Interviews

Jessica Kusuma on designing covers that evoke emotion — Singapore Lit Prize feature July 11, 2018 17:40

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

A good cover catches the eye, compels you to pick up a book in a busy bookstore, and often gives a unique take on the story. Throughout this series of 'Judging a Book By Its Cover', we discover books through their cover designs.

This week, we have Jessica Kusuma, the cover designer of 17A Keong Saik Road. Read on to find out about her design inspirations and the food item that best represents her art style!

"For book covers, you have one image to give people a glimpse into your story and evoke an emotion."  - Jessica Kusuma 

What is design to you and what mediums are you drawn to?

Design to me is an art of solving problems. It is not just about making things look beautiful. There should be a purpose. I like to create designs that are meaningful and have an idea behind it. It makes it much more interesting.

I’m a graphic designer so I mainly work in digital. But I always start with manual sketching. I still practice calligraphy and try to incorporate hand-drawn illustrations to my work any chance I get. I also love photography.

Describe your creative design process.

First, I listen to the clients/brief and try to understand their vision and goals. Usually, during this exercise, I will have a certain vision in my head where I think the art direction should go. I then do my research and find inspiration images to piece the vision together. I get inspired by anything around me, it could be music, movies, pictures, food, nature or even random conversation. Once I gather enough inspirations and thoughts, I start designing.

What do you do when you hit a design roadblock?

I simply take a break from the project and come back to it the next day. That helps me see things in better perspective.

If you could describe your art style with one food item what would it be and why?

Hmmm, this is a tough one but I would say chocolate lava cake. It looks appetizing from the outside alone but the burst of gooey chocolate inside is what makes the cake. The lava represents the concept & design thinking which makes the whole cake even better.

On book design, what was your main inspiration for the cover design of 17A Keong Saik Road?

For this cover, I play with the idea of looking into the past with courage. The author decided to tell a story that she had kept for years. So the action of tearing a paper is a representation of her courage. The image of Keong Saik Street on the cover was presented in a brighter and colourful way, as a symbol of her making peace with her past.

I wanted a nostalgic element but with a brighter and cheerful note. That’s why I used hand torn paper elements in the design, paired with handwritten typography for the title.

If you could use just three words, how would you describe the stories in 17A Keong Saik Road?

Courageous. Inspirational. Emotional.

What do you think is the difference in designing covers for books as compared to other creative projects?

For book covers, you have one image to give people a glimpse into your story and evoke an emotion. People have a very short attention span so the challenge is to make their eyes stop while scanning through shelves and shelves of books.

With the advent of e-books and digital platforms, some say that book covers are increasingly taking a back seat. How do you think book cover designs can evolve with this trend?

I don’t see any problems. You still need a cover to entice people to buy the e-books. I believe images play a big role in our day to day decision to purchase anything. But in the future perhaps animated covers could be a thing.

If you could design a cover for any book in the future, what would that book be about?

Not anything in particular but I would love to work on design books as that’s what I’m passionate about.

Do check out Jessica's latest artistic work for Chinatown Crossings.

If you loved this article about the cover design of 17A Keong Saik Road, why not participate in this contest and vote for 17A Keong Saik Road as your favourite cover design for SLP! Stand a chance to win a copy of the book as well!

17A Keong Saik Road is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here


Euginia Tan on writing about the female body and identity — Singapore Lit Prize feature July 03, 2018 11:30

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

First up, we have Euginia Tan, author of Phedra. Read on to find out how she was inspired by a stain on the MRT and why she loves writing as a form of creative expression!

 

Hear Euginia read her favourite poem from Phedra.

 

~

A Stain on the Floor

Her red plastic bag
Dripped juice like a grapefruit.
Brown sauces—pig’s intestines?
Peter pan stews—ageless, aromatic,
Patient peanuts boiled soft as cud
Leaving residual engine oil grease ,
A contraband birthmark
On speckled mrt grounds.
Move-in martins and stand-up staceys
Pirouetting over its corduroy shoeshine varnish
While I’m slumped against the cold pole
Remembering my grandma’s cooking.

 ~

Tell us more about this poem. Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it? 

I love food – food that you know has gone through a process of preparation like hawker centre food, home cooked food and food that lovers cook for one another.

This excerpt made me think of a time I saw a brown stain on the floor in the MRT and I started to remember this particular dish my grandmother knew how to make – just right! It could never be replicated after that. You just can’t with some things.

Contrasting that with the still fresh MRT campaign at that time when people were encouraged to “move in” and “give up their seats” made me really wistful about certain moments that you just cannot be instructed on how or when or why… They just do, and if it stems from a loving place, they continue to touch you within.

How did you get the idea to write your book based on your own interpretation of the Greek mythology?

Phedra was conceived during my mentorship with Grace Chia-Krakovic (the 2013 Mentor Access Program organized by NAC) and having her feedback and insight was extremely helpful. Well it was also never fully reliant on the angle of Greek mythology, but rather just how the ordinary coincided with a lot of myth and folklore that we usually think of as lofty notions but are closer to us than we think. I explained during my book launch that the title was heavily inspired by a young girl I had taught art to, whose name was Phedra. Later it helped that in my casual reading, I found the figure of Phaedra who was a silent, overlooked persona that I could relate with, and the misspelling of real life Phedra versus mythology Phaedra was also something I grappled with and knew the significance of (people confusing my name for Eugenia versus Euginia with an I.)

I was hell bent on naming this collection Phedra despite the many initial objections I faced with the lovely Kah Gay. I’m glad he accommodated this quite instinctive request from me in the end and here we are… I honestly never expected this nomination ever. 

Your writing in Phedra, as with your previous two poetry collections, focus largely on the female body and identity. Was it a conscious decision to write on this subject or has it always been a part of you and your writing?

It has always been a part of me perhaps not just in writing, but the way I choose to express myself. The body I have is the one I have the most control over – I have pushed it to several limits and I’m always experimenting or reflecting about movement in general. I would likely have chosen dance as a creative expression had I not fallen in love with writing first because I admire a certain effortless fluidity and grace the body has when you pick the right precision for it. I try to embody that same rhythm in my writing. That being said, we do project our feelings about ourselves or the world around us onto our bodies. So I enjoy observing body temperament a lot, not just a physical measurement of it but the way people inhabit their skins.

What was the hardest thing about writing this collection and why?

I faced two deaths in the span of both editing and publishing this collection, that of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers in the span of a few months. The way they died and the grieving process was vastly different. I ended up putting a lot of moments like those in the collection even though not all the poems were not directly related to their demise.

It’s hard to devote your work to family, because the idea of it is so different here compared to Western dynamics. That was probably the most difficult thing completing this collection. Strangely, after Phedra, the next collection I am writing is focused on my grandfathers. There was never a conscious plan to do these things, but again, here we are. 

If this book was dramatised for the stage, what do you think would be most fascinating to see?

I would love to see the many different iterations of nature I’ve included in Phedra come to life: Like the mythic notion of it being unconquerable and wise versus a more current take on it being something vulnerable that needs to be preserved.  We don’t see enough of nature as a main rooting component on stage as opposed to people’s reactions to nature.

Lastly, how does Phedra contribute to your ongoing body of work?

I write about death quite a bit, whether or not the work gets published, it’s a topic I think about often. It doesn’t perturb nor enlighten me… It just makes me think of things that are much larger than me, like the sea, or the innocence of a child. Death helps remind me to toss the ego, root my mind and try as best as I can to contribute with my strengths (in the short time I have).

Phedra is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here


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