‘The Greatest Cat in the World’
‘The Greatest Cat in the World’

The king said, “What punishment should someone receive who drags an innocent victim out of bed and throws her into the river to drown?”

The stepmother said at once, “That’s a dreadful crime. The murderer should be put in a barrel studded with nails, and rolled downhill into the water.”

“Then that is what we shall do,” said the king.

He ordered such a barrel made, and as soon as it was ready, the woman and her daughter were put inside and the top was nailed down. The barrel was rolled downhill till it fell into the river, and that was the end of them.

It is episodes such as this, from Philip Pullman’s retelling of “The Three Little Men in the Woods”, that explain why the tales of the Brothers Grimm are not so prominently displayed in the children’s sections of British bookshops these days. They will still be there, of course, tucked away beneath the Gruffalos and BFGs on a discreet lower shelf or two, alongside Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop and The Arabian Nights. But ­parents know they have to tread carefully in the world of Rumpelstiltskin and co.

Shaun Tan, photographed at the Illustration Cupboard gallery in London
Shaun Tan, photographed at the Illustration Cupboard gallery in London in June with the Fox, one of the characters from his new book © Lewis Khan

Shaun Tan, the latest artist to give form to these German folk stories collected in the early 19th ­century, is not one to shy away from difficult subject matter. Even so, the ferocity of the Grimms’ tales did give him pause. Take “Hansel and Gretel”, one of the first that Tan reread four years ago as he considered whether to take on the job of illustrating them.

“It’s pure nightmare fodder,” says the Australian writer, artist and film-maker. “Starvation, abandonment, abduction, cannibalism, psychological torture and subsequent oven-based revenge: sweet dreams, little ones! But it’s also my favourite tale. The leaving of stones and breadcrumbs, the house made of cake and bread and sugar — the imagery is so strange and beautiful.”

You can see why Tan, a master of beauty and strangeness in his own right, decided to go ahead. Over the course of his two-decade career, the 42-year-old from Perth has established himself as one of the world’s most important children’s authors. This status was capped in 2011 when he won the SKr5m (£450,000) Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the richest and most prestigious in the field of children’s and young-adult literature. Yet even the most cursory glance through Tan’s densely wrought, often highly political illustrated books is enough to dispel the notion that they are for children alone. Tan himself insists that he does not have a particular audience in mind as he works, preferring to think of what younger and older readers have in common than what sets them apart.

‘Harbour’, from graphic novel ‘The Arrival’
‘Harbour’, from Tan’s graphic novel ‘The Arrival’, 2006

In the book that made his name, The Rabbits (1998), Tan collaborated with the novelist John Marsden to produce a fable of colonisation rich in retro-futuristic imagery and references to Australian history. His first solo project, 2000’s The Lost Thing, was a tale about a boy and a forlorn crab-machine figure that could also be read as a critique of “economic rationalism”. It would later be adapted by Tan and Andrew Ruhemann into a film that won an Oscar for best animated short in 2011. The Red Tree (2001), a powerful and ultimately hopeful meditation on childhood depression, has inspired musical and theatrical productions and even been used as a resource by professional therapists.

But it is for The Arrival (2006), a wordless graphic novel focusing on the struggles of refugees to remake their lives in unfamiliar, confronting ­surroundings, that he is best known. Drawing on research into Ellis Island and mass European immigration to the US, Tan’s hand-drawn sepia frames evoke family photo albums and, at first, locate us in an early-20th-century world that we feel we know. Yet the destination country is also a place of fantastical animals, indecipherable script and flying boats, to which freshly admitted immigrants are delivered in capsules suspended from balloons. The fantasy is disorientating, capturing the texture of the migrant experience in ways that straightforward realism never could.

“Shaun Tan is a visionary and a magician,” says Neel Mukherjee, author of the Man Booker-shortlisted novel The Lives of Others (2014). “In The Arrival he reimagined a moribund form, the immigrant narrative, and made it new, strange, startling and truthful again. I know of no work in that domain to match its power and originality, its sheer imaginative force.”

I meet Tan at an exhibition of his work at the Illustration Cupboard in London’s St James’s, a district that seems an appropriate enough setting for a celebration of the ­“surreal imagination”: walking past the gold-buttoned doormen and assorted ­gentlemen’s outfitters, it is easy to imagine newcomers touching down to gape uncomprehendingly at duck-billed umbrellas, swordsticks and morning wear. Inside, we sip Ceylon tea as Tan, a slight figure neatly dressed in black, surveys the arrangement of his sketches, pastels and paintings, together with a few sculptures from the new project. Overall, the palette is strikingly Australian — saturated ochres, burnt sienna, brilliant azure, a hemisphere away from the shadowy greens and blood reds of the Grimms’ universe.

