Stranger in a Strange Land: Interview with Shaun Tan | Under Cover

Shaun Tan’s 'The Arrival’ may be the most brilliant book of the year

Your books have tackled colonial imperialism, social apathy, and the nature of depression. The Arrival—a 128-page, wordless graphic novel—explores what it’s like be a refugee, adrift in a very unusual world. Why such serious subjects?

I’m not really sure. When I start a book, I’m attracted to very specific imagery, and I’m usually not aware of what the story is about until I’m well into it. Probably it’s got something to do with displacement. I’ve never really felt at home anywhere—at least not since I was a child.

I recently moved from Perth to Melbourne, which is on the other side of [Australia], and I feel exactly the same here as I did in Perth—even though I spent 30 years there. I think growing up in the suburbs may have contributed to that. It’s not a place that has any handles that you can attach to.

As a teen, you illustrated sci-fi and horror magazines. Are any of those early images memorable?

There was one, which I was very happy with, that was about a fundamentalist Christian scientist who created a virus that would cause people who had more than one sexual partner to die. I drew a picture of a crucifix made out of DNA.

The fantastic creatures and objects and cityscapes in The Arrival look like they tumbled out of your unconsciousness. Did you consciously try to trick your mind into revealing them?

It’s quite a difficult thing to do. When I come up with preliminary sketches, I’ll draw them very small and very scribbly. There’s something about being scribbly that creates an accidental form. It’s like what the surrealist artists do. I don’t think I’d get the same effect if I started out drawing large images. But when they’re small and I know that I’m not going to show them to anybody—they’re just something I can throw away at the end of the day or leave in my sketchbook—that frees me up a lot. From that silliness and chaos, I often get really good ideas.

Like the walking tadpole-like creature that’s on the cover of your book [and in the photo below]?

Yeah. That creature was partly inspired by an experience my partner had of a rat coming out of a toilet. I wanted it to be kind of like an alarming intruder coming into the apartment. In the very earliest versions of the book, which was a really short book, about 32 pages long, the creature was more amphibious looking. But then I decided to develop it more and its character became more doglike and it became quite central to the story.

Why did you decide to film your friends acting out the story?

I was very dependent on photography for a lot of the drawings, because they’re photo-realistic. It’s not my favorite style of working, and I didn’t feel very confident. The other thing was continuity. When I started, I was drawing everything out of my head by hand, and I was finding that there were accumulating continuity problems—just little things that you’d notice subconsciously, like the length of a sleeve, how a lapel falls, where the rim of a hat is. The only way to register all of that properly was to photograph a lot of the stuff.

Why is The Arrival called Emigrantes in Spain?

The reason for that was quite funny. If you translate “arrival” directly into Spanish, it’s slang for orgasm. So I couldn’t use that title.

What message do you hope kids get from the book?

In Australia, people don’t stop to imagine what it’s like for some of these refugees. They just see them as a problem once they’re here, without thinking about the bigger picture. I don’t expect the book to change anybody’s opinion about things, but if it at least makes them pause to think, I’ll feel as if I’ve succeeded in something.

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