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Shaun Tan: Migration, Displacement and Belonging in Children's Picturebooks

I have been reading a lot about Shaun Tan in recent weeks.  His illustrated books are extraordinary things, and well worth a look.  Equally interesting though, is what Tan himself says about them - particularly in relation to his recurring themes of migration, displacement and belonging.

In this keynote speech from the 2012 IBBY cogress (a full transcript of which is available on Tan's own website), Shaun Tan explains about the themes of migration, identity and belonging in his books - and in particular in his book The Arrival. Tan highlights the relavance of stories of migration by suggesting that children develop a sense of their own identities by being able to measure it against 'otherness'. "Culture, nature, family, belief, work, play, language" Tan says, "are flexible realities, something we realise especially when we travel overseas, and discover that the commonplace is exotic and the exotic is commonplace, depending on what side of the tour-bus window you happen to be sitting on". More than that, migrations and issues of identity and beloning enable children to encounter the values of multiculturalism, because stories of migration enable them to realise that the nature of cultural identity is that it is pluralistic, not singular: "One of the great gifts of travel, multiculturalism, and other boundary-crossing – including of course reading -– is that your own culture, lifestyle and language is suddenly not so absolute, normal, righteous or sacrosanct, it’s just another way of thinking and existing, based on historical accidents that mainly happened before you were born."

Not only can stories of migration enable children to focus on their own, and others, issues of identity but it can enable children to explore (perhaps more philosophically) questions of what are the common factors (or "intersections") of different identities. "[W]hat do we all have in common? What binds us in the most elemental ways and perhaps defines our humanity? Where is the ‘train station’ through which all these cultural railways pass? These might seem like big philosophical questions, but they need not be presented in big philosophical ways. In fact, they come up all the time at a modest scale, especially in literature for young people".

Tan suggests that his process in helping his stories focus on these broad themes, is to try and reduce the extent to which the stories themselves can be bound to any particular form of reality, or of identity. This "stripping back" of reality means "removing words, character identity, any precise notion of time or place, and also hovering between realism and the dreamlike softness of drawing. I realised that all these things allowed the reader to interpret the story in their own way, and at their particular pace or level of understanding".

This relates to the question of fantasy in children's picturebooks, because this stripping of reality entails a movement into an alternative (or fantastical) plane where the story can explore broader themes. "[T]he best way to be ‘truthful’" Tan says, "is to sometimes go in the opposite direction ... instead of focusing on things that made sense, trying to simplify some universal migrant experience, trying to understand everything, the best thing to do is simply focus on strangeness, dislocation and complexity". 'Fantasy' as a vehicle enables strangeness to be focused on - the strangeness of the migrant experience, and the strangeness which enables readers to see their own self as part of a cultural plurality which is indeterminate and unfixed. This focus, and the fantastical mechanism by which that focus is created, "enables us to figure out problems by tranferring them into a different kind of reality - something which is a natural activity for children".

We can see many of the themes which Tan talks about in his story The Lost Thing. This is a story Tan describes as being about the fact that "we should not leave behind the things we learn as children" but "also about a kind of cultural indeterminacy: Why do we feel compelled to ask or answer a question of belonging at all? Why do we crave a ‘right place’ for this lost thing?".

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