Growing up in the 1980s in suburban Perth, Tan was known as “the good drawer” — an accolade, he jokes on his website, that “partly compensated for always being the shortest kid in every class”. He recalls fishing trips with his parents to the south-west, where, inspired by the light-filled canvases of the Australian impressionist Arthur Streeton, he would spend most of his time painting rocks, sea and bush. Back indoors, the focus tended to shift to science-fiction illustration — a parallel fascination that Tan no longer regards as separate or opposed.

‘Small Mount Lawley Painting’
‘Small Mount Lawley Painting’, scene from suburban Perth, 2004

“I don’t see a huge difference between painting a landscape plein air and sitting at a desk drawing something from a speculative subconscious,” he says. “They are both ways of making an image that ultimately resides in the mind, and of trying to make sense of the world, of what it means to be alive in a particular place and time.”

Tan had contemplated taking on the Grimms when he started out as a freelance illustrator in the mid-1990s, even getting so far as sketching out ideas for a book. But he couldn’t make it work. “These images of European forests and wolves and bears and so on, it was just too exotic for a suburban boy from Western Australia,” he says. “And maybe I didn’t realise then that Grimms’ fairy tales are closer to dreams than stories. I love inexplicable stuff but this was almost too inexplicable.”

He would return to the subject more than a decade later when his German publisher, Aladin, asked him to do the cover for its 2013 edition of Philip Pullman’s retellings. Tan was reluctant at first, having made a policy decision to focus on his own work. But reacquainting himself with the tales through Pullman’s energetic and faithful versions changed his mind and, rather than declining, he proposed some internal illustrations as well. After producing 50 for the German edition of the Pullman collection, he kept going until he had 75; all appear alongside his chosen extracts translated from the Grimms in The Singing Bones, to be published in the UK next month.

Some of the clay sculptures in ‘The Singing Bones’
Some of the clay sculptures in ‘The Singing Bones’, Tan’s take on the Grimm tales

In his introduction to Grimm Tales for Young and Old (Penguin, 2012), Pullman cautions against illustration, suggesting that it can run counter to the spirit of works in which description and characterisation must nearly always give way before the electric pace of the narrative.

“I think he’s absolutely right,” says Tan. “The stories are a bit like the shadows in Plato’s cave. They’re two-dimensional and flat: it’s a witch, it’s a boy, it’s a prince, it’s a princess. But I like the challenge of illustrating a text that kind of says, ‘Do not illustrate me’. I realised I couldn’t use my traditional illusionistic representational style; it would have to be something stylised but also extremely simple, something that wouldn’t interfere.”

That led him in turn to the medium of papier-mâché sculpture, to which, encouraged by his father, he had devoted himself as a child. Orange-sized figures moulded from mulched-up newspaper and tapioca glue would be left out to harden in the Australian sun, taking accidental forms that Tan then overlaid with DAS, a kind of air-drying polymer clay.

Considered together, what is most striking about Tan’s sculptures is just how emphatically they resolve the tension between the national and the universal that runs through the Grimms’ corpus, and through folk tales more generally. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, linguistic scholars whose early-19th-century efforts to capture the folklore of their homeland were underlaid by a yearning for German unification, would discard stories they deemed too “foreign”.

The irony is that no other folklore collection would become more truly globalised, first through the work of illustrators such as George Cruikshank, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, and later by the powerful but sentimentalising imagination of the Walt Disney Company. There is a sense in which Tan’s sculptures complete the process, removing the tales not just from Germany but also from Europe and its gothic, romanticised medieval past.

His models were drawn from Inuit and pre-Columbian art — perhaps an unexpected choice but one that captures the antic quality bubbling through many of the stories. Tan recalls a visit he made to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City to see Aztec, Mayan and Inca sculptures. “They look like they were just made yesterday,” he says. “I mean, they’re really old and they’re from a culture that we don’t understand, but they communicate so much life and humour.”

Does Tan have a problem with the cruelty of the Grimms’ tales? “Yes, I do — but it’s a problem that I like,” he says. He retells the story of “Mother Trudy”, in which a disobedient girl is warned by her parents to stay away from the strange old woman who lives down the street. Instead, she peers through the woman’s window, sees a demon with a fiery head and knocks on the door of the cottage to ask about it. Then the woman cackles, turns the girl into a block of wood and throws her on the fire. “What moral can you draw from that?” says Tan. “Don’t think independently? Just be obedient to your parents and listen to what they say?”

