Politicising the pictorial: A postcolonial reading of images in Shaun Tan’s ‘The arrival’

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Academy award winning author and illustrator Shaun Tan’s 2007 graphic novel The Arrival, poignantly tells the story of the typical immigrant experience. Inverting the paradigms of familiarity and difference, Tan’s illustrations provide us the perspective of the immigrant to whom the new city appears strange, alienating and even fantastical. The book opens with a scene of departure – the man of the house leaving his family in search of a better life on distant shores. Tan uses a series of domestic images and simple domestic things in the opening pages, such as clothing, cooking utensils, a child’s drawing, a clock and a family portrait – to signify the familiar and the comfortable. These are then subtly contrasted in the rest of the novel to images of the unfamiliar, the mechanistic and the fantastical. In the concluding pages however, we see the man from the opening pages, who has now been joined by his wife and daughter in the adopted country. Tan again depicts a domestic scene of a family dinner with many of the same objects from the opening pages (now replaced in their new space) alongside some of the unfamiliar and strange things encountered earlier that have now been domesticated and made familiar. This narrative of the immigrant experience as a project of familiarisation and domestication (the eternal search for a place to call home) subtly critiques discourses of marginalization based on race and difference. In her recent book Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats and Bodies Suvendrini Perera argues that “what constitutes and defines Australia is not ground, as terrestrial land mass, but rather the variable element that envelops and overlaps it” (Perera, 1). She thus attributes a shape shifting quality to the island nation that blurs boundaries. She explores “sites where specific forms of territorialisation, those that reinforce occupation by ‘a particular identity’ while excising others, are enacted” (Perera, 3). By using Perera’s work as my theoretical framework, I argue that Tan’s novel is not a simple story of acculturation, but of penetrating and territorialising (or domesticating) the insular national spaces of the island continent that is Australia.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011


Banerjee, B. (2011, September). Politicising the pictorial: A postcolonial reading of images in Shaun Tan’s ‘The arrival’. Paper presented at the 11th Biennial European Association for Studies on Australia (EASA) International Conference, University of Prešov, Prešov, Slovakia.


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