Shaun Tan: My artwork is quite surreal and imaginative  but I’m not!

Thank you for accepting our interview request.Let’s  begin to introduce yourself?Who is Shaun Tan?Where does he live?What is his daily routine?

I’m a 44 year old Australian of British and Chinese heritage, a husband and father, and after that an artist, living in suburban Melbourne. My working life is not particularly unusual; I try to keep fairly regular office hours, and spend a good part of my time answering emails and running what is essentially a small business (as all artists must do) and the other part painting, drawing or writing.

Because my artwork is quite surreal and imaginative, I notice that people often expect me to be unusual looking or behaving as a person, but I’m not! An interviewer once remarked that I looked like I might be an accountant, which is not untrue. My day to day thinking is not necessarily very creative or ‘wild’ either. But when I sit down to work, I’m able to enter a different space, somewhat removed from practical concerns and daydream a bit. Most of the hard work involves bringing those daydreams into the real world, as paintings, books, film or other media. I feel much like an engineer when I’m doing this, trying to realise a floating idea in hard, practical terms.

When I  read your books I I imagine Shaun Tan might be smart,pessimist and introverted. Am I wrong?

It’s not for me to say! Remember that these things are all relative. Compared to an extroverted person, I’m quite introverted, but the converse might also be true. I don’t see myself as a pessimist, but I would say I feel ambivalent about most things, switching between optimism and pessimism. Sometimes I feel the world is wonderful and sometimes terrible, that people are full of lightness and darkness. Not either/or, but many things at the same time: I see that in myself, both the good and the bad. That, ultimately, is fascinating in a positive way, and is the stimulus for a lot of storytelling. Contradiction, conflict, uncertainty. These are the driving forces of inspiration for me.

How have began your adventure of writing and drawing?Who are the authors and writer affect you from your childhood?Who are your favorite authors and  illustrators?Which books are reading now?

The adventure begins, as with most people, before I can remember, as a small child loving to draw – who doesn’t? The reason I’ve persisted is probably more interesting than the reason for starting, because at some point most people stop drawing (although they continue to tell stories and enjoy art). I suppose I was very good at drawing as a child, and the encouragement of friends and family may well have led me to become an artist, as much as my own interest. If they had praised my mathematical skills, maybe I would have become more interested in mathematics. I think it’s like that for a lot of children.

Probably very formative times for me were at ages 11 and 15, when I began to take writing more seriously. At 11, I was inspired by several things, but mostly a science fiction dystopian trilogy ‘The Tripod Trilogy’ but British writer John Christopher. It’s set on a future earth where humans have been enslaved for centuries by mysterious aliens in huge walking machines, only the humans (living in a preindustrial state) are not aware of their enslavement. It was a very exciting adventure story, with a little of that ‘things are not what they seem’ hook. Later I became fixated on the 60s TV show, The Twilight Zone, which had occasional re-runs on TV in Western Australia (where I grew up). This inspired me to start writing my own stories about odd things happening in ordinary life, and you can probably see the influence of that even now, some 30 years later. Another writer in the same vein who influenced me as a teenager was Ray Bradbury, who wrote these very strange, multisensory stories that are much like modernist fairytales of the mid 20th century.

Shall we talk about Australian children literature.What is happening field of children literature far from us?

I’m never always sure, because its a very big and diverse field, especially in Australia where I’m not sure that we have any distinctive character as far as children’s literature goes. It’s as varied as it is mulitcultural, although there are certain trends. I like to think we are quite progressive and experimental here, in a large part due to teachers and librarians embracing challenging picture books. That is, visual stories that are not necessarily straight forward and didactic, but can pose hard philosophical questions for children. In fact, it’s quite possible that my career would not exist if not for the support of these educators. Most of the adults now reading my books appear to have first come across them at school, and many comment that it opened their eyes to a different way of writing and drawing, and realising that picture books could be part of a much bigger, ongoing conversation about social and political issues.

Your books was already translated in many languages all around the World.We can see many different image and character when we read your books.Big rabbits,buffalos etc.I think some of image and  characters refer to Austrilian history?If one isn’t  from Australia what should they understand your reference?

That’s a good question, because although I’m often inspired by Australian history and culture, I do try to make my stories as universal as possible, so I avoid specific Australian references, and I look for the ways in which Australia is like other countries. The history of immigration and colonisation, industrialisation or social change, for instance, is quite similar to other countries, from the United States to Mexico, Asia, the Middle East, at least in its most broad or fundamental aspects. A book like The Rabbits is hugely popular in Mexico, even though it was inspired by Australian history: we share a common story of violent conquest. The Arrival was an attempt to interlace multiple stories from different refugees settling in different countries, into one story that any of them might relate to. Surrealism becomes very important here, as a way of avoiding specific locations or identities, and imagining that we all share in a similar dream, living in this particular world at this particular time.

