once he spoke 16 hours straight. It wasn't exhausting but I did fall sleep, I felt terrible so the next day I bought big sun glasses and I could doze a bit while the recording was going on.  Licec is a rebel and an uncompromising character, I like this kind of person, I found inspiration from the courageous one and he's one. 

I could have chosen nuts devices (laughing) but Licec loves bananas. Thus, associating his bananas to the stories brought about the banana device.

I love the way you combine the worlds of science and music in the second story. Are the 'Hyperbritons' based on a real jazz group?

Thank you Don, I have been very lucky in the critics’ corner! ...But I have always been my hardest critic.
The Hyperbritons is a name I invented; the band is Professor Tekyp's band since a long long time ago. I love how they play. The trombone player is amazing.  The Hyperbritons were important to incorporate on this journey; they are real, they can play and I love the music they cook. I try to combine both Science and Art from my heart and don’t hold back anything.

Science is very important in my life. It was the candle that kept me going among darkness for a long while. I needed discipline, I came from a Big Escape and I developed a strong sense of survival. Art has always been a part of me. Now decades later, I want to write histories and self-discovery. Juvenile fiction is determined by characters, those in turn determine plot. I think the same applies with Sciences and Art, and certainly in this third story. The UK has such a profound collective influence on this story that I perceived the experience as the major character in my book.

Moving from country to country combines the element of wonder, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of settling into a new place. That thing of being a stranger in a new land has been recurrent in my life, is a fundamental aspect that has given me a great flexibility and freedom. In fiction, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another--physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever--and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos, for order... In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama.

Euricoty is another mystery with his wonderful scent. He stays with Aye Aye as Professor Tekyp departs. I see a sequel here, another story with Aye Aye and Euricoty exploring other places and ideas. Is this whole story based on your real-life study of the cockroach that you described in 2013 when we did the last interview? Refresh our memories with that precious story.

Absolutely: there will be a sequel from Euricoty. They, I mean Euricoty and Aye Aye are going into Space in the next volume. Indeed, Euricoty became Aye Aye's pet when Professor Tekyp got back to his magic kingdom. I spoke about him in 2013 and yes Tekyp and the Hyperbrits's history is based on my life in the UK but Euricoty came from before.  I'm now recalling my Doctorate mentor; he always told me I should write books, how interesting that he loves cartoons (and chocolate!) I should send him my books. I'm sure he will laugh!
That time of my life was very special. For many reasons I recently began to understand why I stupidly walked away from a marvelous person and I ended up there, in the middle of cucarachas (laughing) but it was such a very interesting journey. After touring the world I recovered contact with that person I wrongly left and today that makes me happy, is sweet and brings me joy… when it is possible,  so much joy! Ohhh boy...all of a sudden I'm thinking of Jacques Brel...
Getting back to your question, Euricoty is a cockroach. A very special one without wings. Let me tell you something: in 
cockroaches, sexual behavior is complex involving sex pheromones, aphrodisiacs and tactile. Those are called chemical signals which are secreted by specific abdominal exocrine glandsIn Eurycotis, males produce volatile sex pheromones attracting females at a distance. The male courtship behavior by exposing the glandular areas on the anterior sides of abdominal tergites. For that, they shake their body.  Once attracted to a male, a female opens her genital atrium and climbs on the back specifically to lick the first tergite of the male, where she feeds on the glandular secretion around a little tuft of setae which act as mechanoreceptors. This behavior eventually achieves copulation. The tuft of setae is minuscule; it took me months of working with an electronic microscope to be able to go deep into that part of Euricoty.  I have interesting pics...There are specific chemical components secreted during the calling behavior, those smell like caramel and attract at a distance specific females. That's the "wonderful" scent I refer to.  Look, cockroaches are a fascinating tools in Chemical Ecology. I recall at that time some ignorant folks asking "Why should I study cucarachas' sexual behavior so hard, if it’s easier to kill them with a shoe?" If it’s a joke it’s absolutely stupid but I admit I laugh at ignorance too…dig! Science and Art are similar, both are brilliant yet immensely abstract, and we should resist and be resilient no matter what. To me Nature is magic. 

The third book with Roibeard and Sorley is my favorite. I love how Roibeard affects Sorley's decision to free himself of fear and dream his dream. It's such wonderful advice, especially when it's told via the friendship of two special creatures like Roibeard and Sorley. Is Sorley maybe you in the beginning of your career and Roibeard you special mentor/friend, who helped you to realize your great potential?

Brilliant question! Even more, it’s interesting how you see me.  Others are mirrors of what we are indeed but in this history Roibeard is still Robert. Rob you know, my Roibeard, the giraffe with wings. A big print and inspiration in my life. Sorley is my dear friend Samuel. I'm very fond of them. Sam has more than great potential! But Sorley is filled with fear and has a melancholic character, the purpose of this history between these two beautiful characters so alike is to remove them from their state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity. The way Roibeard helps Sorley is my favorite too. Roibeard's role is to present life to Sorley in the fullest way possible, to confront the serious problems he faces as a keen observer, a deep thinker, and a dynamic empathizer.  There is an artistic slant to this tandem which is fun and challenging and has a nice flow; they don’t compete but compliment as characters. Quite deep stuff...Roibeard sets forth truths in such wise as to affect the imagination and touch the heart of Sorley, so that he should turn to righteousness and be more confident.  Because of his long sojourn in the Healing Savannah, Roibeard's conviction of certain truths is no mere matter of belief; it has the ardor and certainty of faith. Both appear in all their fullness as a revelation of wisdom. In this history as in everyone I write the characters/animals are all from real life, they are men and women with their natural passions and emotions, and they are undergoing an actual experience. The allegory consists in making their characters and their fates, what all of us human characters and fates really are: types and images of spiritual law.

