Essay by Libby Gleeson

Australian picture books enjoy enormous success nationally and internationally but nothing prepared the literary community or the reading public for The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Classified as a picture book, as indeed were all prior works by Shaun Tan, this book is far more than that. His hundreds of pencil images tell a sophisticated tale of migration.

Published by Lothian books in 2006, The Arrival was awarded the Community Relations Commission Award and, more importantly, the Book of the Year in the NSW Premiers Literary Awards in 2007. In making this award, the judges commented:

Without words, this graphic novel has all the hallmarks of lasting literature in that it explores the human condition through the plight of one man and in so doing explores what it is to be human. In particular it is the story, told through brilliant visual imagery, of any refugee, migrant, l’étranger or displaced person leaving a homeland to make a new life in a strange land. It is the universal immigrant experience but placed within an Australian ethos.

The judges’ decision provoked some disagreement. Because The Arrival is wordless some said how can a book with no words win a prestigious literary award? In the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the week following the awards, Shaun, as a winner, was expected to take part in a reading of an extract from his winning book. ‘I think I’ll just say “talk amongst yourselves,”‘ he joked before the event (Schiavone 2007).

The Arrival went on to win numerous other awards in Australia and overseas, acknowledging the acceptance of the graphic novel and the wordless picture book in the world, not only as children’s books, but also as books for those who are no longer children.

Like many who follow the work of Shaun I had purchased the book in 2006 and had read it with great admiration. (Despite having no words, it is a book which is read). Charged with writing this essay I went back to the book. This time, the absolutely magnificent achievement has overwhelmed me.

In a review in The Monthly, December 2006, the critic Luke Davies said that:

Shaun Tan has created a masterpiece in The Arrival. Essentially a chronicle of an immigrant’s journey, it is also about the kindness of strangers in foreign places and about home and family. It is a magnificent and timely story of hope and persistence: deeply moving, disturbing and at the same time infused with a quiet joy, and a grand, buoyant openness to experience. (2006)

I can only agree.

Content and design are indivisible. Holding this book is like holding a treasured family album. It has a slightly battered leather bound appearance and the front cover is a photograph of a man holding an old fashioned suitcase looking bewildered. The end papers are confronting: sixty small portrait images that could be passport shots: men, women and children, with a range of age and ethnicity. On their faces are looks of fear and trepidation, sometimes anger, sometimes defiance. Who are these people? Why are they here? We are drawn into the world of the individual, their intensely personal identity and the slightly disorienting question: who is this person?

And then you turn the page to the first of two title pages. This one has a title in a script that looks genuine but is invented. There are images that are fragments of personal documents officially stamped. And then there is the second title page, this time as one would expect: title and author’s name and the acknowledgements to publisher: Lothian Books, to the Australia Council and to the National Library. These last three are all presented in the same format as the personal documents on the previous page. The unreal blends consistently into the real. It is a confusing entry to a work. The reader is unsure. What are these opening pages telling us of what to expect in this work? Two title pages. Two stories? Two identities? Only when reading on do we realise that we are like the protagonist in this tale, bewildered, confused and uncertain.

The Arrival begins when a young man packs his bag and prepares to leave his wife and daughter. They live in meagre circumstances. The city they walk through is a dark and disturbing place. There are threatening images of swirling jagged shapes reminiscent of the tails of dragons or serpents. This is a metaphysical landscape that we all would want to flee. The man catches the train and his wife and daughter return home.

The man’s venture continues by ship and we see him in both his small cabin, staring at the photo of his family and then writing in a diary, tearing the page and forming it into a bird to fly to freedom. After a long journey the ship arrives in a vast city and at the entrance are two statues, reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. Our man joins thousands in a queue waiting to be assessed. He is medically examined and his documents are stamped and all the time he is unsure. He is clearly unable to speak the language. Eventually he is sent to live in another community where the surroundings are not threatening like his homeland but surreal, industrious and wild with openness and fantastic shapes.

Through sign language he is able to communicate his need for a place to sleep and a stranger takes him to lodgings that echo the high rise tenements of early 20th century America. Again the photo of his family appears to be his only consolation and the link to what he has left and why. A strange creature enters the story here – a pet – described by Tan as a ‘walking tadpole’ that is unlike any other. At first the man is fearful but gradually the two settle into a comfortable relationship and the creature accompanies the man as he wanders the city, searching for transport and a job. It is as if the man is not yet able to become friends with another human being but this creature becomes his companion.

