The Arrival

Harbour gates from Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Ideas for an ELT class on emigration based on Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival

One of the few positive things about Twitter is that, if you follow the right people, you are brought into contact with culture that had never before appeared on your radar. I had the great pleasure of such an experience this week when I was alerted to the work of Australian artist-illustrator and filmmaker Shaun Tan, and particularly his epic 2006 graphic novel The Arrival.

The Arrival depicts a fantasy world with many parallels to our own, in which an unnamed man leaves his home town and family to seek opportunity overseas. Without any accompanying text or dialogue, the narrative that unfolds is told entirely through illustration. Tan was apparently inspired by the work of British illustrator Raymond Briggs, best known for the beautiful children’s story The Snowman and the more sinister When the Wind Blows, both of which were later turned into animated films.

The Arrival was also apparently conceived as a reaction to what Shaun Tan perceived as a lack of compassion for refugees in his native Australia. In Tan’s allegorical world, the inhabitants of the hero’s home town are threatened by a tentacled monster of some kind, much as the threats in the story’s apparent New World come in creature form. We can surmise that these symbolize dangers of a more palpable sort, but the central premise is less unworldly. The man must leave his home to find shelter and work on unfamiliar shores, in the hope of one day being able to afford a reunion with his wife and child.

Although set in a dystopian future fantasy world, there are clear echoes of mass migration to the USA via New York’s Ellis Island at the end of the 19th and beginning of the twentieth century. The towering harbour gates in The Arrival evoke simultaneously something from Greek mythology (or at least stop-animation movies such as Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans) and the Statue of Liberty.

Indeed, if you wanted to compare and contrast The Arrival in the ELT classroom with an evocative portrayal of this very period, you couldn’t go far wrong with this scene from The Godfather Part II (1974), in which a young Vito Corleone arrives at the immigration inspection station on Ellis Island only to find himself quarantined. The Statue of Liberty, which must have seemed as fantastical to new arrivals in turn-of-the-century New York as the surreal cityscapes of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, signifies a freedom at once alien and out of reach, glimpsed from the window of Corleone’s cell.

Considering the controversies today around Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the US-Mexican border, an ESL-EFL lesson based around Tan’s work would appear timely. It should also prove particularly effective: notwithstanding the artist’s evocative style, there is nothing preachy or overtly political about The Arrival. Rather, Tan’s graphic novel is a timeless and universal story about hope, love and determination.

Through its fantasy elements The Arrival also helps us to imagine what foreign lands might look like through the eyes of a stranger. In the case of New York, awe-inspiring and guargantuan.

There are various ways you could approach an EFL-ESL class based on The Arrival. You could work with a few select images from the graphic novel and have your students to piece together a narrative themselves: in so doing, one leaves space for them to interpret freely and creatively what they see.

Another approach would be to use the animated film below, based entirely of still images from the graphic novel. With some judicious chunking, and perhaps the omission of a couple of the more abstract sequences (which, though, elegiac in their own right, might not prove as fruitful as those pertaining more tangibly to the narrative), you could run this as a video-based activity: having the students describe, predict and interpret at a number of key intervals.

Ideally, any one chunk of video should not last longer than 5 minutes. If you let the film run on for too long, the students have too much information to process and the exercise becomes self-defeating. Rather than set out explicitly my lesson plan here, I have decided to leave it up to you to choose your own approach. There are plenty of other examples on the site about ways to exploit video-based material.

A fitting creative approach to such a class would be to have students imagine their country through the eyes of an outsider. What would a stranger find curious, alarming or beautiful about their new environment? Obviously such an exercise would suit higher-level (B1 minimum) students. Alternatively you could have them work in groups to prepare and present a narrative around a selection of images from the novel, many of which are freely available online (Google is your friend!).

*** All images copyright Shaun Tan ***

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