Shaun Tan writing about the Arrival - an extract from an article written for Viewpoint Magazine, describing some of the ideas and process behind this book.
Looking over much of my previous work as an illustrator and writer, such as The Rabbits (about colonisation), The Lost Thing (about a creature lost in a strange city) or The Red Tree (a girl wandering through shifting dreamscapes), I realise that I have a recurring interest in notions of ‘belonging’, particularly the finding or losing of it. Whether this has anything to do with my own life, I’m not sure, it seems to be more of a subconscious than conscious concern. One contributing experience may have been that of growing up in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, sandwiched between a vast desert and a vaster ocean. More specifically, my parents pegged a spot in a freshly minted northern suburb that was quite devoid of any clear cultural identity or history. A vague awareness of Aboriginal displacement (which later sharpened into focus with a project like The Rabbits) only further troubled any sense of a connection to a ‘homeland’ in this universe of bulldozed ‘tabula rasa’ coastal dunes, and fast-tracked, walled-in housing estates.
Being a half-Chinese at a time a place when this was fairly unusual may have compounded this, as I was constantly being asked ‘where are you from?’ to which my response of ‘here’ only prompted a deeper inquiry, ‘where do your parents come from?’ At least this was far more positive attention than the occasional low-level racism I experienced as a child, and which I also noticed directed either overtly or surreptitiously at my Chinese father from time to time. Growing up I did have a vague sense of separateness, an unclear notion of identity or detachment from roots, on top of that traditionally contested concept of what it is to be ‘Australian’, or worse, ‘un-Australian’ (whatever that might mean).
Beyond any personal issues, though, I think that the ‘problem’ of belonging is perhaps more of a basic existential question that everybody deals with from time to time, if not on a regular basis. It especially rises to the surface when things ‘go wrong’ with our usual lives, when something challenges our comfortable reality or defies our expectations – which is typically the moment when a good story begins, so good fuel for fiction. We often find ourselves in new realities – a new school, job, relationship or country, any of which demand some reinvention of ‘belonging’.
This was uppermost in my mind during the long period of work on The Arrival, a book which deals with the theme of migrant experience. Given my preoccupation with ‘strangers in strange lands’, this was an obvious subject to tackle, a story about somebody leaving their home to find a new life in an unseen country, where even the most basic details of ordinary life are strange, confronting or confusing – not to mention beyond the grasp of language. It’s a scenario I had been thinking about for a number of years before it crystallised into some kind of narrative form.
The book had no single source of inspiration, but rather represents the convergence of several ideas. I had been thinking at one stage about the somewhat invisible history of the Chinese in Western Australia, particularly in an area of South Perth once used as vast market gardens a century ago, which is now grassed parkland. I did a little research into who these people were and how they related to the Anglo-Australian community around them, and came to be particularly motivated by one short story, ‘Wong Chu and The Queen's Letterbox’ by the West Australian writer T.A.G. Hungerford, which draws on the author’s childhood memories of a strange, segregated group of misunderstood men, and considers their tragic isolation from families back in China.
Drawing on more immediate sources, my father came to Australia from Malaysia in 1960 to study architecture, where he met my mother in who was then working in a store that supplied technical pens (hence my existence some time later – I have a special appreciation for technical pens). Dad’s stories are sketchy, and usually focus on specific details, as is the way of most anecdotes – the unpalatable food, too cold or too hot weather, amusing misunderstandings, difficult isolation, odd student jobs and so on. In researching a variety of other migrant stories, beginning with post-war Australia and then broadening out to periods of mass-migration to the US around 1900, it was the day to day details that seemed most telling and suggested some common, universal human experiences. I was reminded that migration is a fundamental part of human history, both in the distant and recent past. On gathering further anecdotes of overseas-born friends – and my partner who comes from Finland – as well as looking at old photographs and documents, I became aware of the many common problems faced by all migrants, regardless of nationality and destination: grappling with language difficulties, home-sickness, poverty, a loss of social status and recognisable qualifications, not to mention the separation from family.