Again, strangers come to his aid. He is given food and friendship and eventually he finds work. Through friends and colleagues he learns the stories of three others who have come from war and from tyranny to live in this land. He makes enough money to send for his wife and his daughter and their arrival brings great joy. The book closes with the image of his daughter, sent out to purchase something, coming across a stranger, clearly a new arrival, seeking help. The young girl is seen reading the woman’s map and then showing her where she can go. It is as if the tale has now come full circle.

A plot summary such as this cannot do justice to this book. Through hundreds of drawings, Shaun Tan has not only described events but has shown us nuances of emotion and built dramatic tension every bit as successfully as any literary prose writer.

These people and emotions are crafted from the simplest of tools – a graphite pencil on paper – and the effect is that of old fashioned black and white photos or the stills from a silent film. Of his choice to use the ‘photo album’ format Tan writes: ‘Photo albums are really just another kind of picture book that everybody makes and reads, a series of chronological images illustrating the story of someone’s life. They work by inspiring memory and urging us to fill in the silent gaps, animating them with the addition of our own storyline’.

Like photos, sometimes the images are lighter in tone, sometimes darker and more threatening. The size of the images varies too: there are small images of intimate detail that progress reader quickly and then sequences of even smaller images to show the passage of time. That could be the tedium of searching for a place to live or on another occasion a night of friendship, food and music, intensely enjoyed. One double page spread shows sixty small images: ten rows of six, each depicting clouds as perceived in the journey by ship. Some are light and airy, some darker and more threatening. Again, this is the passage of time.

And then there are larger spreads, sometimes part or the whole of a page, sometimes a full double page spread. On each occasion one is forced to stop and look more closely. One of the most moving of these shows the wife and daughter, from behind, walking back through the empty streets after the father’s departure. The looming shadows remain. The father has gone but they must remain in this fearful place. Opposite that page is a blank one indicating the ending of some stage in their lives, and now they are alone.

The images, whatever their size are all framed in white, again reminiscent of the black and white photograph. This changes, however, when we are given the stories of the three friends who are revealing their past lives. The frame in the image that depicts the circumstances they are fleeing is black or dark grey. In one of these tales the images show the burning of a city by giants and a couple hiding in cellars and coming out to brutal shapes, threatening cubist style towers that they must climb over and through. They, like our protagonist, have travelled to this new world and now share with him a night of food and friendship.

Another shows a city where the streets are full of marching soldiers and they are welcomed with flowers. Small images follow. Each shows only marching feet and the images darken and those feet move over soft ground, then cobblestones, then steps, then water and then the bodies of those who have fallen. The accumulation of these small images is like the accumulation of detail in a prose piece. Honing in on such minute detail creates authenticity. We feel we are being given a full picture of the circumstances of each of those whose stories are being revealed. We cannot help but silently reflect on the accumulated images buried in the minds of many people among us who have come on perilous journeys. All three of these ‘back’ stories show fear and danger but the outcome is that each of these migrants shows help and kindness to our new arrival.

The city which our immigrant man must negotiate is unlike any city in reality. Tan has created a surreal landscape (surrealism is a literary or artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious mind and it is characterised by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter). After he is processed, the immigrant is sent to a new place. He arrives in a vehicle reminiscent of a telephone booth or a tardis which floats over the landscape.

There are varied buildings of different sizes that are circular or triangular in shape and decorated with geometric patterns or animal faces. Strange vehicles – flying boats and giant hot air balloons – transport people. Steam pours out of chimneys of different sizes and shapes and the whole is dominated by a huge form. Is it a sculpture or a building? Is it a bird holding an egg or an angel with highly decorated wings? In later images the ‘walking tadpole’ is joined by other creatures: birds with half-circle shaped wings, a cat-like creature with a long jagged tail and others that defy classification. We, the reader, are like the main character, bewildered by all of this. As in a painting by Dali, nothing makes sense. Like the immigrant, we are unable to decipher the invented language that appears everywhere. Unable to speak, he is able to communicate his needs only by drawing images and showing them to strangers, a touching action within this greater work.

