A few years ago, I had a work assignment in central Malaysia. When I returned home, I lamented to a friend that I was constantly lost, never knew if I had enough ringgits for a meal, and was unable to communicate with anyone. I felt like a confused child.
My friend laughed. "Now you know how your father felt when he arrived in this country," she said.
When I picked up The Arrival by Shaun Tan, I realized just how much truth there was to her comment. I felt like I had discovered an old photo album. The sepia pages and pictures were scattered with scratches and birthmarks.
In six chapters and 128 pages, Tan, an artist from western Australia who snagged an Oscar this year, creates the wordless story of a man who leaves his family in order to establish a better life for them in a distant land.
Through beautifully illustrated facial expressions and gestures, the reader follows frame by frame as the foreigner arrives in a new country, and struggles to understand and adapt. We see his failed attempts at employment, and through friendships forged along the way, Tan introduces us to other characters and their personal journeys of transition.
The Arrival unfolds silently, with a dreamlike quality. I found myself holding my breath and turning the pages very carefully when I read it. Each time I revisit, I discover something new in the illustrations.
Tan uses shadows and darkness to represent threat, but leaves the interpretation open. The gray tentacles looming over the city of origin could be political oppression, illness, emotional upheaval, or perhaps even weather that chased the characters from their homes and onto a search for a new frontier. The only certainty is that each reader will have a different interpretation of the work.
The endpapers of the book feature characters whom I saw as interchangeable with the protagonist. In a grid of 60 beautiful faces, each reader will find a familiar story or archetype represented: My own father came to the United States as a refugee from Lithuania, running from the dark shadow that was Josef Stalin. My friend's mother left Cuba just prior to the revolution, and our neighbor fled New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina swallowed the city.
They are all there. Shaun Tan's graphic novel captures the stories of millions in the cycles of departure, integration and growth.
The Arrival is an immigrant story, but in a more universal sense it conveys the feeling that we've all had at some point of being lost, frightened or confused in an unfamiliar environment. It reminds us that new beginnings can be scary, and the spirit of patience and hospitality are always a welcome port in a storm.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.