In seeking to re-imagine such circumstances (of which I have no first-hand experience) my original idea for a fairly conventional picture book developed into a quite different kind of structure. It seemed that a longer, more fragmented visual sequence without any words would best captured a certain feeling of uncertainty and discovery I absorbed from my research. I was also struck with the idea of borrowing the ‘language’ of old pictorial archives and family photo albums I’d been looking at, which have both a documentary clarity and an enigmatic, sepia-toned silence. It occurred to me that 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.
In ‘The Arrival’, the absence of any written description also plants the reader more firmly in the shoes of an immigrant character. There is no guidance as to how the images might be interpreted, and we must ourselves search for meaning and seek familiarity in a world where such things are either scarce or concealed. Words have a remarkable magnetic pull on our attention, and how we interpret attendant images: in their absence, an image can often have more conceptual space around it, and invite a more lingering attention from a reader who might otherwise reach for the nearest convenient caption, and let that rule their imagination.
I was particularly impressed by Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, having come across it for the first time while thinking about my migrant story. In silent pencil drawings, Briggs describes a boy building a snowman which then comes to life, and is introduced to the magical indoor world of light-switches, running water, refrigeration, clothing and so on; the snowman in turn introduces the boy to the night-time world of snow, air and flight. The parallels between this situation and my own gestating project were very strong, so I could not help reading the silent snowman and small boy as ‘temporary migrants’, discovering the ordinary miracles of each other’s country in a modest, enchanting fashion. It also confirmed the power of the silent narrative, not only in removing the distraction of words, but slowing down to reader so that they might mediate on each small object and action, as well as reflect in many different ways on the story as a whole.
Of course, this came at some expense, as words are wonderfully convenient conveyors of ideas. In their absence, even describing the simplest of actions, like someone packing a suitcase, buying a ticket, cooking a meal or asking for work threatened to become a very complicated, laborious and potentially slippery exercise in drawing. I had to find a way of carrying this kind of narrative that was practical, clear and visually economical.
Unwittingly, I had found myself working on a graphic novel rather than a picture book. There is not a great difference between the two, but in a graphic novel there is perhaps far more emphasis on continuity between multiple frames, actually closer in many ways to film-making than book illustration. I have never been a great reader of comics (having come at illustration as a painter) so much of my research was redirected to a study of different kinds of comics and graphic novels. What shapes are the panels? How many should be on a page? What is the best way to cut from one moment to the next? How is the pace of the narrative controlled, especially when there are no words? A useful reference was Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which details many aspects of ‘sequential art’ in a way that is both theoretical and practical, not least because it’s a textbook written as a comic – and very cleverly done. I noticed also that many Japanese comics (manga) use large tracts of silent narrative, and exploit a sense of visual timing that is slightly different from Western comics, which I found very instructive. Simultaneously, I had been working in some capacity as an animation director recently with a studio in London, adapting The Lost Thing as a short film (where much of the narrative is silent) and closely studying to the techniques used by storyboard artists and editors in that industry. All of these pieces of ‘research’ informed the style and structure of the book over several full-length revisions.
The actual process of then producing the final images came to be more like film-making than conventional illustration. Realising the importance of consistency over multiple panels, coupled with a stylistic interest in early photographs, I physically constructed some basic ‘sets’ using bits of wood and fridge-box cardboard, furniture and household objects. These became simple models for drawn structures in the book, anything from towering buildings to breakfast tables. With the right lighting, and some helpful friends acting out the roles of characters plotted in rough drawings, I was able to video or photograph compositions and sequences of action that seemed to approximate each scene. Selecting still images, I played with these by digitally, distorting, adding and subtracting, drawing over the top of them, and testing various sequences to see how they could be ‘read’. These became the compositional references for finished drawings that were produced by a more old-fashioned method – graphite pencil on cartridge paper. For each page of up to twelve images, the whole process took about a week… not including any rejects, of which there were several.