Your books topics are about migration,criticise of modern life ,being stanger.These are difficult topics for many authors,writers.We see  distopian atmosphere in your books.How have you tend toward these topics?This pessimist atmosphere is little bit opposite against children literature,isn’t it?

Yes and no. I think we’ve seen a lot of dystopian fiction, at least in the English speaking world, in young people’s literature. This might reflect the sense that we are living in, or heading towards, a potentially dystopian world. We see that with the  debasement of US leadership for example, the rise of a politics of willful ignorance, and the vulnerability of other systems, from the enconomic to the environmental. If we open our eyes, we see dark and evil worlds overlaid across bright and good ones, we see deceit and truth becoming complicated. There are also social and technological changes that are happening too fast to digest culturally, and I think this feeling of uncertainty does enter my own work a lot. I think it’s entirely appropriate for children. Arguably, their awareness or at least curiosity in asking questions about our way of life, systems of power, how we relate to each other as human beings – and how all of those could be differently imagined – is the most hopeful thing in the world at the moment.

When I was reading Tales from Outer Suburbia,I feel these stories’s  allegoric narration indicate to  “ being stanger”.Is this your  own story as allegoric?

Again, yes and no. I’m aware of being both a marginal person and a privileged person at the centre. Growing up, I was very different-looking as a half-Chinese kid in a suburb of children mostly descended from British immigrants. I was also physically very small (and still am!) and that may have influenced my interest in overlooked individuals, people who are quiet or ignored. I was, for instance, always picked last for sporting teams, even though I was a pretty good athlete as a kid, just because I was small and Asian (at the time, a racial group occasionally discriminated against – less so now I’m happy to say).

But I also had a lot of friends and good support, in part due to my ability to tell funny stories or draw interesting pictures. That all said, I don’t think my experience is very different to anyone else growing up: we are all subject to marginalisation and isolation for whatever reason, especially as adolescents. I think that’s why my stories connect with so many people. We all know what it is like to be the ‘other’ and be treated unjustly.

Your career is  full of success,important awards.Could you share with us the most motivating memory or moment between you and  your readers?

There is no single memory, but rather collections of small interactions. Probably the most significant has been that a few people have commented on my book The Red Tree, which is a pretty frank examination of depression without any therapeutic intention, that it has ‘saved their lives’. By which I assume that it helped them through a difficult period and may have even prevented an attempt at suicide.

That’s very surprising in a way, because many critics of the book claimed it was too depressing. My only concern as an artist was to show what depression felt like (and I had no plans for how that might be received, I just wanted to be honest). Interestingly, that alone seems to be hugely consoling for depressed individuals, that it normalises the condition, that it is simply expressed as a common feeling, and afflicted readers felt less alone. Rather than saying ‘you must be happy’ or ‘don’t worry about it’, it was just ‘here’s what it’s like’.

I guess those realisations are the real ‘awards’ of doing creative work, learning something via the feedback of readers. Also, that something fictional and quite immaterial can have a real impact in the real world. That’s hugely gratifying, and feels meaningful.

Is there any new any animation or book project in a short time?

There are a few projects in the works, some may see the light of day and some not. But I have recently completed two new books, Cicada and Tales from the Inner City. The latter is a kind fo follow-up to Tales from Outer Suburbia but with a very different feeling, looking at urban life from the perspective of non-human animals, and what that tells us about human animals.

I think your books characters are proper to produce as toys.Do you have any project like that?

I’ve considered it from time to time, but it’s quite an undertaking and involves the involvement of many others, and the costs have tended to be prohibitive. In any case, I’m mostly interested in the exchange of ideas more than objects, and so prefer to devote most of my time to writing and illustration. But it would be nice to see some of the work adapted as small sculptures or toys, so long as that production is ethical, of high quality and does not fill the world with yet more junk.

 What is your advice our readers?

I guess to just read widely. I think that was advice once given to me by a librarian, noticing that I was only reading science fiction as a teenager. Another English teacher would give me random books to read and comment upon, things I would not normaly be interested in, but then became interested in. So I do like to try and look at and read things that I ‘don’t like’ as well as those that I do. The other thing would be to spend a good deal of time reflecting on things, or ‘making memories’, treating the world as a study subject. I think too often we end up soaked in experiences, but not enough time reflecting up them, transcribing them into memories, especially in an age of fast media, scrolling through instagram and twitter feeds. ‘The uninspected life is not worth living’ as I think Socrates put it. I like drawing and writing mainly for that reason, it offers quiet moments to think about things that have happened, instead of constantly chasing them. Just looking at things is insiffucient. You need to really see them, and turn things into memories, impressions, theories, lasting thoughts.

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