Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is a wordless graphic novel about immigration. It’s surreal, beautiful, heartwarming, and one of the best things I read in 2007. (I liked it so well that I’ve been having trouble booklogging it.)
Tan displayed a number of prints from The Arrival in the World Fantasy Con art show, and when I saw them, I immediately went into the dealer’s room looking for a copy of the book. Alas, too many people had the same idea before me, so I had to wait for Amazon to send me a copy. You can see a number of images from the book at Tan’s website by clicking on the cover for The Arrival, and if you like those at all, you need this book.
The book opens with a sad, domestic scene of a husband and wife packing, which includes “The suitcase” (direct link). It seems ordinary enough, until they and their daughter walk along an empty street with a strange shadow above them . . . and then the wider context is revealed in the double-page spread “The old country” (direct link), showing the huge spiky tails that loom over the city streets.
The husband travels across an ocean to a city vastly strange in large ways, as seen in, for instance, “The City” (direct link), which I regret not buying a print of even if I’m not sure where I would have hung it. And strange in small ways, such as the animals that pop out of jars; this leads to one of my favorite sequences, when something like a spiky-tailed raccoon badly startles the protagonist. He explains his reaction by sketching the huge spiky tails of the old country; ohhh, realizes one of his companions, we knew something like that too . . . and we fall into his memory of “The story of The Giants” (direct link).
Not only does this sequence show Tan’s ability to depict emotion, but it demonstrates how the book is built around many immigrants’ tales. More, it’s an example of the fundamental kindness that pervades the work. The protagonist’s companions in this episode are people he met on the street when puzzling over the food-delivery system; they help him figure it out and then invite him home for dinner. I kept waiting, rather anxiously, for something bad to happen—for someone to take advantage of the new immigrant or to display prejudice—and it just never happened.
The Arrival is a deeply sympathetic portrayal of the humanity of immigrants and the universality of their experiences. According to Tan’s comments in the book and on his webpage, it draws from a number of different sources, such as the experiences of his father, a Chinese immigrant to Australia; his own experiences as a traveller to foreign countries; and historical documents like pictures of New York in the early 1900s. This is a rich brew that keeps the book grounded despite all the surreal images, but—to digress slightly—I wonder if it might be less than optimally effective over the widest range of readers. That is, the book has a somewhat historical feel, because of the sepia-toned art, the evocation of Ellis Island (in, e.g., “Inspection” (direct link)), and the fact many people would identify the protagonist as white [*]. And there’s a substantial portion of the American population [**] that sees historical immigration (of white people) as good, but current immigration (of scary brown people) as bad. As a result, it seems possible that people could read this book as a historical tale confirming this attitude, without recognizing the universal nature of its depiction.
[*] I did, but since then I’ve spent some time looking at portraits of mixed-race people and so am freshly aware of other possibilities.
[**] I know that Australia has a bad history when it comes to race and immigration, but don’t know much about its current state.
To be very clear, this is not a criticism of the book, which includes a number of characters of obviously non-European ancestries and which, fairly read, does not in any way support prejudice. More, this is not a suggestion that it’s an explicitly political work, because it’s not. It doesn’t need to be: the beauty of its art and story says more, and more effectively, than any overt statement. Rather, I love this book so much that I want everyone to appreciate it as well and fully as possible, and so was sensitive to aspects that might diminish that. End digression.
The final thing of note is the book’s ending, which shows the adoption of new culture without the abandonment of the old, and has a lovely paying-it-forward moment. Overall, this is a rich and satisfying book, and unless you are completely unable to parse sequential art, I strongly recommend it. I will be nominating it for a Hugo in the Best Related Book category (as it has no words, it’s not eligible in any of the fiction categories) and hope it gets due recognition in the Hugos and other awards.