Good Reading : November 2008
up close the outsider S ome artists dress in flamboyant fashion. But Shaun Tan doesn’t go for cliché. His clothing is neat, his face calm as he politely accepts a cup of tea in the small book-crammed Melbourne University office where we meet. The truly fantastic worlds Shaun Tan pours onto the page suggest a riotous imagination lurking behind his watchful gaze. At 34 he has been illustrating and writing young adult fiction and picture books since 1996. He collaborated with John Marsden for The Rabbits, which was the 1998 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year, and illustrated Gary Crew’s The Viewer and Memorial. In 2006, his picture book The Arrival won the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award. His work has been adapted to children’s theatre, orchestral and choral music. An animated adaptation of his 2000 picture book The Lost Thing is currently being produced by Passion Pictures. The recently published Tales from Outer Suburbia explores new ground. This collection of short stories looks at the mysterious and menacing elements hidden beneath the sheen of suburbia. The stories share a connection with Shaun’s experience of growing up in the northern suburbs of Perth. Some are like fragments and originate from ideas too short to develop into longer projects. ‘I am very wary of overwrought storytelling,’ Shaun explains. ‘The Water Buffalo’, for instance, roughly 200 words, tells of a child seeking directions from a silently pointing buffalo. The image reminds Shaun of his Chinese grandfather, who couldn’t speak English. ‘Yes, it’s a sad story, but the illustration is a bit comical and balances that out,’ he says. Many animals appear in Tales – dogs, cats, birds, a reindeer, a turtle, a dugong. Shaun likes images that are evocative, avoiding those that have pre-existing symbolism. He writes: ‘Animals are great metaphors for unspoken emotions; they feel things without expressing this openly and remind us of our subconscious selves.’ 44 goodreading i NOVEMBER 2008 Highly praised visual artist and author SHAUN TAN feels a connection to people isolated or disconnected from their world. He tells CLARE KENNEDY why. Growing up in Perth’s then largely undeveloped suburb of Hillarys has had a big influence on the artist’s work. As a child he keenly sensed the discord between nature and his suburb. ‘It was like a coastal dune desert, stripped back and built on, without reference to history or culture. It’s like an invented place. Not entirely real.’ As an adolescent, he felt uncomfortable talking to people. ‘I used to mumble a lot so people couldn’t understand what I said. You see it with a lot of teens who [seem] distant and surly … they have a rich inner life which is not necessarily coming out, so they are easily misunderstood.’ His high school English teacher gave him An Open Swimmer by Tim Winton, and the book had a profound influence. ‘It was the first time I’d read something about a landscape that I knew … When you look at nature, you get a sense of a stream of events shaped by millions of years and its entrenched belonging,’ he explains. ‘I was very aware from quite a young age of the arbitrariness of life, living in this time and place, and that it’s likely to pass quite quickly.’ Shaun was a small child for his age and didn’t feel part of any mainstream group. ‘My brother and I were a couple of the few Asian-looking kids in the school. You get picked on because of your race, just because it’s an easy thing to do. As a kid I didn’t feel like an outsider, just different.’ Perhaps this has made him sensitive to those who feel ‘different’. ‘No Other Country’, another story in Tales from Outer Suburbia, is about an Italian family who discover a secret courtyard in their home. Respect for all the cultures of Australia is something he feels strongly about: ‘What an insult to be told your culture isn’t really appreciated here.’ The story ‘Eric’, about an incommunicative foreign exchange student, came from Tan’s experience of a Finnish houseguest who was ‘a great guy, but not very expressive’ and Shaun could relate. ‘My brother and I talk about things in a roundabout way by directing attention to certain objects or jokes. There are different ways of communicating. It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel things strongly [ just because] you don’t express them openly. ‘I’m very mindful [that] I’m not always living in the moment, or expressing myself fully to people,’ he smiles. ‘My true self comes out in drawings.’ Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $35.00. Other Picture Books by Shaun Tan The Lost Thing (2000) reveals a disturbing, surreal, industrial cityscape. During the school holidays, a small boy finds a weird machine-like organism, which he tries to return to its rightful place despite the lack of interest of others. Tan describes it as a story about apathy. The Red Tree (2001) is about a bleak day in the life of a small girl. Tan’s unsettling pictures and minimal text suggest existential angst. Unusually for a picture book, it raises the issue of childhood depression but ends on a note of hope. The Arrival (2006) is a wordless book about a family migrating to a strange, alien city. In detailed black-and- white snapshots, Tan conveys the fear, loneliness and dislocation experienced by the newcomers. However, the story is tempered by the kindness of strangers and comical misunderstandings as the family adjusts to the mysterious city. The Arrival has won eight awards, including the CBCA Picture Book of the year in 2006.
December January 2009