Feature Book: Shaun Tan on using surrealism and strangeness to provoke clarity.

By drawing from his own family heritage and childhood experiences, Melbourne based writer and artist, Shaun Tan explores fundamental feelings of isolation and displacement in a “New Country” through his poignant illustrated novel, The Arrival.

The narrative begins in a universally familiar space; the family home, and follows the journey one man takes to find opportunity in an unknown land. The illustrations are emotionally charged, intimate, familiar and frightening but also open to interpretation.



He uses snap shots of the mundane and of emotional moments and fantastical scenes, juxtaposing the familiar against the unknown to show how alien and confusing things can be in a foreign setting.




Simple things can feel alien in a strange place, even the food we eat.


“Cultural difference is fun and interesting for its own sake, but it also can tell us a lot about ourselves as human beings. That is, looking at so many different ways of thinking and living inevitably provokes a question of intersection. Among these variations, what do we all have in common?”


With The Arrival in mind, it is not that difficult to imagine that there might be some who suffer from feelings of isolation and displacement in our own diverse community. He does a good job at pointing out that sometimes it is the little differences that make the biggest impact.

In our country, the word community used to be synonymous with religious institutions because the majority of locals attended a local church regularly together. Today however, while our community becomes more secular, the role of church as a unifying factor is less prevalent than it has been in recent years. And with over 200 ethnicities, that have different cultural and religious backgrounds, how do we become inclusive?

Shaun points us in the right direction. We become inclusive by being respectful of our differences, by showing compassion and working together to learn more about each other.


“If the play between art and life has taught me anything, it’s that there is not really any such thing as ‘normal’. The ordinary, the everyday, quotidian, usual, banal, familiar, commonplace, straightforward and average – all these things are a kind of illusion, one especially suffered by adults who are too adept at categorizing experience, or those unfortunate souls obsessed with monoculturalism, and doomed to suffer all manner of debilitating prejudice.”

As Tan points out, it is through the strangeness of his ‘New Country’ that we find some sort of clarity. We are better able to articulate and to understand those around us.

“I quickly realised that instead of focusing on things that made sense… the best thing to do is simply focus on strangeness, dislocation and complexity. In other words, trying to make a world as befuddling as our own would be to any new immigrant, to just imagine what that is like. And above all else, to never actually explain anything. Bewilderment is not a bad thing: it can often bring out the best in us. It galvanizes our natural human ability to draw sense from a puzzle, to use our imagination, rather than lean upon received knowledge or wisdom get us through… Surrealism has often felt very useful to me for this reason. If handled carefully it can get closer to reality rather than further away, more or less by ‘waking us up’ from the complacency of ordinary recognition. We begin to appreciate ordinary reality as not so ordinary.”

In the name of community, we encourage you to seek out more about Shaun and you can find a list of his books and current works in the links below:

Shaun Tan’s Books

Shaun Tan’s Paintings

Shaun’s Blog

Links to Shaun’s essays


Ali. x