“The Arrival” by Shaun Tan is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever come across. Entirely wordless, it conveys in an emotional, visceral way the lives of immigrants. We start out with a page of 9 objects – a cracked tea pot, a suitcase, a drawing by a child. Page by page we walk with the father of this family as he crosses the sea to make a new life in a strange land. The pictures are black and white or sepia-toned.
When I read this book, I think of my grandfather and his family, fleeing the terror that Russia provided for pacifist Mennonites around WWI. I think of the train ride to the ports. I think of the ship across the Atlantic. I think of arriving in Canada, processed by people with strange words in their mouths and strange ways. I think of wandering through the rough prairie towns that were their final destination on that journey.
The genius of this book is his choice to portray the new world with a science fiction touch. The world the man travels to is not 1913 New York. When we look at photos of that time we think, “Ah, of course. That’s a tenement building. That’s a stove. That’s a factory. That’s a newsboy.” We know that landscape. It has even a feeling of nostalgic welcome for us.
That’s not what a newcomer feels. This book pushes us into strange lands with strange devices. Is that a clock? What is that balloon doing on top of a box carrying the man? Is that edible?
The genius of Tan’s storytelling is rivalled only by the incredible beauty and power of his art. The pictures are fantastic.
We had our March homeschool teen book club yesterday. Next month we’re reading “Lesia’s Dream”, a book about a young Ukrainian girl who convinces her family to come to Manitoba in the early 1900s. I wanted to talk about “The Arrival” first, to put us into a mind-set that allows us to see how strange the experience of new landscapes and cultures can be. In Canada we take the story of immigration, of refugees, almost for granted. It’s a story told so often we almost can’t see it.
The kids liked the book, but they didn’t quite like all of it. They were often uncomfortable when the book pushed them. Three other immigrants/refugees tell their stories to the man in the course of the book. The two-page spread with the horrifying giants walking through an old world city vacuuming up the fleeing citizens was particularly uncomfortable for them. They preferred the story of the man who went to war. Talking about it, part of their problem with it was just how odd that image was. The images of the war, on the other hand, made sense to them, were familiar. I asked them whether being uncomfortable was alright, whether that was partly the point of this book. We also talked about the symbolism of the images. They had completely accepted that this was a science fiction book. They hadn’t thought to ask what was being represented in those stories – child labour, tyrannical governments, etc.
This is one of my favourite sequences. He’s arrived in the new city, been subjected to a series of health tests and pinned with certification. I said that this was wordless, but in a way this is a lie. There are words. Swirling, swooping script that makes no sense to us. Just as his first exploration of the room he’s rented is full of devices that make no sense. Tan is a master at conveying us into the heart of this man’s journey with a closeness and a familiarity – we know him – while simultaneously pushing us into a series of baffling encounters and settings.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Part melancholy, part whimsy, it is one of the strongest stories I’ve ever seen. Told without words. A journey of incredible emotional resonance because emotions are all we have to approach this experience. Which means that the questions we ask as we read it stay with us in a way that a more factual approach won’t. Having read it, any further information on the topic of immigration will have a ‘stickiness’. I really believe that learning happens when we have a ‘hook’ on which to hang the facts. Emotion is almost always the best hook for human minds.