Illustrating “Wild Pigeon,” an allegory of government repression

Illustrated scene from "Wild Pigeon" of two pigeons torn between beautiful mountains and industrialized city, by Brian Williamson.

In 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was a successful Uyghur author living in western China when he published “Wild Pigeon”. The short fable tells the story of a wild pigeon prince who is captured and caged by men. He ultimately decides that suicide is preferable to a life spent in captivity. After it was published, the Chinese government recognized that the story was an allegory for the Uyghur people living under Chinese rule. The court sentenced Yasin to 10 years in prison for inciting Uyghur separatism.

This week Radio Free Asia released Caged: The writings of Nurmuhemmet Yasin in the iBooks store. The project represents another successful collaboration between RFA and ODDI, following on the success of Remembering Tiananmen.

For Caged, RFA wanted to compile their translations of Yasin’s short stories, essays and poems, as well as audio performances of his works.

After he was imprisoned, RFA received a copy of Yasin’s writings and permission from his family to publish and broadcast his works. The Uyghur service recorded an audio performance of “Wild Pigeon” complete with musical score. RFA Uyghur service director Dolkun Kamberi translated the text into English.

In 2013, RFA editors Catherine Antoine and Enver K. Uyghur decided to repackage the audio performance translation into an eBook for the approaching anniversary of Yasin’s conviction. They wanted to publish versions of the book in English and the different scripts of Uyghur: Cyrillic, Arabic and Latin. They approached ODDI looking for creative ways to quickly illustrate the stories, essays and poems.

Three thumbnail sketches for the "Wild Pigeon" illustrations by Brian Williamson.

Creating the illustrations

Before starting the illustrations, I met with Catherine and Enver to discuss possible styles for the illustrations and to define what specifically needed to be illustrated. I created four quick moodboards to provide a starting point for the conversation.

Enver loaned me a book of Uyghur textile patterns and folk art. We decided to try incorporate these patterns into the illustrations.

In addition to the “Wild Pigeon” illustrations, we also wanted small spot illustrations to help break up the poetry, and an author portrait of Yasin.

Initially I assumed that I’d create two or three illustrations for “Wild Pigeon”. But when I laid out the text to create a dummy book, I realized that the story was longer than I’d thought. We needed illustrations throughout the story to help break up the text. To accomplish this, I abandoned the idea of creating hand-drawn illustrations and instead adopted a simpler vector style.

Illustrated portrait of Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Uyghur musician by Brian Williamson for Radio Free Asia's eBook "Caged".

From virtual eBook to tangible print-on-demand hardcover

In addition to releasing Caged in a variety of eBook formats — ePub, iBook, PDF — we also experimented with releasing it as an actual physical book.

Once the illustrations were drawn and the ebook was designed, it was a relatively simple task to repurpose the book for print. We uploaded the book to a print-on-demand service where it can be purchased in softcover and hardback.

By relying on print-on-demand, we’re able to avoid any up front printing charges and the risk of printing too many copies that are left boxed in a closet. Instead, each copy of the book is printed as it is ordered. The service can also handle the distribution of the book and allows the creator to set the profit earned for each book (because of the nature of this project, we didn’t add any additional ‘profit’/expense to the printing cost).

The primary drawback to using print on demand is that individual copies of the book are more expensive. But in this case, it allowed us to experiment and repurpose an existing project at little expense or additional time.

eBooks and USIM

uyghur_book_coverAs Yasin’s 10-year sentence is nearing its end, RFA has received conflicting reports on his health. He is scheduled to be released this November, but RFA has been unable to confirm if he is still alive.

“Caged: The Writings of Nurmuhemmet Yasin” is available in multiple formats and languages from RFA’s bookstore. The ePub and iBook versions of the book also include the audio performance recorded by RFA’s Uyghur service.

ODDI encourages and supports USIM journalists interested in using eBook formats as an alternative distribution method to help circumvent government censorship efforts.

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Brian Williamson

Brian Williamson

Brian Williamson is the senior UX designer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @drawinghands.

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