Furqan’s First Flat Top (El Primer Corte de Mesita) a bilingual (Spanish/English) picture book, tells the story of Furqan Moreno‘s first haircut – a flat top.
I first came across Robert Liu Trujillo’s book, Furqan’s First Flat Top on a trip to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, California. After a day of running around the various play areas and rides, my kids had retired to the Fairyland reading room, which is stocked with children’s books. The reading room has traditional stories, and also features books by local authors, and writers of color. I was immediately drawn to Furqan’s First Flat Top because I’m fascinated by the way cultural markers from my adolescence are on their way back. It’s endearing because now I know how my mom must have felt when I was in high school, and the 60s and 70s were all the rage. It also makes me feel old.
I was also drawn in by the cover, which features three male characters of color, a rarity in children’s literature. I read the book through once on my own, then a second time with my son. The story follows young Furqan Moreno’s quest for a new haircut, but it’s really a story about parenting a child through a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the story, Furqan’s dad is there as a sounding board and support figure for Furqan’s thought process. As a mixed, multi-racial/multi-cultural father I was overwhelmed with emotion reading about a character that, in the moment, I identified as Afro-Caribbean. My identification of the characters was informed partly by my own background, partly by the author’s last name and partly by the fact that the full text of the book is printed in both English and Spanish. As a Latino, and a father, a book about a father and son bonding over a culturally significant hairstyle was inspiring.
As a Latino, and a father, a book about a father and son bonding over a culturally significant hairstyle was inspiring.
Robert Liu Trujillo is an artist, illustrator, author and blogger. His projects include illustrating books for other authors, a traveling mural collective, and various freelance projects. Trujillo is a Bay Area native (it turns out we overlapped at Berkeley High School), and I was able to sit down with him at a local coffee shop to ask him about writing for children of color, his life as a mixed-race/multi-cultural person, and his perspectives on fatherhood.
LatinoDad: You have a Spanish last name, and is it a Chinese middle name?
Robert Liu Trujillo: Yes, well the way the Liu comes is that’s my wife’s name. When we got married we both took each other’s last names and combined them. So we’re both Liu-Trujillo. The Trujillo comes from my dad. My dad is Korean, Mexican and Apache. My dad got that name because his grandfather, my great-grandfather, was an Apache Native American and he didn’t want to be put in the reservation. So he moved to Mexico and he married a Mexican woman and changed his name to a Spanish surname. There’s a big part of our family that’s Mexican who live in southern California.
LD: Where does the Korean come in?
RLT: When my grandfather fought in the Korean War, like many men who went over there, they married Korean women and brought them back.
LD: That’s fascinating
RLT: The politics of changing names in the Native American community very much relates to the experience of African Americans. You may not know what your tribe was or where you came from. So like, we have these names like Robinson or Jones, or names that aren’t really ours, but we take on a different identity.
LD: What about your mother?
RLT: My mom’s African American
LD: What was it like growing up in terms of your ethnic identity, and your cultural identity?
RLT: There are aspects of Berkeley that are more liberal, more open minded. I think any city on the coast will have a melting pot of people who came, stopped, and stayed. I feel like, for identity, that didn’t come until I started taking ethnic studies classes, and talked to other people who uncovered not only pride in different aspects of who I am, but also some history and knowledge about it. If it was left up to public schools and media I wouldn’t have known anything. It’s pretty much through family, and as an older teen and young man that I learned about who I am. Growing up, there wasn’t much there. That’s part of the impetus for me to make kid’s books, specifically about mixed kids, but also about a lot of nationalities and racial backgrounds that aren’t being represented, telling culturally specific stories that just aren’t being told. So that way more kids can feel like they have a reflection of themselves, but also kids who have no clue about that can discover it and have it not be so strange. Then they don’t have that question of, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?”
LD: Did you encounter that question when you were growing up?
RLT: Oh yeah, all the time. Ever since kindergarten I’ve answered that question yearly. Depending on how happy or annoyed I was I would answer differently just to mess with people and see what their reaction was.
LD: Now you’re a parent. Your son is mixed. Are you doing anything different? What’s your approach as a parent of a multi-racial/multi-cultural kid?
RLT: My wife and my son’s mom are different people. My son’s mom is Ecuadorian and Mexican. My wife is Taiwanese. I think, through all of my family, what his mom, my wife, my parents, all the people in our network, we try to expose him to as much as possible. Try to make him aware of different languages and cultures and food and customs, so that it’s not so strange. I know for me, there were aspects of my identity that I wasn’t familiar with, and I was like “Eww, what is that?” or adverse to it at first. I know my parents did it with me, and I’m trying to continue the tradition as much as possible. That way, he’s aware of different viewpoints, and I also do that in my work.
LD: Tell me about the process of putting the book together. You did it on Kickstarter, and it was a very successful campaign. Why did you end up on Kickstarter?
RLT: I had gone the traditional route. There’s a large gatekeeper feel to the children’s book industry, which is why it’s so non-diverse in terms of race, language, people of color, queer children and families. So going up against all of the gatekeepers and things that make it more challenging to get in, I decided to do it on my own. Seeing other people in the Bay Area who were doing children’s books, I learned a lot. I realized I don’t have to go with the companies. I can do it on my own. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
It’s like wearing ten or twelve different hats. When I started off I was just doing illustration. Then I learned a little more about writing. Since I came up with the concept of the book, got it printed, designed, and put out there it’s been a constant switching of hats figuring out what it takes to not only make a book, but to get it to its audience. It’s been rewarding. I love getting comments from kids, or parents, or librarians or teachers who have found a use for it. So it’s a lot of work, but it’s been very rewarding.
