The creatures in ‘The Arrivals’

(graph 1)

‘The Arrivals’ for me is a really interesting illustration book not only because of its focuses on immigrations and family structure, but because of its application of imaginary beings into the human world.

For graph 1, the two men standing on boats with all their belongings aside. The left man looks more like a western figure due to his hat, suitcase and the British teapot, while the right man looks more like a Eastern figure with his little triangle hat, the Chinese teapot and the pigeon on his shoulder symbolizing peace and friendship. The conflict and encounter of these two cultures and the way they shake hands are an indication: the place where the protagonist moves to is a place full with immigrations. It also shows the protagonist’s high expectations on his future life in this strange city.

(Graph 2)

For graph 2, it is the bird-eye view of the whole city. The whole image is set in a peaceful tone. Besides the different languages it uses and the status of the creature holding an egg, it looks like any industrialized city in western countries: the smokes, the cross on the top of the church, and the crowded constructions. The status of the creature can be a sign of development and protection from god. The wings are like those of an angel and the egg could symbolize protection or baby Jesus.

(graph 3)

For graph 3, however, the theme is totally different. It includes fear, power and catastrophe. The creature that should be the symbol of the theme turns out to be human beings ourselves. It also reminds me of Nazi and their chemical poisons.

I really love the way Shaun Tan uses creatures to represent humans’ society. What do you guys think?

Meaning of Wordlessness

Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” plays on the idea of understanding and misunderstanding. On a very overt level, Tan uses the lack of words to highlight how someone who does not know the language or cultures of another country may feel when they arrive. This distinction gives the book the ability to make the reader have an intense personal connection to the book if they have also experienced a similar situation. Tan does a wonderful job incorporating aspects of older photographs into his work – giving the piece a realistic vibe of immigration. The towering statues are reminiscent of the Colossus of Rhodes, or other imposing classical pieces of giant architecture. While clearly an allusion to the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, these statues represent the imposing nature of newness and fear. These objects form the focal point for the idea of fear in the book – as they are the most impressive structures in the city. Additionally, the snaking, serpent-like tail that follows the protagonist and his family in their home town shows the apprehension that the family and protagonist have in the upcoming journey.

I wonder if the story had words, perhaps only minimally, if that would shift the tenor and overall message of the book in a massive way. Certainly, the feeling of misunderstanding might be lost a little due to our own understanding of language. On the other hand, perhaps the words could contextualize a backstory of the characters for the specific reasons he is leaving for a new land. Tan’s decision to leave out words makes the reader focus much more on the illustrations.

Memory or Imagination

This was one of the last “photos” we looked at in class today:

It really struck me on a few levels. I initially assumed that it was simply a memory that had been triggered by his opening his suitcase. But then I looked closely and realized that it’s only the mother and the daughter sitting alone at the table that’s set for only 2 people. For that reason, I began to consider the possibility of it being him imagining what his family must be doing back home.

To this extent, I realized that Tan played a lot with the whole idea of imagination and memory. They often collide in his illustrations, making it unclear to the reader what exactly is being portrayed. In my opinion, I think that there’s an inevitable overlapping of the two in my own mind–where I don’t think I can remember something so impartially that it’s never subject to being changed by my imagination, however unintentionally. There’s a fine line between the two that is, to a certain degree, a lot more blurry than I had realized before.

Is this photo a piece of his memory or his imagination? Or is it both? The faces of the child, mother, and the setting are for sure pieces of his memory; he’s just repurposed them in a different setting to imagine what they must be doing.


The importance of faces in The Arrival

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is strikingly effective in depicting the constant sense of displacement that immigrants feel, as well as the search for a sense of belonging that lies at the heart of the experience through faces. While I don’t deny the power of visual art to evoke strong emotions in viewers, I was particularly impressed with Tan’s ability to capture the complex/layered immigrant experience in a purely visual form. I think he captures the perpetual sense of “displacement” consistently through many aspects of the story, not least of all setting. But a single part of his drawings stand out: facial expression. Following the idea that this book presents like an old photo album, the faces throughout the story are essential to understanding the narrative. Tan seems to pay meticulous attention to each face, drawing out each particular moment and mood in the way that the features are frozen. This is what lets him get away with a wordless story. Tan depicts extremes: the main character’s pure, unbridled joy in his interactions with his family, the confusion and anxiety of his arrival in a new city, and the sense of bemusement and wonder as he discovers the stories of other strangers. Tan powerfully reasserts the individuality of the immigrant figure, pushing against the societal habit of generalizing and judging.

Which character or face stuck out to you the most?

(My personal favorite was the old man!)

What is that creature?

The cover of “The Arrival” is a sepia tone photograph of a man (we soon learn he is an immigrant) and a creature peering up at him. This creature continues to be present throughout the majority of the graphic novel and can perhaps be interpreted as the man’s roommate. I think the use of an indiscernible creature instead of a human is an interesting choice. It illustrates that people view other cultures and races as possibly subhuman. I think that the creature in this story pokes fun at this notion and emphasizes that although strangers may seem like monsters, they are really that different.

