‘The Arrival’ is the story of migration, a story of loss and a search for belonging. Through a wordless graphic novel Shaun Tan allows this story of losing and searching to finds its voice not in articulation but in silence. It does not contain the immigrant experience within the codes of language and deposes the novel of the compulsive need to define every aspect of its narration. The novel takes from Shaun Tan’s own worldview as a second generation immigrant in Australia and is an attempt to make the reader ‘stop to imagine what it’s like for some of these refugees.’
Silence becomes an important aspect of the way in which the novel is conceptualized as it follows a tradition of story-telling through pictures. The novel even looks like an old family photo album with small blemishes and creases and the old sepia tinged coloring which renders authenticity to the idea. The silence becomes integral to the novel because as I read through the novel I realized that silence was the only way in which the narrative could’ve been told. The immigrant’s lack of knowledge of the language of the new world he enters is best laid out through a complete absence of language itself. The bizarre world with it surrealist images populated by strange creatures is an attempt to capture the immigrant’s utter stupefaction with the world that he encounters. The experience overwhelms language and is characterized by an innocent sense of discovery where he does not try to force his emotions within the confines of expression. The immigrant lets everything around him take its effect on him without trying too hard to explain it. Absence of a written narrative to guide the reader through the novel ensures that the reader is as new to the world as the immigrant. The reader walks the dream-like imagery with the migrant and herself becomes an immigrant in the world that the author transports her into. The authors surrenders control as the reader’s interpretation of the text is not bound by the vision of the artist. As Shaun Tan points out ‘in the absence of words an image can have more conceptual space around it and invite a more lingering attention from a reader who might otherwise reach for the nearest convenient caption and let that rule their imagination.’
The novel is a perfect example of a story that is best told not by being told but by being shown. The social spaces we inhabit are so consumed by language that the silent voices are mostly conveniently forgotten. One of these silent voices is that of the immigrant, one who walks the street with an experience that is so personal that only he can claim to it. The novel tries to unearth these voices not by becoming a substitute for them but by silently laying them out just as they are, and opening them up for the reader to look at them through her own experiences of navigating through a place unknown.
– Ashwini Rajpoot