JOANA IS AN ILLUSTRATOR LIVING AND WORKING IN NEW YORK CITY. HER SEEMINGLY BOUNDLESS CREATIVITY EXPLODES ACROSS THE PAGES OF MANY STORIED PUBLICATIONS: THE NEW YORK TIMES, MCSWEENEY'S, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, LUCKY PEACH, AND VOGUE — JUST TO NAME A FEW. THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT JOANA'S FANCIFUL, WITTY, AND POIGNANT DRAWINGS THAT STOPS US DEAD IN OUR TRACKS (OFTEN ACCOMPANIED BY A LOUD LAUGH OF PURE DELIGHT). SEE BELOW THE WAYS IN WHICH THIS GAL JOYFULLY SUSTAINS HER LOVE OF BOTH WORDS AND PICTURES.
Photos by: Laurel Golio
GAL: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Joana Avillez: This first question is very hard. I can’t decide on one single book, but I know that the comfort and mania of books began when I was a child. I think I have to be a lifelong reader, because there is no other choice.
GAL: How often do you read?
JA: Every night before bed there are articles, New Yorkers, magazines. But when I am in the grips of a book I will choose it above all else. Maybe four hours a week. Wish it were more!
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
JA: I remember my mom reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to me when I was ten or eleven. I may have been considered “too old” to be read to, but I didn’t care. Post-homework and post-dinner everyday for a month we had this scandalous world that we raced into. I remember just not being able to wait to find out what happened. We were so gripped!
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
JA: I think my “forever” favorite book would have to be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I think I have to choose that one, because after I finished reading it, I read it over again immediately. And then again one year later. I’ve now read it four times, and I know I’ll read it again in my life. In Strong Opinions, Nabokov proclaims, “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” While that may be true, it’s also problematic when you have a growing book bucket list.
GAL: Who is your favorite author? (If impossible to choose please name two).
JA: Vladimir Nabokov (I think that’s a pretty chosen answer).
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot? Where is it?
JA: On my grandmother’s daybed, which now occupies a mighty sun bank below a window in my living room.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
JA: I cannot read on tablets, or Kindles, or anything backlit. I can read the New York Times on my phone for an hour, and do the social media scroll ad infinitum, but I just find a book on a device profoundly irritating. I don’t even bother. When I remember a passage from a book and want to find it again, I usually have some mental awareness of which side of the page it was on, or how far down. I may have even used an actual pencil to physically make an exclamation point next to the text. I may have dog-eared and felt the crease and crunch of paper fiber. I may have even taken a photo of the page and texted it to my friend Dasha. The book is the story but it is also, of course, the feel and smell of the paper, and the butterflies-in-your-stomach pleasure of knowing that this copy is different than anyone else’s—it is unique. Sometimes, if I revisit a book, a bus ticket from a trip to Providence in 2006 may fall out, or a receipt with something scrawled on the back, all clues. I like the details a book accidentally holds from when it came into your life. It adds to the story.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why?
JA: I was in a non-fiction bubble for a while. I love humor, and I love essays, so I would read anything that fell into that category. I liked the immediate, unveiled reflection of non-fiction. Of course in the end, these lines can blur. Now I am finding that fiction offers me more to relish—I actively want to jump into a world that is not my own. The more time I spend on my phone, the more luxurious, frankly, reading an actual book feels. Being able to time and mind travel seems to have actual health benefits for the non-fiction of my own life.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
JA: The first time I read Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus, I was knocked out of my seat, and found myself basically on the floor smiling like a lunatic. I didn’t know you could write a book like that. That you could be funny, and self-deprecating, that you could intricately weave and superimpose high history onto the complex mundanity of every day life. That book pierced me very sharply. People always talk about (and Instagram themselves with) Kraus’ book I Love Dick, but for me Aliens & Anorexia opened a whole new world, where you could be yourself.
Every single William Steig book. My dad and I used to read his picture books, and I almost believed that we had invented William Steig together. I couldn’t believe anyone else had them. That’s how important and precious those books were to us. Often, I will lay books out next to me, especially picture books, because I think that just having them near by aides me in my day, and in making things. I have a constant and shifting arrangement beside me.
Recently, I was looking at my tattered copy of Max and Moritz, which is an early-almost-comic story told in verse about two very naughty and very funny friends. It was my Portuguese grandmother’s from when she was a child, given to her by her fräulein. Then it was my father’s. And then it was mine. I still feel the irreverence with which my dad showed it to me when I open the book now. The mischievous tone of Max and Moritz feels inherent to my family. I wonder if passing this book down had something to do with it!
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
JA: I went through a long-phase of avoiding fiction, I oddly couldn’t touch it for a while. It felt so self-serious to me. Now, I am back, and I am unabashedly reading the kind of books that might be found on a Best of All Time list. I am enjoying the pleasure of reading a book that I am almost supposed to have read.
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
JA: I think any of the books I mentioned above, but also, this question is so big, so I will just list three books I have read in the past three months that made an impression on me.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. While I think I read this one way on MetroNorth going upstate, the ideas it contains are universally ginormous. Chast completely encapsulates, and does us the tremendous service of not dressing-up the often gilt-ridden journey of aging parents and death. I’ve experienced this from my mother losing her mother, and also losing a parent as well. There are particular, awful pains that one has to reckon with (from doctors to what to do with the deceased’s shoes) that Chast describes in a way that anyone who has the joy of being alive will immediately recognize.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. My friend Dasha gave this to me. Actually, she mailed it to me, which is a sensational way to be given a book! I love it because it reminds me of our friendship, and the childishness we like to engage in, but also Janssen gives you wordless images in the book that can best be described as dappled. I had never read her long-form writing – she is best known for the Moomin series, which she illustrated and wrote, and which are of course, incredible. In The Summer Book, a little girl and her grandmother explore their Finnish island, and you see the world through two points of life. It’s delicate and primal.
The Next, Next Level by Leon Neyfakh. If you do anything creative, or even if you don’t, you should read this book. The act of reading it almost felt like an artistic hailstorm itself, confronting private inner chambers of your own brain, internal dialogues you almost kept secret from yourself. Neyfakh analyzes what he thinks is his own fussbudget-y and contained nature through the mirror of a live-wire rapper named Juiceboxxx. Without fail and without trying to, I think about parts of this book every single day since I read it.