083: The ARRIVAL, a Hopeful New Departure

Religious Leadership Week: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5.

   All this month, we’re celebrating religious and cultural diversity to mark the 1st Annual Interfaith Heroes Month.
     IF you are anywhere near Michigan, there are two remarkable events this week that you won’t want to miss: “Reflections of the Spirit,” a first-of-its-kind exhibition of top artists reflecting on subtle spiritual themes running through February 8. AND, on January 25, the pilot presentation of “Read Me a Story,” a journey back into the wonderment of children’s literature. (CLICK on either program title to jump to stories about those programs.)

WE KNOW that most of our readers across the U.S. and around the world won’t be able to visit these pilot programs we’re co-sponsoring near our Home Office in Michigan — and, so, today we want to warmly recommend the work of an author and artist who’ll give you a taste of BOTH subtle spiritual reflections — AND an awe-inspiring trip into the realm of what might be called  “children’s literature.”
    Shaun Tan is a young artist who has accomplished more in his career already than many writers and artists accomplish in a lifetime.
    Click Here to jump to his incredibly creative Home Page to read more about him. We’re also adding his home page to our growing list of ReadTheSpirit Recommended Links.

    We first heard about “The Arrival,” as we discover many of our best ideas, from a reader who emailed to strongly recommend that we review this book. Reader Jen Welch from Chicago emailed some weeks ago to say, “You’ve just GOT to tell people about this book! I know you’re collecting ideas of books for young readers about different ethnic and religious groups and … this book takes you places that you never expect to go. And he never even uses any words! … I heard about this from a friend,  and I ended up reading it almost every day for a week with my daughters, who are 5 and 9. They wanted to see it again and again.”
    Thank you, Jen, for your email.
    We are not alone in recommending this book. The New York Times praised Tan’s work a month or so ago, which has helped to fuel the nationwide buzz about “The Arrival.”

    So, what exactly is this book?
    It’s a genre-connecting hardback picture book, which took Tan four years to create based on narratives of immigrants coming to the U.S., combined with visual references he studied from antique post cards, historical photographs and even paintings and etchings by earlier artists.
    This is a very, very carefully designed work that may remind readers of the stunning experience the first time you read “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” the famous graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. (In fact, Spiegelman’s praise for “The Arrival” appears on the back cover of the book, calling this “something new and exceptionally worthy.”)
    “The Arrival” tells the story of a young father who leaves his wife and daughter behind in their impoverished and dangerous homeland to journey to a distant city based on the New York City of an earlier era. Like millions of immigrants over the past two centuries, he is the patriarch of a family bravely going on ahead to establish a home for his family in a new world.

    Many of the beautifully rendered images in the book are straight out of Ellis Island historical materials. HOWEVER, the stunning innovation Tan adds to the story is the way he moves from those historical snapshots of the immigrant experience — to a wildly off-kilter New York City in which the Statue of Liberty looks oddly like a pair of welcoming giants in exotic costumes. New York’s pigeons become strangely beautiful flying fish. The English language of advertisements, newspaper headlines and grocery store packaging becomes a bizarrely cryptic new alphabet that we can’t quite understand.
    Common American foods take on exotic, fanciful shapes and textures. Even ordinary American pets become exotic animals that seem to have fallen to earth from a science fiction novel.
    Are you glimpsing the point of this visual slight of hand? As we follow the story of this immigrant — we  SEE America through the eyes of an immigrant. The strangeness of our skylines, our symbols, our language, our foods, our pets, our architecture — actually looks strange to us, as readers.
    This is what makes this book ideal for reading over and over with young readers — spotting the dozens of subtle ways Tan twists and turns elements of the tale to help us not only empathize with the immigrant and his family — but to actually feel his disorientation as we read the book!

    Some chapters of the book are very dark. As immigrants meet in this new land, across the cultural and religious chasms that may separate them, they share stories of danger and oppression in their homelands. One immigrant tells a horrifying story of a war that left him crippled and homeless. Another immigrant tells a tale of what seems to be ethnic cleansing in his homeland.
    Once again, Tan’s imagery is rooted in stories we know — but he enlarges and re-imagines the visual grammar of these stories until the ethnic cleansing becomes a terrifying tale of gigantic, faceless technicians with flame throwers who tromp through the streets of a village.
    Although the story becomes dark at several points, there is nothing in the book that is more troubling than scenes in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” And each moment of darkness throws into dramatic relief a moment of great joy as the immigrants realize how much they are thankful for in their new community. There’s even a strange kind of Thanksgiving dinner at one point in the book.

    Wherever you live in the world, as you read this, “The Arrival” is the story of someone you know — a friend, a neighbor, a relative — or perhaps this is your story captured vividly in a new form for a new century.   

COME BACK next week for special reviews and stories on the spiritual power of poetry, featuring book recommendations and a story (with poetry) by poet Judith Valente!
    PLEASE, TELL us what YOU think and what you’re reading! CLICK on the Comment link at the end of our online version of this story. (If you get the daily stories via our free email service — available on the right-hand side of our Web page — then you’ll need to click on the headline, jump to our site — and you’ll find the Comment link at the end.)
    OR, we always welcome your emails. Click Here to send us an email!

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