Using a subtle blend of aspects borrowed from sequential and storybook art, The Arrival is a graphic novel which explores the journey of a migrant. The experiences are conveyed through illustrations that, through the monochromatic sepia color palette, crinkled texture and page layout, resemble old memories and photographs; lending the story the authenticity and inclusivity that are associated with family albums. The wordless nature of the story emphasizes
the protagonist’s inability to communicate with those around him, and the term ‘alienation’ is realized in the literal representations of the new country with its alien creatures. Most of the surrounding peoples’ faces are in blurred and in shadow, suggesting the unwelcoming and impersonalized feeling the persona experiences. War-torn countries are depicted as under attack of giants bearing flamethrowers and gigantic tentacles; or a city that appears vast and labyrinthine. These visual metaphors represents the struggles of ‘finding one’s way’ through the hostile environment and the oppressive power of authorities.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">The persona’s family’s symbol of their place homeland is an origami bird. This becomes a leitmotif as it appears in their kitchen and, later in the text, their letters to one another. However, as the persona and begins to find his sense of belonging in the new country, the bird is replaced with the creature befriended by the persona: which has, in itself, become a characterisation of the protagonist’s growing acceptance of, and by, the new society. The persona’s frustration and distress as he arrives in the new country are portrayed through body language, size and angles. He is initially unrecognizable in a full-page high-angle image of the tiny migrants, with the enormous city in the background.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">Upon completing tests and being literally labeled by the examiners, twelve frames are devoted to his fruitless attempts of communication, punctuated by the scratching of his head, the burying of his face in his hands, the shrugging of his shoulders, and, ultimately, the resigned wringing of his hat and looking away. He is the only figure on the entire page, underlining his complete isolation. As the responder, we feel as though we are responsible for this lack of understanding, as it appears the man is talking out of the book at us, as though in the second person. This is juxtaposed by the persona’s body language and angles later in the text, as he finds a family to which he can relate. He finds himself sharing a frame with another man, in an uninterrupted sequence of eye-level shots. The man presses his hands to his chest in an understanding gesture, puts his arm around the protagonist, and invites him home. It is in this family’s kitchen that the images are once again, following a long era of bleak grey, illustrated in a golden sepia tone symbolizing the persona’s renewed hope, and this is the first time he is depicted smiling.</p>
A few years ago, I had a work assignment in central Malaysia. When I returned home, I lamented to a friend that I was constantly lost, never knew if I had enough ringgits for a meal, and was unable to communicate with anyone. I felt like a confused child.
My friend laughed. "Now you know how your father felt when he arrived in this country," she said.
When I picked up The Arrival by Shaun Tan, I realized just how much truth there was to her comment. I felt like I had discovered an old photo album. The sepia pages and pictures were scattered with scratches and birthmarks.
In six chapters and 128 pages, Tan, an artist from western Australia who snagged an Oscar this year, creates the wordless story of a man who leaves his family in order to establish a better life for them in a distant land.
Through beautifully illustrated facial expressions and gestures, the reader follows frame by frame as the foreigner arrives in a new country, and struggles to understand and adapt. We see his failed attempts at employment, and through friendships forged along the way, Tan introduces us to other characters and their personal journeys of transition.
The Arrival unfolds silently, with a dreamlike quality. I found myself holding my breath and turning the pages very carefully when I read it. Each time I revisit, I discover something new in the illustrations.
Ruta Sepetys is the author of Between Shades of Gray. She is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and lives in Tennessee. J. Michael Smith/PR hide caption
Tan uses shadows and darkness to represent threat, but leaves the interpretation open. The gray tentacles looming over the city of origin could be political oppression, illness, emotional upheaval, or perhaps even weather that chased the characters from their homes and onto a search for a new frontier. The only certainty is that each reader will have a different interpretation of the work.
The endpapers of the book feature characters whom I saw as interchangeable with the protagonist. In a grid of 60 beautiful faces, each reader will find a familiar story or archetype represented: My own father came to the United States as a refugee from Lithuania, running from the dark shadow that was Josef Stalin. My friend's mother left Cuba just prior to the revolution, and our neighbor fled New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina swallowed the city.
They are all there. Shaun Tan's graphic novel captures the stories of millions in the cycles of departure, integration and growth.
The Arrival is an immigrant story, but in a more universal sense it conveys the feeling that we've all had at some point of being lost, frightened or confused in an unfamiliar environment. It reminds us that new beginnings can be scary, and the spirit of patience and hospitality are always a welcome port in a storm.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.