Review by Cheng Tju Lim
During the past century many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia faced discrimination due to its affirmative action policies in favour of the Malays. As a result, Chinese families would send their children to either Taiwan or Australia to be educated. The latter destination is often chosen by those who are English-educated and many of the Malaysian Chinese would emigrate and settle down in Australia. This is a common story and it is powerfully interpreted by Shaun Tan in The Arrival.
Tan was born in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth. His father left Malaysia in 1960 to study architecture and met his mother there. Being of mixed parentage, Tan understands what it means to transverse and communicate between two worlds. Sometimes for us to understand the two communities, it entails more than just verbal language. Visual language is also needed, and that is the case Tan is making in The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel.
It tells the story of a father who travels to a new land for better work and job opportunities. He has to learn a new language, not just in the linguistic sense, but how the new world works in terms of norms, social etiquette and culture. He needs to learn how to ‘speak’ to others in order to communicate and understand each other, but words are not the main stumbling block. It is how the immigrants see this new world and how they make sense of it. It is the worldview that needs to be changed. This is where Tan makes full use of his art to convey this strangeness of a new world immigrants had to adopt to – strange shapes, buildings, creatures, emotions and colours.
Tan has learned well from the old masters – Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel and Milt Gross. The Arrival won the Book of the Year prize as part of the New South Wales Premier’s Literacy Awards, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.