Asemic Writing in Shaun Tan’s Graphic Novel ‘The Arrival’

Asemic writing in Shaun Tan's The Arrival

The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan is a wordless graphic novel (which can be read here) that tells the story of an immigrant’s life in an imaginary world. It consists of small, medium, and large panels – as well as pages of full artwork – depicting a world that sometimes resembles our own but which is full of fantastical, otherworldly elements. These are drawn in pencil, simulating sepia photographs. Much of this worldbuilding reminded me of the imaginary and idiosyncratic cities created by Luigi Serafini and Italo Calvino.

The work is ingenuous for its ability, through wordlessness and pure imagery, to tell an emotionally evocative story. This is a story of every migrant, every refugee, and every displaced person, and the journey they have made from their homeland to a strange new environment. Without the use of dialogue or text, Tan portrays the experience of a father emigrating to a new land. The author distinguishes The Arrival from picture books:

There is not a great difference between the two, but in a graphic novel there is perhaps far more emphasis on continuity between multiple frames, actually closer in many ways to film-making than book illustration.

Indeed, reading The Arrival is somewhat similar to watching a silent movie, which is in itself indicative of the ingenuity involved in the artwork and structure. The magical realism and surreal elements in Tan’s graphic novel all contribute to the sense of foreignness, otherness, novelty, and upheaval that is involved in the immigrant’s experience. But the immigrant’s experience of strangeness is communicated through another means: asemic writing.

This form of artistic, wordless writing – also referred to as pseudo-writing – is explored by Barbara Brownie in her 2014 paper ‘Alien Scripts: Pseudo-Writing and Asemisis in Comics and Graphic Novels’. She refers to artist Tim Gaze’s definition of asemic writing as a collection of forms “which appears to be writing” while “having no worded meaning”. (You can read my interview with Gaze here to find out more about the history of this art form. I have also written about different aspects of asemic writing, which you can find here.) Brownie states:

Asemic forms may bear the hallmarks of writing, either through their shape or organization, but have no specific verbal signification. These signs are typically abstract, geometric glyphs, arranged in linear sequence so as to invite the act of reading, but that do not allow verbal interpretation.

With respect to the indecipherable language in The Arrival, she notes:

Tan uses this pseudo-writing to represent a generic foreign language, with the aim of showing a sense of alienation. These images demonstrate that language, when it is not understood, can be isolating.

There are many examples of decipherable alien languages that evoke a sense of otherness. Brownie refers to Christine Shreyer’s Kryptonian, used in the Superman comics, as well as the asemic text featured in comics like The X-Men. (The subject of alien asemic symbols is something I explore in a chapter in my forthcoming book.) Brownie contrasts decipherable alien symbols with indecipherable ones; she underscores that the former offer readers the challenge of deciphering them, whereas the latter “convey a sense of otherness through the impossibility of understanding.” The curious end result, or paradox, is meaning achieved through meaninglessness. Tan himself states:

Given my preoccupation with strangers in strange lands, it was an obvious one to tackle, a story about somebody leaving their home to find a new home in an unseen country, where even the most basic details of ordinary life are strange, confronting or confusing – not to mention beyond the grasp of familiar language.

Language difficulties are one of the major barriers any immigrant in a new land faces, and the strongly alien and unfamiliar character of Tan’s asemic text helps to encapsulate this. It made me reminisce about my experiences of travelling in Asia – in countries like Thailand, Japan, and Korea – and seeing symbols everywhere that were completely alien to me.

The Arrival is a beautiful piece of artwork, and exemplary of how to tell a powerful and riveting story without words. While the use of asemisis particularly grabbed my attention (because of my personal interest in asemic writing), the surreal nature of the scenes depicted were also absorbing, and it typifies Tan’s unique imagination. Below are some examples of asemic writing used in The Arrival, to get a sense of how Tan used it as an aspect of storytelling.

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