LD: What about distribution? How does that work without a publisher?
RLT: It’s going store-to-store, first here in the bay area, then nationally; also going library-to-library. Then once you have one, you can tell others what you have and it gives you more credibility. The book was published in May of 2016 and now I’ve got it in 30 stores nationwide, and one in Canada. It’s also in tons of libraries in 8 or 9 different states. It’s about building relationships and letting people know you’re looking for opportunities. After a while they start to bring things to you.
LD: How much of Furqan’s First Flat Top is made up and how much of your writing is taken from your life?
RLT: The aspect of going to get a flat top that was my experience as a kid. Some of the things that he’s worried about in the story are made up based on my experiences as a parent. Being a teacher, being a kid, and being around a lot of different kids and what they imagine. So it’s a mixture of both my experience, and some that’s made up. The name, Furqan comes from a little boy who was in childcare with my son when he was 3.
LD: Let’s talk about the flat top. Watching the flat top come back has made me feel very old. What led you to choose that hairstyle as the focus for this book?
RLT: Around the time I came up with the story I was working on a series of short stories. This came at a time after getting rejected or getting no response on a bunch of kid’s books. So I started doing a study where every other month I’d do a drawing or a painting and write a paragraph, or write first and then draw. These short stories were about race, identity, language, children. Furqan’s First Flat Top was one of those. It was like one of twenty, and it was the one that resonated with people most when I was sending them out and sharing them. So that’s why I decided to turn it into a full-fledged story.
LD: The other thing that jumped out at me about the book is that it’s about a father and son, primarily. It’s about this relationship of a father supporting his son. What about telling the story from that perspective was important for you?
RLT: My dad has had a lot of struggles with what it means to be a father. His dad scarred him emotionally, with verbal abuse. They say trauma can be passed down through generations, and there were things my dad learned that were difficult, how to express emotion, show emotion, how to tell someone that you love them, how to show pride or support for your kid, how to be a guide for your kid. Now in terms of politics, knowing right from wrong, my dad has always been there. But there were other things that he didn’t show that I wanted to learn. So as a young kid and as a young dad I asked a lot of other men. So like Tomas Moniz, the guy who did Rad Dad, he was one of the guys I asked advice from. When he came out with his ‘zine, it was one of the first times I’d seen a father be vulnerable and talk about their mistakes as well as their triumphs. So in the book I wanted to focus on a father and son of color, because there are not that many books that show that relationship. And then I wanted the kid to let his imagination go free, imagine whatever came to mind, and then have the dad be there for him like, “OK, I hear what you’re saying. It’s going to be alright.” The dad’s not putting him down like, “Don’t be silly,” or “You shouldn’t think that.” He’s just supporting him and saying, “You’re going to be just fine.” And there’s not many books like that, which are both in English and Spanish. I’d like to see more.
LD: That brings us nicely into the concept of having it as a bilingual book. You’re bilingual, your blog has elements in both English and Spanish. Why was it important to have both languages in the book?
RLT: Spanish is my second language. I learned it when my son was born, from his mom and from him, and from his school community. Since kindergarten he’s gone to a public school where there’s both English and Spanish immersion. From then until now he’s learned Spanish. Though now, he doesn’t speak it anymore, he has the solid foundation of reading, writing, and speaking it. Ever since then, as long as he’s been in school I knew I wanted my books to be in both Spanish and English. Just so that, there’s Black folks who don’t know any Spanish at all, like in my family, and I wanted them to look at that and think, “Oh, I can pick up some words from this.” There are Latinos who don’t necessarily see Black folks as being Latino as well. I wanted them to make the connection between them. Then there’s the people in between, where if they could learn both languages there would be less confusion about each other’s story, where they come from, who they are, what their motivations to love or to work, or whatever. I think having the book in two languages helps to build bridges.
LD: There’s a clear social justice and cultural awareness theme in your work. Tell me about Trust your Struggle.
RLT: We founded a collective in 2003. Myself and two other guys, a Salvedoreno and a white guy from Pittsburgh, we had some political ideas and we all loved graff (graffiti), fine art illustration, and murals. So we decided to combine it. Every year it’s grown and expanded its scope. It’s a collective of artists and activists, people who make murals, do workshops for young people, and do art shows. We’ve done mural tours, where we encompass all of that in one tour. We did one in Mexico and Central America. We’ve done one in the Philippines. We’ve done one in the US, and there’s been other trips, both abroad, and nationally, working with community based organizations, schools, nonprofits, sometimes loose-knit activist groups. It’s very much related to social justice and ethnic studies among other things.
LD: You’ve written about raising your son on your blog and for Rad Dad. Is there a sequel for Furqan?
RLT: My wife has definitely said that. Like, “There should be Furqan’s first bike ride, or Furqan’s first swimming lesson. Or something like that.”
LD: What’s your thought on creating a franchise as opposed to keeping it as a single story? I could see a creative struggle in going one way or the other.
RLT: Sure. You definitely want to keep it fresh and do new things so you don’t get bored. So an idea I’m working on now is different. It’s similar in that it’s a parent to child relationship and it’s creative. I would be open to it, but it’s more if the inspiration strikes. I wouldn’t do it just because it’s going to make a lot of money. But, it is a business, so we’ll see.
LD: Anything coming up we can anticipate?
RLT: I am working on another picture book. When that’s ready I’ll probably launch another Kickstarter. I’m working on a Graphic novel. It’s more for teenagers, or mature readers.