And yet we are in no doubt as to the intentions of people in the images. In the pages where he is taken to a stranger’s home to eat, the smiling faces, the light tones in the images and the playful music making all indicate warmth and welcome. By contrast there are dark, brutalist images that show the escape which that family had made prior to their arrival in this city. Shaun Tan has written ‘I am . . . attracted to a kind of intuitive resonance or poetry we can enjoy when looking at pictures and ‘understanding’ what we see without being able to articulate it’.

There are recurring images of boats, of strangers offering help and of food being shared. One recurring image is a small origami bird that is the first small drawing on the first page. It appears at the beginning of the book as one of nine small images and again, on almost the last page, as the first of nine other small images. We have seen our immigrant making a similar bird for his daughter to entertain her as he prepares to leave. He makes others when he is on board ship, when he is dining with his new friends and when he sends the money to bring his wife and daughter to him. On the fourth page from the end of the book, the bird joins eight drawings, one of which replicates an image from the first page. The others are all drawings of objects with a similar purpose to those on the first page but they are different in shape and form. The almost empty pot of page one is transformed into a bowl filled with interesting food.

There are references in the work to New York and to the classic period of mass migration early in the 20th century. The harbour city is huge and as the new arrivals come down from the boat they are herded into a hall that is just like Ellis Island. The surreal world that our protagonist enters hums with activity and industry, rather like perceptions of America, in contrast to the land he has just left. Australia is there too with an image of the migrants on board ship that references Tom Robert’s painting Going South.

Shaun Tan describes himself as ‘half Chinese’. His father is a migrant to Australia from Malaysia and his partner is from Finland. But the situation in The Arrival should not be read as about any specific experience. This is a book about universal migration. Our hero is an everyday man and what he goes through is the experience of any or all human beings forced into leaving their homeland and their loved ones. There is clearly sadness at leaving one’s family, for a time, but significantly, the book is called The Arrival, not ‘The Departure’. He is helped by the kindness of strangers, and the outcome of his journey is reunification with the wife and child he left behind. Their new life together is put in contrast to their old life in the scene at the kitchen table. The room and the setting seem the same although with more objects or possessions in evidence. But there is joy not sadness on their faces and each parent looks lovingly towards their child. I see in that a sign that her future is assured and the grinning ‘walking tadpole’ appears to agree.

The final image shows the child assisting another new arrival. This is a classic circular structure for the narrative where the reader feels satisfaction with the resolution of the story, while at the same time perceiving the possible beginnings of a new story. I find it telling that in the upper right hand corner of that full page image there is a faint touch of blue: the only colour in the book.

In our modern day life we are swamped with images: video, television, film, advertising on screen and on billboards, images in magazines and books. Yet rarely are we confronted by a sustained narrative of images. In children’s picture books and in the current wave of graphic novels there is usually some written text that helps to propel the story. In The Arrival Shaun Tan has created something new. Not only has he drawn hundreds of images of various sizes but he has sequenced them in ways that force us to understand a story. Not the story, but astory, one we create for ourselves. As with any novel, we as readers bring our own experience to the task. Each may carry with them their own stories of migration or of a period of confronting great change in their lives. That will aid them in interpreting these images. And because there are no words, we find ourselves examining the images deeply; we seek out the nuances in the drawings of people and objects as well as in the design, and the placement of images relative to others.

The Arrival has been praised and awarded all round the world. Let me finish with a quote from the review in the American journal Booklist: ‘The Arrival proves a beautiful and compelling piece of art in both content and form . . . here he [Tan] has distilled his themes and aesthetic into a silent, fantastical masterpiece’ (Karp 2007).


Referenced works

Davies, L. “The Kindness of Strangers: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.” The Monthly 19 (2006).

Karp, J. “Booklist review – The Arrival.” Booklist Online – American Library Association 2007.

Schiavone, A. “Literature is more than words.” Sydney Morning Herald 2 Jun, 2007.

Further reading

Visit Shaun Tan’s website for biographical information and also extracts from an article Tan wrote on The Arrival for Viewpoint magazine.

Yang, G.L. “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The New York Time 11 Nov, 2007. (Book review).

Interview with Shaun Tan by Scholastic.

© Copyright Libby Gleeson 2013