Immigrant Song – Part Two

A couple of weeks ago, our friend Paula pulled a book out of a bag, and it had the same effect as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The book she shared was magical.

It was The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

If you’re an illustrator, or a reader of picture books and graphic novels, then you will be familiar with Shaun Tan. If you’re an animator, you may have seen the Academy Award-winning film based on another of his books, The Lost Thing.

Paula is an actor who also teaches. At the moment, she teaches a class that is about 60% ESL students. She had shown the book to them and they were, she said, “blown away”. Because, through only the visual language of illustration, a universal and deeply affecting story of migration/immigration is told. We got our hands on a copy as soon as we could, and we were blown away too.

With one main story and several back-stories, there is a familiar movement: characters have to leave their homes because of danger or instability and make the journey to a place that is safer, but new and baffling.

Tan’s genius lies in the quality of his drawings and in the moments he chooses to portray. He uses fantasy to move us away from our preconceived notions and internalized migration narratives and focus instead on the very personal day-to-day adjustments that moving to a new place entails. Because Tan uses fantasy instead of reality, we, like the characters in the book, have to figure out if the thing in front of us is a plant or an animal, and whether it is friendly, or dangerous, poisonous, or edible. We are truly in the shoes of the characters, rather than having any kind of 3rd person omniscient view.

‘Ticket’ pencil on paper

Tan spent nearly 5 years on research for The Arrival. He looked at a wide range of immigrant stories, conducting interviews, delving through photos, and looking at archived material. In his keynote speech at IBBY 2012, Tan said:

I quickly realized that instead of focusing on things that made sense, trying to simplify some universal migrant experience, trying to understand everything, the best thing to do is simply focus on strangeness, dislocation and complexity. In other words, trying to make a world as befuddling as our own would be to any new immigrant, to just imagine what that is like. And above all else, to never actually explain anything.

That is precisely what makes The Arrival as emotionally wrenching as it is beautiful to look at, and as universally comprehensible.


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