The tv keeps showing us disturbing images of crowds of people, at border crossings and worse. Migration into Europe is a “crisis”, the radio says. “But what about the people?”, I want to fire back. As politicians wrangle, aren’t we losing sight of the fact that real people – our fellow human beings – are caught up in this mess?
Yet from my relatively secure and comfortable little corner of Scotland, it can be difficult to imagine what it would be like to be living as, and trying to come to terms with being, a migrant. If you have that feeling too, and if you then I can really recommend you spend a couple of hours with a graphic novel called The Arrival, by Shaun Tan.
The Arrival isn’t a book that “tells you stuff”, and it is a work of fiction, even of fantasy. But it’s a book that invites the reader into the experience of migration. Through beautiful sepia-toned pencil drawings it tells the story of a migrant family, and invites readers to share in the profound disorientation of migration.
Portraying a world that is eerily alien and yet unnervingly familiar, the story takes the “reader” on a man’s journey: leaving a familiar setting of home and family, because of an unnamed but sinister threat, in order to seek to make a new start in an unknown place. There is a process of disorientation: a journey across a vast ocean, a growing sense of the apparent insignificance of one person alone in the big, wide world. And then a new place, where some things are almost recognisable, but many are not. How, then, is he to live?
The beauty of Tan’s work is not only in its images, but in its complete wordlessness. It isn’t so much a description of but an invitation into shared bewilderment. As we travel with the migrant, things change: the landscape slowly becomes more alien, and what is strange to us moves from being interesting and novel to frustrating and confusing. Armed only with only a suitcase we see our protagonist begin to be disoriented: he undergoes the ignominy of questioning and a medical examination before being issued with identity papers in a foreign language. As he steps out into his new country it is full of the unfamiliar and bizarre. We travel with him as he struggles to find a place to stay, food to eat and a way of earning money. He – and we – are baffled by a writing system that is alien. We struggle, with him, to try to make sense of his new context. It’s tempting as a reader to give up: it is hard work, trying to understand, and that’s just in the reading about it. That’s part of the point.
Yet struggle is not the end of this migrant’s tale. For in we find that he is helped; others recognize in his struggle shadows of their own past difficulties, and offer the hand of friendship. As the draw alongside him, so he begins to forge new relationships, to hear others’ stories, and to realize that he is not, after all, alone. The hope of new life flickers and slowly glows brighter. A new life, for this man and his family, comes to be one where there is hope.
There is much in the book that reflects the shape of the overarching story of the Bible, particularly of the Old Testament stories of people whose neat lives are thrown into disorientation, and who struggle to regain a firm footing and to understand themselves in light of their experiences. The Exodus, Jonah and the whale, Job… there are plenty of examples, and fewer neat endings. I thought too of the Psalter, described by Walter Brueggemann as “the most reliable theological, pastoral and liturgical resource given us in the Biblical tradition.” The Psalms offer ways to give voice to the diverse phases of the migrant’s story, charting the full gamut of human emotions. A migrant’s faith might see them sing what Brueggemann calls Psalms of orientation – those in which all is well and we are certain about God’s goodness, coherence and reliability. Then there are Psalms of disorientation, weeping over the alienation and suffering of a life in disarray; the experience of what the Psalmist calls “the pit”. And then there are Psalms of re-orientation, for the times when we are surprised, perhaps, to find that in the midst of the darkness, that we are not alone, that humans can be kinder than we feared, and that God is still a light to our feet and a lamp to our path (Psal 119:105).
Part of the beauty of The Arrival is that its central theme is simultaneously particular and universal. This is the portrayal of one man’s experience, carefully examined. But is also a story of human experience and the longing for safety in a place where we belong.
When I read the news about migration at the moment I am so saddened. The Arrival reminds me of the call towards, and the possibility of, hope: the hope that there could – no, should – be for every man, woman, and child at the Greek/Macedonian border, in Calais and in every other migrant context. It’s a story to remind us that every migrant is fighting a tough battle; that there but for the grace of God. It’s a reminder of the possibility of seeking to have empathise, and show compassion and love for our fellow humans; a reminder everybody needs a little help sometimes; and that we can choose to give it.