What are other people’s interpretations of the creature? Why do you think Shaun Tan includes it? Especially on the cover of the book!

Accessibility of the Novel

I think a wordless novel was the perfect format for telling the story of The Arrival. It is a story about immigration and the struggle to communicate and connect in a new place, where people speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. In using solely images to tell his story, Tan found a way to communicate in a language that can be read by almost everyone, no matter where you come from in the world.

The idea of art as a universal language seems to be one of the themes of the book. When the protagonist first arrives in the new city, he does not speak the language, so he communicates largely through drawing in his notebook and showing his sketches to those around him. He uses this method to acquire the necessities of survival – food and shelter. This shows how important art can be as a means of communication.

In using a language that everyone can understand, Tan also shows that the story of the immigrant is universal. Being from near New York City, I saw that as the city in the book, with the protagonist getting off the boat and getting his ID on Ellis Island, and the big statues he sees as the Statue of Liberty. However, it seems like this city could really be anywhere. The fact that it lends itself to being interpreted as any number of large cities reinforces the universality of the narrative.

Why Wordless?

As a child I remember loving the wordless picture book “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs and I never really thought about why I enjoyed it so much until Monday’s class. After reading through our assigned wordless novel, “The Arrival,” I found myself enjoying the visual experience of making up my own storyline similarly to my memory of reading “The Snowman.”  As we discussed, the absence of words gives agency to the reader to formulate their own interpretation of what they see, and while I grasped “The Arrival’s” themes of immigration and fear, I also made up my own ideas that related back to my own life. For instance, when I first laid eyes on the cover I had an inkling that the story was going to be about immigration because the man in the photo is holding a trunk in my house that looks identical to the one my great grandpa used when he immigrated from Poland.  Also, I initially interpreted the surrounding cover art, not as a photo album, but rather as a mock-up of a traveler’s trunk. In wordless books, personal perspectives based on one’s own lived experience takes over the narrative depicted in visual representations and leads to a more enticing storyline.

On another note, when reading these wordless novels I was reminded of one of my favorite bedtime stories, “Goodnight Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann. While this children’s book is not entirely wordless, the only words it really includes are “goodnight” and the name of the animal on the page. A number of the images do not have any words and reflecting on it now I think that is why I enjoyed it so much. I think more children should be exposed to wordless picture books to spark creativity early on in their lives. Do you think children would be as attracted to wordless picture books compared to picture books with words?

Images have the power to override language, such that sometimes words are not enough to describe a particular feeling, emotion, or experience. Visual representations can evoke messages and tell stories just as well as written narratives; however they leave room for various interpretations and might not always be the author’s planned meaning. That is what makes wordless novels fun. Wordless novels are active and require participation from the reader because the author is not telling the reader how to read; but rather providing content to be transformed by one’s own perspective. Wordless novels serve as an invitation for the reader to jump right into the story, observe the symbolic content, and creatively incorporate their identity into the images presented.

No Words, No Problem

Shaun Tan’s graphic narrative contains no words… here’s what I think about it:

  1. As we discussed in class today, by including no words, readers are forced to propel the story forward in their own minds, using their own experiences and memories. This method makes for a much more active and participatory reading experience – something especially essential for a narrative portraying the struggles and triumphs of immigration.
  2. Perhaps this is a stretch, but by including no words, Shaun Tan is forcing readers to do what his protagonist is doing… which is adjusting or assimilating to a new culture and therefore using the visual to communicate. Language is no option for a foreigner, thus Tan is forcing readers to “adjust” to understand the story just as his protagonist does.
  3. Without words, The Arrival can be a different story every time it is read. Depending upon how you view the pictures or the perspective you decide to bring, the book can bring about a different meaning every single time. I love it.

Flip Books

Reading Shaun Tan’s The Arrival reminded me of flip books my brother and I used to make out of notepads when we were younger. We’d draw each “frame” on a separate sticky note, and then fan through the pictures, revealing an animated story that usually only lasted seconds. I  found my mind doing this same kind of thing while reading The Arrival. Because the illustrations had such a larger than life quality to them, it was easy to imagine them animated and moving through space and time. The fragmentation of the page almost forces you to fill in the rest of the movement–really making the book come to life. What are your thoughts?

The Arrival and The Arrival

When I ordered The Arrival for class I noticed that it had the same title of the recent film, The Arrival.  Although the film is about an actual alien space invasion, it includes themes about family and parenthood, like the book.  This may just be me but there’s also a nonlinear concept of time in both works.  In The Arrival (movie) a scientist sees the future through aliens.  She sees that her daughter will die of cancer and therefore she writes a book about the alien language to save her future self and civilization.  The alien language therefore appears in a drawing that her daughter makes at the “beginning” of the movie.  In The Arrival the book the creature appears at the very beginning as well, in the drawing that the child does of her family.  I’m curious, are both works saying that the unknown, the future is actually always with us?  Apologies if you haven’t seen the movie, but if you have I’d love to know what you think!