Much of the difficulty involved combining realistic reference images of people and objects into a wholly imaginary world, as this was always my central concept. In order to best understand what it is like to travel to a new country, I wanted to create a fictional place equally unfamiliar to readers of any age or background (including myself). This of course is where my penchant for ‘strange lands’ took flight, as I had some early notions of a place where birds are merely ‘bird-like’ and trees ‘tree-like’; where people dress strangely, apartment fixtures are confounding and ordinary street activities are very peculiar. This is what I imagine it must be like for many immigrants, a condition ideally examined through illustration, where every detail can be hand-drawn.
That said, imaginary worlds should never be ‘pure fantasy’, and without a concrete ring of truth, they can easily cripple the reader’s suspended disbelief, or simply confuse them too much. I’m always interested in striking the right balance between everyday objects, animals and people, and their much more fanciful alternatives. In the case of ‘The Arrival’, I drew heavily my own memories of travelling to foreign countries, that feeling of having basic but imprecise notions of things around me, an awareness of environments saturated with hidden meanings: all very strange yet utterly convincing. In my own nameless country, peculiar creatures emerge from pots and bowls, floating lights drift inquisitively along streets, doors and cupboards conceal their contents, and all around are notices that beckon, invite or warn in loud, indecipherable alphabets. These are all equivalents to some moments I’ve experienced as a traveller, where even simple acts of understanding are challenging.
One of my main sources for visual reference was New York in the early 1900s, a great hub of mass-migration for Europeans. A lot of my ‘inspirational images’ blu-tacked to the walls of my studio were old photographs of immigrant processing at Ellis Island, visual notes that provided underlying concepts, mood and atmosphere behind many scenes that appear in the book. Other images I collected depicted street scenes in European, Asian and Middle-Eastern cities, old-fashioned vehicles, random plants and animals, shopfront signs and posters, apartment interiors, photos of people working, eating, talking and playing, all of them chosen as much for their ordinariness as their possible strangeness. Elements in my drawings evolved gradually from these fairly simple origins. A colossal sculpture in the middle of a city harbour, the first strange sight that greets arriving migrants, suggests some sisterhood with the Statue of Liberty. A scene of a immigrants travelling in a cloud of white balloons was inspired by pictures of migrants boarding trains as well as the night-time spawning of coral polyps, two ideas associated by common underlying themes – dispersal and regeneration.
Even the most imaginary phenomena in the book are intended to carry some metaphorical weight, even though they don’t refer to specific things, and may be hard to fully explain. One of the images I had been thinking about for years involved a scene of rotting tenement buildings, over which are ‘swimming’ some kind of huge black serpents. I realised that these could be read a number of ways: literally, as an infestation of monsters, or more figuratively, as some kind of oppressive threat. And even then it is open to the individual reader to decide whether this might be political, economic, personal or something else, depending on what ideas or feelings the picture may inspire.
I am rarely interested in symbolic meanings, where one thing ‘stands for’ something else, because this dissolves the power of fiction to be reinterpreted. I’m more attracted to a kind of intuitive resonance or poetry we can enjoy when looking at pictures, and ‘understanding’ what we see without necessarily being able to articulate it. One key character in my story is a creature that looks something like a walking tadpole, as big as a cat and intent on forming an uninvited friendship with the main protagonist. I have my own impressions as to what this is about, again something to do with learning about acceptance and belonging, but I would have a lot of trouble trying to express this fully in words. It seems to make much more sense as a series of silent pencil drawings.
I am often searching in each image for things that are odd enough to invite a high degree of personal interpretation, and still maintain a ring of truth. The experience of many immigrants actually draws an interesting parallel with the creative and critical way of looking I try to follow as an artist. There is a similar kind of search for meaning, sense and identity in an environment that can be alternately transparent and opaque, sensible and confounding, but always open to re-assessment. I would hope that beyond its immediate subject, any illustrated narrative might encourage its readers take a moment to look beyond the ‘ordinariness’ of their own circumstances, and consider it from a slightly different perspective. One of the great powers of storytelling is that invites us to walk in other people’s shoes for a while, but perhaps even more importantly, it invites us to contemplate our own shoes also. We might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land. What conclusions we draw from this are unlikely to be easily summarised, all the more reason to think further on the connections between people and places, and what we might mean when we talk about ‘belonging’.