When a pastel map of the tribalized “New York istan” appeared on The New Yorker magazine cover in December, the city’s neighborhoods were renamed in ironic recognition of September 11. The West Village was now “Artsifarsis,” and the former World Trade Center “Lowrentistan.” New Yorkers ate it up, and the cartoon’s creators, Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz, illustrators and children’s book authors, were the toast of a town that was still in shock. “When their cover came out, suddenly a dark cloud seemed to lift,” wrote Sarah Boxer in The New York Times. Three months after the attack, the air had been cleared, figuratively at least; it was now okay to make a joke referring to the worst tragedy to occur on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.
How did Kalman earn that right? In response to this question, Kalman, born in Tel Aviv, cites the example of her parents, who fled Russia in the ’30s for Israel. “They brought very little with them except for their strong sense of family and their strong sense of humor I have inherited both these traits. My ability to see the absurd accompanies my innate optimism. This has carried me through my personal sorrows,” says Kalman, whose husband of 30 years, designer Tibor Kalman, whom she describes as her muse, died in 1999.
Kalman is now at work writing and illustrating her next children’s book, due out next fall. Unlike her previous works, this one is non-fiction. Tentatively entitled The John J. Harvey: Two Lives of a New York City Fire Boat, it will tell the story of a decommissioned fire boat saved from the scrap pile by a group of New Yorkers and restored. Although deemed unusable by the Fire Department, the boat pumped water for five days, beginning September 11, at the World Trade Center site.
“I want to impart this to children,”Kalman says, “that bad things happen. That is the way of the world. It is how you handle these events, how you perceive the world around you that will determine the impact. There is always hope.”