Shaun Tan didn’t have to look far from home when he was creating The Arrival, his wordless graphic novel about to be staged by Glasgow-based Solar Bear theatre company. The Australian artist, writer and filmmaker’s story about a man forced to leave his home to find work in an imaginary country in order to support his family is a tale that could apply to the hardships of thousands of migrant workers across several centuries. While such scenarios are particularly pertinent in the current political climate, and although The Arrival is in no way auto-biographical, Tan’s story has a more personal root.
“My father was from Malaysia, and came to Australia in 1960,” he says. “Perth where we lived was pretty backwards then. It wasn’t necessarily racist exactly, but although there was a strong aspect of other cultures, the community there was pretty British. I started off with questions about what we call home, and I arrived at lots more questions about history, which I found pretty boring when I was a kid, but as an artist, when I was working on The Arrival, I was more or less the same age as my father was when he came to Australia, and that became pretty interesting.”
While looking at the history of migrants in Australia, Tan looked too at Ellis Island in New York, which in 1892 became the nineteenth century gateway for immigrants coming to America when it became the state-legislated immigrant inspection station. With more than eight million immigrants having arrived in New York in the previous thirty-five years, in Ellis Island’s first year alone more than 450,000 immigrants passed through. It was while looked at old postcards from that period that the aesthetic for what would become The Arrival became clear to him.
“I thought wouldn’t it be great to tell the story of immigrants in a way that was like picture postcards,” he says, “and to do that by inventing a country, because how else would we know what it felt like to arrive somewhere we didn’t know. I thought about this idea of trying to tell a story that could only be told in pictures for a long time, and I wondered why hadn’t anyone thought of that.”
The book took Tan five years to finish, and went through several different versions along the way as other influences crept in. This included a seminal graphic novel which was also wordless.
“Initially The Arrival was a combination of text and image,” Tan says, “and the text was very straightforward and direct. Then I picked up a copy of Raymond Briggs’ book, The Snowman, which was completely wordless, and looks like a children’s story, but is actually an adult book which mourns childhood.”
There was a practical reason too for Tan’s decision to use only images in The Arrival.
“I found that people read my work too quickly,” he says, “but if you put a series of pictures together without words it tends to slow things down. Not having words to rely on brought out the problems of living in a world where the characters are unable to speak the language, so it was logical that a reader should only be able to understand what they see. That created a kind of magical silence.”
Published in 2006, The Arrival went on to win numerous Australian book awards. An earlier book, The Lost Things, published in 2000, was adapted into a fifteen-minute film by Tan with Andrew Ruhemann. With narration by Tim Minchin, Tan and Ruhemann’s film went on to win an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
By the time The Arrival came out, the world had lurched into a crisis in which immigrants were becoming increasingly demonised. This gave Tan’s book an up-to-the-minute pertinence which he couldn’t have planned for. The way Tan had told his story reached out in other ways.
“One of the best reviews was from a deaf guy on YouTube,” he says. “For him, the book explained what it was like to be hearing impaired and having tyo rely on other cues to communicate. In early versions of the book there were people who were disabled in some way, and who’d had to overcome some kind of difficulty to get to this place, so it didn’t surprise me hugely that this kind of resonance became important for him.”
This is also what makes The Arrival perfect for Solar Bear, whose work with D/deaf actors and artists for D/deaf audiences has blazed a trail in its field since 2002. This won’t be the first staging of Tan’s book, with several stagings taking different approaches in ways that Tan seems to relish. Images of the book were projected during a concert performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. While this non-verbal accompaniment speaks volumes about the book, at its heart is the alienation of being an outsider that matters.
“Immigration continues to be an important issue,” says Tan, “and unfortunately it’s always political. You can’t talk about immigration without people drawing up the political battle lines. With The Arrival I wanted to look at it in an apolitical way, and in a very human way.
“Australia is an island continent, and that ferments a certain sense of isolationism in terms of attitudes, and a great paranoia about people arriving here on boats. There’s a lot of anti-Muslim feeling in the same way there’s been a lot of anti-Vietnamese feeling, and there’s a sense sometimes of who’s going to be scapegoat of the month.
“That’s the dark side, but on the plus side, Australia is a very multi-cultural country. A huge percentage of people here are descended from immigrants, and we pride ourselves on an identity of tolerance and freedom. That’s hard sometimes, because things are always changing. That’s possibly something else that The Arrival taps into that people can relate to even after twelve years. Some of the concerns about immigration might change, but as an issue it never cools down.”
The Arrival, Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow, September 26-27; Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, September 28; Tayside Deaf Hub, Dundee, October 5; Spectrum Centre, Inverness, October 12; Carlops Village Hall, October 18; Howden Park Centre, Livingston, October 26.
The Herald, September 20th 2018