"Hinting at the Contours Rather than the Thing Itself": A Conversation on Trauma and Art with Shaun Tan
by Golnar Nabizadeh
17 January 2015
Shaun Tan is an artist, writer, and film-maker in Melbourne, Australia. He is best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political, and historical subjects through dream-like imagery. The Rabbits, The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia and the graphic novel The Arrival have been widely translated throughout the world and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun won an Academy Award for the short film adaptation of The Lost Thing. In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden, in recognition of his services to literature for young people.
[Note: This article represents a continuation of an earlier interview between Shaun Tan and Golnar Nabizadeh, which can be found here. Golnar Nabizadeh's article, "Visual Melancholy in Shaun Tan's The Arrival," can be read here.]
Golnar Nabizadeh: We’ve spoken previously, in which you described how the process of drawing can sometimes ‘conjure’ what are often hidden memories. At the same time, because it is an open-ended process, it seems to me that drawing can lead to images that may be an idea of something in a way that might hint at the contours of ‘something’ rather than the thing itself. I wonder if you could reflect on this process in your work, and how you think it might relate to imagining or representing trauma?
Shaun Tan: That’s a great description, ‘hinting at the contours of a thing rather than the thing itself.’ Drawing is especially good at this, particularly as it’s a process that necessarily begins with simple lines and generalisations of form, or as I heard one kid put it once, ‘drawing a line around my think’. Part of this stems from the seeming impossibility of accurate representation, due to the sheer complexity and detail of real life, its flux, its multitude or perspectives, and the invisibility of a lot of important stuff, such as an internal emotional life. Not to mention the fact that everyone’s interpretation of things is likely to be as varied as the different personalities and experiences that can exist in the world. So how can you communicate across this? For me, it’s best not to think of an image or story as a message, but a kind of outline of feeling, into which different details and memories can be easily inserted. Another way of explaining it is that you are building a vessel that can carry different ideas. You can make a fine boat without needing to know who will sail in it, or where they might go, you just know it can take them there.
"Nobody Understands" by Shaun Tan from The Red Tree. Oil, acrylic, and wax on paper. Image courtesy of Shaun Tan.
That’s one reason why a lot of my imagery is surreal, not so much to be strange or fanciful, but to encourage an open-ended reading. For example, the painting in The Red Tree of a girl trapped in a bottle, wearing a diving helmet, was originally inspired by the idea of a person being verbally abused, and then becoming completely withdrawn. If I had represented that in a more familiar way, i.e. showing that literally happening, it would open a certain set of readings, but quite limited. Some readers might relate strongly, but others would not. However, when an idea or memory takes on an unfamiliar form, while still preserving the same emotional tone or ‘outline’, it becomes very open to all sorts of personal interpretations. Even though as a creator I began with a specific idea, I now look at the girl-in-a-bottle image and can consider many other memories, ranging from regret to grief, loneliness, fear, self-pity, survival and endurance… in fact the interpretations are potentially endless. But at the same time, there is a very specific feeling that comes across, which I think keeps us all connected as humans. We all know exactly what this image feels like, even if we attach different memories and associations to it.
The older and more experienced I get as an artist and storyteller, the more I make allowances for an audience that I will never meet, and who have likely experienced things that I don’t know about, including significant trauma. I realise that good images and stories are those that allow another person to respond creatively and even idiosyncratically. They don’t answer any questions or solve any problems necessarily, but they can open up new pathways for thought and discussion. It’s interesting to note the extent to which The Red Tree has been used internationally by health professionals, mainly as an indirect means of addressing issues with patients that might not be so accessible through a direct verbal interaction. I never thought about this when creating the book, my intention at the time was simply to find a way of representing personal emotional experiences in a way that strangers would also be able to share.
GN: In The Arrival, there is a beautiful moment where the main protagonist encounters a shape (a spiky tail) in his place of arrival that recalls its terrifying analogue in his place of origin. In the new place however, the tail belongs to a friendly entity. Could you expand a little on the creative possibilities of repetition (which is often regarded as a hallmark of traumatic recall)?
ST: I guess it’s interesting that objects or events and the feelings we associate with them can be so varied. That’s an interesting moment in The Arrival, when it turns out that the object of great fear for the protagonist is actually a cute family pet, and he has to reconcile these two realities. But it’s also a reminder of deep fears that might never be shifted entirely, I suppose the best you can do is identify an appropriate context. In my story, another man, the owner of the pet, goes on to explain that he too has suffered great trauma – a brutal oppression by mysterious giant beings – but has found a happy life in a new country with his family. The interesting thing about The Arrival is that all of this is discussed without words, and characters don’t necessarily understand each other, in part because of language differences, and in part because the experiences are so strange or confronting that they are hard to explain. And they don’t need to be understood in great detail, the main thing being that there is a measure of empathy between people of different backgrounds: ‘I don’t understand your history, but I understand your anxiety, because that’s something we have all known.’
GN: In your work, what role does trauma play in creating individual or community identities, as well as carving out limits to the formation of identity?
ST: I suppose I’m most interested in how people react to trauma, on all kinds of levels, whether the genocide described in The Rabbits or more subtle confrontations, or conceptual ruptures, such as the arrival of a playful creature in the highly bureaucratic city of The Lost Thing. They can be opportunities for both positive and negative reflection, for development or regression. A story that comes to mind particularly in relation to your question is "Alert But Not Alarmed" from my collection of short "false memories" of childhood, Tales from Outer Suburbia. It’s about a government program to allow average suburbanites to look after weapons of mass destruction in their own backyards, so as to feel involved in national defence – a concept that might well be traumatic, or at least a (very negative) response to the trauma of international conflict and terrorism. But the response from average people is subversive – they start renovating their missiles to become garden sheds, dog kennels and pizza ovens, to make them ‘more useful’. To me this is a positive response to a negative circumstance, as well as a subtle assertion of democratic power. All of us have the tendency to go either way I think, to seek destruction or alleviate it, and my inspiration for writing and painting usually stems from this interesting ambiguity.
Golnar Nabizadeh is an Honorary Research Fellow in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, where she conducts research on trauma and memory studies, postcolonial literature, and visual culture. She has previously published on pedagogy and cultural studies in Cultural Studies Review and intergenerational trauma in the work of Alison Bechdel and other comics artists. She recently co-edited a special issues of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics on children’s picture books and comics. She has forthcoming publications on The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, on adaptations of the Australian historical painting "Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770" by E. Phillips Fox.