The Genuine Genius of Shaun Tan

Not all literature requires words.

Shaun Tan is an Australian artist/ author of beautiful books, like  The Arrival, which is one of the better books I “read” in 2010. I put the word read in quotes because the book has no words in it, apart from the title. It is an engrossing story told only in pictures and it works fantastically well. It is about a man who is forced to move to a new country to try to start a better life for his family, which he is forced to leave behind. The new country is a strange place and full of wonder, beautifully drawn by Mr. Tan. We follow the man as he tries to find a place to live and get a job, all the while being confused by the way things work in the new country. Strange food and a new way of getting around, these are experiences that people moving to new countries are familiar with. I moved to Israel when I was nine, and to Croatia when I was thirteen, so I was familiar with some of the themes in the book.

The Arrival is one of those books that I feel safe recommending to anyone, and I regularly do, especially those that have moved to a new country for whatever reason. It is also a great example of how the graphic novel is, indeed, capable of being literature. Even when there are no words in it.

A page of The Arrival

Last year I bought more of Shaun Tan’s books, spurred on by the wonderful experience that The Arrival is. These are Lost And Found and Tales From Outer Suburbia. The short animated film The Lost Thing won an Oscar last year.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found has more color and cheerfulness than The Arrival. The first story however, The Red Tree, is about a girl suffering from depression.  We travel with her through a day in her life which is heavily influenced by her state of mind, as can be seen in the image below.

The Red Tree

Here is Shaun Tan on his story The Red Tree:

I’d also been increasingly aware that illustration is a powerful way of expressing of feeling as well as ideas, partly because it is outside of verbal language, as many emotions can be hard to articulate in words. I thought it would therefore be interesting to produce an illustrated book that is all about feelings, unframed any storyline context, in some sense going ‘directly to the source’.

I didn’t know about The Red Tree when I bought Lost and Found, which I bought solely for the title story, about a boy who finds a “lost thing” on the beach one day and tries to return it to someone. However, it is The Red Tree that lingers in memory and is totally worth the price of the book by itself.

A scene from The Lost Thing

Tales From Outer Suburbia

Tales From Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories by Shaun Tan, with varying amounts of illustrations (his genius really lies in drawing and storytelling, not so much actual writing). One of my favorite stories is Alert, but not Alarmed, which is about a country that requires its citizens to set up missiles in their gardens, for defense .As time passes people start to paint the missiles, and then they put in birdhouses or disconnect them and use them as garden sheds. I thought it was a fantastically illogical story, governments would never do such a thing. Right?

Another story from Tales from Outer Suburbia that I thoroughly enjoyed is Eric. Eric tells the tale of an exchange-student that visits a family and the family is unsure about whether he is happy, and the story revolves around the family trying to figure Eric out. As luck would have it, and because the internet is a wonderful place, I found Eric in its entirety on the Guardian website: Eric.

Some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come to live with us. We found it very difficult to pronounce his name correctly, but he didn’t mind. He told us just to call him ‘Eric’.

Shaun Tan is an artist or an author, depending on how you see things. I choose to see him as a genius, that one-of-a-kind wonder that comes along only so often. I think you should check him out, starting with The Arrival. After you read it, you will need no further convincing from me.

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