At the beginning of each story the quote is so lovely and vital to living. Chance, nonsense and true friendship, such great themes for kids to learn about and enjoy. Do you see the nonsense part as maybe the effect of music on the scientist? It allows him to be free, to let himself go, not to stick to the facts all the time, but open himself up to infinite possibilities?

Science and Art make a thrilling combination. Having been an academic, a Ph.D., a post-doc, European fellow scientist, and all that, one side of me certainly does respect all disciplines, as long as they don't stiffen. Science needs a broader audience and to be translating into a language that anyone can understand and enjoy, some touch of quirk too, weird and absurd could be fun.

Many of the great scientists I know are also musicians and people not only of deep feeling, serious and rational minds but also with a great sense of humor. Science preserves a part of your innocence and so does Art. Scientist and artist don’t present pretty pictures; they present a full slice of life and point the way to human solutions. Both worlds open to infinite possibilities and inner joy and enjoyment.

The drawings are beautiful, so colorful and playful. Do you see the image before the story is put down on paper or do you write and then go through and decide on what to illustrate?

Are they? Thanks! That’s sweet. My drawings are far from perfect but are mine (laughs).  Remember what Trane said: "You can play a shoestring if you are sincere". I would say both, and it pretty much depends of my inspiration. I wrote Professor Tokyo’s story a few years ago; I expected my nephew Geronimo to  work on the illustrations. However, he began to study Law and Political Sciences not having time for it which is really a pity because he's so talented with drawing.  I waited several months, well years if we get back to our last interview and given the circumstances I decided to do it myself. I wrote Licec in a terrace of Lower East Side.  I sat down and did it in one sitting. I hate computers so I grab a pencil, a piece of paper and cover the page with words.  Remember the animals move to the musical forest, they lived in a zoo. This is a useful model and it tickles my imagination. Animals are my other passion. When I'm in South Africa I always enjoy seeing the Big Five in the bush and then I enjoy my view to the Table Mountain or the river.  Communion with Nature is important to me. I very much enjoy the nights in those wild places; they are very inspiring to me.

I draw the illustration in a plane between JFK and Cape Town: 16h nonstop. With Sorley I started drawing inspired by his beautiful hair, his lake and his dark universe. Oh man… muses can trick you with such things! (Laughs). The story was written watching the lake. All those animals/characters I draw had appeared to me in all their fullness as a revelation of some kind of wisdom. I'm not going to frame it as an illustrator; it’s my work as poet, a poet with a quirky illustration commission, to make this revelation known.

I did not set out to draw spirituality per se, but the writing is always about a pivotal time in my life where I go through a great transformation, part of which is opening me up to the non-rational in life. My spiritual quest changed and has grown over the years. This quest is perpetual. I strive to stay centered, balanced and to be a good person. This work is a work of faith, its mandatory: Space and Earth have set their hands.

How would you sum up the meaning of the books?

Overall it has been a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul.  My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well animal nature. And my connection came through the senses.  Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, hence the sequel.  I let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges. Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer; it can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects and characters, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically.  When I write, whether it is fiction or article, in different languages or all mixed together, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the draw and into the imaginative world of the story.  The last three years have been special because I needed to solve a very hard familiar matter, I'm proud of my strength and perseverance and what I achieved. The truth allowed me to find peace within, to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to the spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature and insects. Then came the rebirth, now my Universe again seems new, fecund and inviting.

I love Aye Aye and her tandem with Euricoty!! The Aye Aye almost is extinction, so beautiful. The eyes are wonderful and their nails so special. And Euricoty represents resilience. Cockroaches have been here before us, this is like a mirror game.  Yeah baby "I'm a survivor, I'm like a cockroach; you just cannot get rid of me"…Madonna said it (laughing)
What is happening with the planned theatrical staging of your first books?

My first children's book is being choreographed both in NYC and Cape Town. Virginie Mecene Director of Martha Graham Academy of Dance at Bethune Street is working on it. Because I'm just recovering from a surgery, we moved the performance which was settled for last Summer. And in South Africa the choreographer is Sifiso Kweyama, Artistic Director of Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town. This for a show to honor the Arch and Peace Nobel laureate Monseigneur Desmond Tutu. The music was composed by Dutch Pianist Michiel Braam. I have known Michiel for a very long time. He has composed music for my film noir series on both the wounded male and the femme fatale, important projects with big and small bands. For the children's book we have as narrator another great artist, singer and educator, someone really dear to me, Dean Bowman. You should check him out. Man...Dean really can sing! His voice in the narration is amazing; I can't help but listen to it over and over again.

Anything you care to add? The books are charming and should intrigue the minds of children of all ages.

When my characters appear on the page, I listen to what they have to say. Once a story takes off, it has an internal consistency. I think my subconscious knows where I want to go even when the rest of me is not so sure. My characters can often give me insight from inside the story.

I took my time weighing the merits of self-publishing versus moving through the steps to find an agent and then, a publisher. I had an agent, she did a great job. I found a publisher but they wanted to change many of what I wrote so I ended up going the self-publishing route because I believe Amazon has changed the publishing landscape in ways that benefit indie authors and because I wanted more control. I can't bear marketing and sales strategies, it's exhausting. Man, I'm free; nobody tells me what to do. 

I'm pleased with the way my books are received by children and adults.  I'm pleased with my life. I'm pleased with hard times and good times.

news: Carlos Leal

Actor Carlos Leal is co-starring at the Geffen Playhouse in Barcelona. He is making a tremendous splash in his debut at the Geffen. The play marks his American debut onstage as actor. Don't miss the play through March 13 only!