A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.
It was amazing.
In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.
I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.
Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.
I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.
Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.
2 comments on “The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan”
The illustrations to Tan’s books are amazing. Thanks for sharing them.
Are you good at illustrating as well?
I used to draw a lot but I don’t anymore so I’m badly out of practice. Only mum has ever thought that I had the makings of an artist. She thinks I’m a lot better at everything than I think I am. (For which: tack, kära mamma!)
The thing is… I can see the illustration for Neon Tetras in my head but I’m not going to go there. That project would never end.