'Language shapes the way we think...

by tosca on Friday, March 26, 2010

...and determines what we can think about.'
- Benjamin Lee Whorf

Title: The Arrival
Author: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian
Year of publication: 2006
Star rating out of 5: 5
Summary: In this wordless graphic novel, a man leaves his homeland and sets off for a new country, where he must build a new life for himself and his family. -- Publisher's description

If language shapes the way we think...what happens when anything appoximating a language is removed? I recently read (4 times in one sitting, and each time seeing something new) Shaun Tan's wordless graphic novel 'The arrival' and was blown away by its message and its impact. The beauty of this book is that it is everybody's story. It also nobody's story. Sounds implausible? You obviously haven't read the book, then :-)

Shaun Tan is, in short, a genius - he uses this wordless graphic novel to convey how it must be for a family to be temporarily torn apart. In a possibly-Asian country (the dragon tail shadow that wraps around the buildings) that looks rather European (think World War II) a father must leave his wife and daughter to take a ship to a strange country to ready the way for his family. The fear and oppression and political suppression come through so clearly when the family leave home to see the father off on his trip. Tan manages, through the use of symbols and fascinatingly multi-layered pictures, to depict not just the father's journey to start anew, but the journey of those he comes into contact with as well. I enjoyed this book so much. It really did blow my mind. There are no names, no recognisable landmarks, no identifiable cultures, no particular class or caste system - in short, nothing is anything you would recognise except the journey of the characters. The start of the book sees the family (mum and daughter) helping the father to pack a case of belongings in preparation for his journey to a new land, where he will set himself up with a job and accommodation before sending for them. His experiences - the isolation, the loneliness, the struggle to find a home, a job and friends - are very cleverly depicted in Tan's artwork. I'm absolutely stunned that all of his emotions and thoughts can be expressed without words. 'The arrival' is heartbreaking, eye-opening and oh so very clever.

In March of this year I flew home to Wellington to participate in the last part of the International Arts Festival and was able to see the Red Leap Theatre play of 'The arrival,' and it was as fantastic as I had hoped it would be! It probably helped that the venue was the Wellington Opera House (did you know that they actually have boxes? One day I'm going to sit in one just because I can). I must admit to experiencing some slight disappointment that the characters spoke. It threw me for a moment. I guess I wanted it to be exactly like the book - wordless. So the occasional English word took me aback. Their made-up language seemed too Eastern-European sounding for me to relax and believe it was invented just for the play. I will gladly admit to shedding a tear or two (if I am honest it was much more). As someone who had returned to my childhood home for a long weekend I was able to remember the heart-wrenching move, 26 years ago, from all that was familiar in Wellington to the faster-moving Auckland - I guess I felt that in some small way I identified with the father. Weirdly enough, I went to see the play with my gran, an activity we have never really done in any of my 34 years. It was a very enjoyable experience so I hope that, in the near future, I can take in more with her. She loved the play, although she did make the comment that she kept trying to relate all of the characters (including the animals) in the play to something physical she knew in this world :)

Readers of graphic novels or sophisticated picture books will really get something out of this. And it makes for a great discussion book/topic with children. There was a young boy at the play who had obviously gotten so much out of the book that he was fair squealing with excitement while providing a running commentary. How could you not love the enthusiasm? Read it - that's about as blunt as I can get. Thank you, Monsieur Tan, Red Leap Theatre and Gran. We really must do this again sometime.

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