29 February 2008

Shadowy Dragons’ Tails in The Arrival

In his New York Times review of The Arrival, Gene Luen Yang mentioned one striking detail of the early scenes: "Shadowy dragons’ tails haunt the Old Country..." But what do those tails represent?

Publishers Weekly said, "Shadowy dragon tails trawl the sky of the man's homeland, suggesting pogrom or famine..." The Washington Post, on the other hand, saw "the dragon shadow of totalitarianism."

Quiet Bubble suggested:

The drawing doesn’t want us to believe the city actually swarms with giant dragons--in a later full-page spread, as the wife and daughter walk home to the now-empty house, the tails look like shadows and smoke, which doesn’t make them any less threatening. Rather, Tan’s using fantasy in the right way--as a bravura, overloaded way of conveying symbolically the urgency of real-world terrors and hopes. The family isn’t actually beset by dragons, but oppressive governments and societies sure feel monstrous.
As does war. In calling the book one of 2007's Top Five Children's Books Between Cultures, Mitali Perkins described the story "as a young father escaping an unnamed war-torn country in search of a better life for his family in a new world."

Jetse de Vries at In the Plane of the Ecliptic sees the dragon tails as one of the book's "strong indirect autobiographical hints" that it's the story of artist Shaun Tan's own family, his father having emigrated from Malaysia to Australia.

Finally, Piers Kelly at the Compulsive Reader wrote, "The ambiguous reasons for his departure are suggested by sinister and threatening shadows that swirl like dragons' tails along the empty streets."

My own guess: In the course of the book, Tan has his hero take in the stories of a couple of other immigrants. One has escaped from oppression, the other from a war. Though those episodes are fantastic in their imagery, there's not much room for other interpretations. I suspect Tan wanted to depict all the major aspects of the immigration experience, and I don't see such immediate physical dangers threatening the central man and his family. So I think the dragon-tail shadows represent the threat of want, spurring the man to migrate for new opportunities.

In other words, The Arrival asks us to feel sympathy for not a refugee from violence, but an "economic migrant." That's not so fashionable, so societies create laws against it. But economic migrants are, after all, what most of our own ancestors were.

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

I've been mulling on this column for about a week. Here is what I think the dragons' tails represent: dragons.

I don't see how the shadows of the dragons' tails can be associated with any particular non-dragon aspect of life (war, economic insecurity, emotional upheaval) unless we go on and associate some codified meaning with all the other unexpected creatures. Does the little white thing with a tail represent friendship? No, it is a friend. Does the little dragon hiding in the teapot represent the inability of man to identify ambigious threat? No, it is a surprising cute little pet which happens to live in a teapot. The world portrayed is very strange, but in my view not codified. The dragons are part of the strangeness.

I did have an interesting experience with the book and with this question. To me, the dragon shadows evoke the feelings of having been a little girl living near a field where the new invention, helicopters, were being tested, and wondering if my dad was right when he said, "They're seeing whether the helicopters will stay up in the air." Eek. But when I was checking the book out of the library and showed the first two pages to the librarian, she immediately offered me "another good book on the Holocaust." Our scarey things were quite different in reality but exactly the same in emotion -- as frightening as dragons.