Words Edit Memory: The Importance of Wordlessness

The reason, I find, that it’s occasionally grating to analyze creative work is when it operates on a primarily emotional level. There are poems, for example, that are easy to understand internally, but lose their meaning when you try to define them. At best you can capture their message, but in a concrete and superficial ay. At worst you lose track of what it made you feel in the first place.

The Arrival, as it stands, is a work that operates on an emotional level. It’s easy to understand because we’ve all experienced much of what’s portrayed– the domestic scenes with his family, the emotions that play out on his face. We’ve been children, same as his daughter, and we’ve been strangers, same as him. And what we haven’t personally experienced in terms of historical immigration, we are reminded of what we’ve learned about our country from elementary school-on-up about Ellis Island, factories, and tenements. Even if we don’t realize at first what we are reminded of, we feel the way we feel when we see off-the-boat photographs of vaguely menaced-looking turn-of-the-century immigrants. It’s an intuitive thing.

And it’s essential that it’s wordless, because words would “edit” this intuition, just like we discussed in class. Tan manages to portray the immigrant story on an emotional level, calling us to imagine it with the awe and sympathy we felt when we did as children– or as I, born and raised in the US, did as a child. Giving the protagonist dialogue would make it an adult story. It wouldn’t seem so much like a memory, it would seem more like a report of events. It wouldn’t be possible to improve it with words, in my opinion. Shaun Tan deserves enormous credit (on top of what he deserves for his storytelling and artistry) for understanding that.

3 Replies to “Words Edit Memory: The Importance of Wordlessness”

  1. I totally agree! I think the most powerful component of the story is the wordlessness. In psychology, they teach you about the seven “universal facial expressions” (anger, contempt, disgust fear, joy, sadness, and surprise). The Arrival conveys all seven of those and the readers don’t need descriptions with the illustrations to make sense of them. I think the presence of emotions but lack of words actually allows the readers to insert their own emotions within the story, which makes it more meaningful.



  2. I completely agree. I just recently learned about how people can plant memories in your mind. So I definitely see the parallel between your blog title and that.


  3. I completely agree as well. I think what we have undermined is how difficult it actually is to illustrate with such effective artistry these moments/emotions we all can relate to. It is no easy job and Shaun Tan most definitely accomplishes this feat.

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