Chris Lawson is a family doctor, university lecturer, and writer who lives in Buderim, Queensland. His literary obsessions include the effects of science and technology on ordinary people, the doggedness of irrationality in the post-Enlightenment era and, not entirely coincidentally, the psychotic quagmire that was World War I. His short science fiction stories have been published in Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Eidolon and elsewhere, been translated into French and Czech, and collected in several international and Australian Year's Best anthologies. Chris's collection Written in Blood is available through MirrorDanse Books. Below he discusses Shaun Tan's The Arrival.
Chris Lawson on The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Forgive me for starting with a confession. Shaun Tan is a personal friend of mine. I have chosen to write about The Arrival despite this conflict of interest because (i) it is a book I am passionate about, and (ii) it allows me to talk about genre bigotry in the literary world.
Shaun Tan's first professional publication was a cover for Aurealis, a small-press Australian science fiction and fantasy magazine. It was well executed but the shameful fact remains that he drew a post-apocalyptic kangaroo. Tan's work matured at an astonishing rate and a few years later he produced one of the best art books to come out of Australia: The Rabbits, with text by John Marsden. The Rabbits is an allegorical and extremely pessimistic retelling of the British colonization of Australia. The last plaintive line of the book is spoken by one of the native marsupials, 'Who will save us from the rabbits?' But Tan, as artist, chose to illustrate the last page with an image of a rabbit and a native gazing together into a pool of water that is reflecting the stars. So while Marsden ended his text on a note of hopelessness, Tan undercut it with a much more powerful image that said: we have enough in common that we can learn to live in the same landscape. All this in a children's picture book. The same ability to juggle serious, even despairing, circumstances with (uncloying) hopefulness is one of the skills Tan brings to his 2006 book The Arrival.
The Arrival is very difficult to classify. The closest fit would be a short novella, but there is not a single written word in the book apart from gibberish in an alphabet that has never existed. Over 64 wordless pages, Tan uses meticulous pencil illustrations to tell the story of an unnamed man whom I shall call the Immigrant. This man leaves a wife and child in an Asiatic country to make a new life on a continent full of surreal wonders. The new land combines elements of Australia and America. The landscapes and the animals that the Immigrant meets are reminiscent of the dry, flat cities and marsupials of Australia, while the immigration building he passes through on arrival is based on the Ellis Island processing centre in New York where so many Americans first encountered their new country.
When the Immigrant arrives he does not speak the language, has no contacts and no money. He doesn't recognize the local plants and animals. He can't tell what is edible. He can't work out the plumbing and gives himself a shower when he tries to fill his teapot. He can't even read the clock on the town hall, with its alien face based on interlocking sunburst cogs rather than hands. He is reduced to drawing little cartoons to explain himself to the people around him. Soon he finds a tiny apartment to live in, where he discovers a strange native animal hiding in the crockery. At first the animal terrifies him, but as the story progresses he comes to accept and then feed it.
As the Immigrant goes about trying to find work, he meets others who have travelled this path before him: a young woman who escaped from industrial slavery, a family whose gentle living was destroyed by a totalitarian invasion, and a one-legged man who went to war and returned to find his village in ruins. The Immigrant himself has been driven out by black tentacles that wind through the streets of his home town. These stories are surrogates for the forces that drove immigration in the 20th century: industrial dislocation and criminal governments in Asia, communist terror in Eastern Europe, and the empire-dissolving acid of the Great War. The slow evolution of the illustrations depicting the communist invasion is, I think, especially good. One double page shows giants stomping through city streets with fire-powered industrial vacuums on their backs, sucking up people and the occasional church spire as they go. Survivors hide in the sewers and once the giants have passed, emerge to find their old city of palaces and cathedrals replaced by colossal, featureless blocks.
Eventually the Immigrant sends word that his wife and daughter can follow. The last chapter shifts point of view to the Immigrant's daughter. It is some time later and the family are comfortable in their new home. The daughter dresses, walks confidently out the door and into the city, navigates the odd streets, plays with the local animals, and buys food at the local market. She is doing her chores, in other words. She comes across a woman dressed in a sari who is trying to make sense of a folded map. She goes up to the woman, takes the map, and in the last image of the book, points the woman towards her destination. She closes the circle.
The magic of The Arrival is that it ends, like The Rabbits, on a note of common humanity without ignoring the terrors and the disruptions that forced so many millions of relocations.
And finally, to genre bigotry: The Arrival has won major awards all over the world and yet I expect that few people reading this blog would have held it in hand. You see, it is a picture book, which means by marketing classification it is for children. Now there is nothing wrong with picture books for children and The Arrival can be enjoyed by children (as mine certainly have enjoyed it), but it is a towering work of wordless narrative art. If any book deserves a universal audience, it's The Arrival. Unless, of course, you're too embarrassed to be seen reading a picture book.