We were thrilled to catch up with Oscar winner Shaun Tan whose cult illustrated novel The Arrival our forthcoming theatre circus production is based on.
What inspired you to create The Arrival? Does your family have a migration story?
Yes, my own family history was definitely a key factor in my being attracted to immigrant tales in the first place. I guess I grew up in a mixed-race family without thinking much of it, having an Australian mum and Chinese dad was just normal. Sometimes I wonder if that has given me a certain perspective that’s been useful later on as an artist and writer, a sense that there’s no absolute ‘normal’, that reality is adjustable. Anyway, Dad has many interesting anecdotes about migrating from Malaysia to Western Australia in the 1960s, which I only appreciated myself once I started travelling internationally as an adult. I also realised that a lot of the things I’m trying to do as an artist, looking at my native environment from a certain objective distance, is something that immigrants are routinely doing anyway. In other words, a way of seeing between artists, writers and immigrants is very similar, an acute awareness of everyday strangeness, a necessary attentiveness to primary experience.
You work in a medium which transcends language – do words or written stories ever inspire your work?
Yes, very much so. In spite of it’s ‘silence’, The Arrival began life as a long set of written notes based on researched immigrant stories. I was looking for further anecdotes and trying to find points of intersection, those feelings and situations that seemed universal to all immigrants, like homesickness or bureaucratic troubles, confronting food and difficulty with language or customs. I then tried to extrapolate those universal points of internal and external drama into pictures that might equally relate back to every specific anecdote, and removing words, context and even realism was one way of doing that. I’m actually a very wordy person and originally wanted to be a writer rather than an illustrator as a teenager. It just so happens that I’m often now attracted to stories that are best told visually, and I find these come more naturally to me as well.
Your illustrated novels are enjoyed all over the world. Why do you think they resonate so universally?
I’ve noticed the older I get, the more interested I am in a minimal approach to telling stories, whether that means stripping back the details or just making them very short. That in turn appears to engender broader appeal. What I think is happening is that I’m intuitively making more allowances for the reader to invest their own imagination into the work, rather than trying to tell them what to imagine (as a younger artist, I mistakenly believed that this was the purpose of art-making, having a ‘message’). I think story-telling is not about communication or even resolution of an idea, it’s rather about simply inspiring others to consider universal things and feelings in their own way.
How does it feel having your work adapted and interpreted in different mediums as with this piece?
It makes me feel that the work is successful, that it has its own changing life, it grows. You know a story is a good one when it has a certain autonomy to it, as if you are just borrowing ideas to carry for a while, before passing them on to someone else. You don’t own or control the material, but instead hope it will evolve, even in unpredictable ways. It’s particularly rewarding when that interpretation happens across media, reinventing its form, attracting new ideas, and hopefully reaching a new audience too. There’s also a slight concern if you are doing graphic novels that you are working in a certain ghetto of interest, and it’s nice to see those boundaries dissolve.
What’s next for you? Any forthcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’m working with the producer of our Oscar-winning short film The Lost Thing on a feature-length project based on The Arrival, although it’s still in a very early and speculative phase. This would be yet another interpretation of story concepts that is likely to significantly depart from the original book, simply because the medium is so different, so quite a challenge. Currently I’m finishing work on a new picture book (which does have words, but not many) called Rules of Summer. I wasn’t so sure what it was about when I started it a couple of years ago, but it seems to deal largely with the paradoxes of many sibling relationships, the odd mix of love and rejection that kids might know particularly well (adults too of course). My wife and I are expecting our first baby in the middle of the year, so that’s really the next big project!