‘The Meeting on the Hill’, from ‘The Rabbits’
‘The Meeting on the Hill’, from ‘The Rabbits’, an allegorical fable about colonisation, 1998

Some of the cruelty is unexpected. “Take ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, in which a terrifying wolf comes and devours these baby goats,” he says. “The youngest survives, tells her mother, and then they wait for the wolf to fall asleep, cut open its stomach, free all the siblings and fill the stomach full of stones. Then in various versions of the story the wolf just dies or falls down a well. And that’s all well and good, but I’m disturbed by the dancing for joy at the end. It reeks of taking pleasure in a public execution, when actually nothing good has happened — there’s no cause to dance for joy. And the wolf was just doing what wolves do.”

It is tempting to trace the displaced figures who populate Tan’s work back to his upbringing in a family of mixed ancestry in a predominantly Anglo-Australian neighbourhood. As a child, he was conscious of prejudice towards his ethnically Chinese father, an architect who emigrated from Malaysia at the age of 22. “My mother was always being asked whether we were adopted, and I was always being asked at school ‘Where do you come from?’, to which I could only offer a very unsatisfactory answer: ‘Here’,” Tan says. “There was a lot of anti-Asian racism in Australia during the 1980s, which is hard to imagine now — firebombing Chinese restaurants and the like.”

‘Darkness Overcomes You’, from ‘The Red Tree’
‘Darkness Overcomes You’, from ‘The Red Tree’

Yet he gives more weight to living in Hillarys, a far-flung coastal suburb of Perth — “not quite as bland as the pastel suburbia of Edward Scissorhands but not too far from it either”. Now more urban but then very much on the city’s periphery, Hillarys supplies the atmosphere that pervades two of Tan’s more recent books, Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) and Rules of Summer (2013). The feeling they convey is one of nature pushed back unceremoniously but incompletely; of freeways and cul-de-sacs freshly bulldozed from a bush that “rolled and twisted like an unmade bed”. (Tim Winton, the novelist whose line this is, spent his boyhood in nearby Karrinyup, and was read voraciously by Tan when he was a teenager.)

After graduating from the University of ­Western Australia in 1995 with a degree in literature and fine art, Tan set about establishing himself as a commercial illustrator. “From the outset I was always keen to solve some financial problems in a minimal way, to cover my rent with other freelance work, which would then allow me to meander and dither when it came to my own projects,” he says.

“The books, I do for myself, and this was always very clearly demarcated in my mind, particularly as my early advances and royalties were dismal. If I’d wanted to make a lot of money doing picture books, I wouldn’t have made them so odd for a start, and maybe I’d have pitched towards younger audiences.”

An illustration from the story ‘Stick Figures’
An illustration from the story ‘Stick Figures’ in ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’, 2008

It feels as if there is a Grimm-like moral in the fact that success came relatively quickly: industry and an eye for the bottom line kept the wolves at bay, while the huge amounts of time and intellectual energy lavished on The Rabbits, The Lost Thing and The Red Tree ensured that all three would win prizes and critical acclaim.

The key, perhaps, is a certain detachment: Tan’s books are political but not polemical, and the reader never feels lectured. “I’m quite fond of illustrating stories with an ideology I don’t agree with, or illustrating parts of history that offend me slightly — and doing that almost impassively, without adding judgment,” he says. “I try to divest my work of those attachments.” With The Arrival, for example, he approached the charged issue of immigration by focusing on the human detail. “The path I chose was just to tell a story of settlement. It’s quite an intimate book — I was interested in the problems of getting something to eat, getting a job, these sorts of things.” The fantasy followed from that premise: “We need to be confused and perplexed, and we need things to look like things we know but be very different — like animals and trees and systems for getting a bus ticket and so on.”

I wonder whether he sees The Arrival as particularly relevant now, as nationalism stirs across the west and political debate in many countries becomes fixated on the figure of the migrant. “It’s always been an issue,” says Tan. “People always comment that The Arrival is timely, and that’s true. But in varying degrees it never stops being timely. I was thinking about this book in 2000, and at that time it was timely, and when it was published it was timely, and when it came out in the UK and in other countries, everyone said, ‘This is so timely’. And you can bet that in another five years it’ll be really timely again — something else is going to happen.”

A conceptual drawing for the animated film ‘The Lost Thing’, 2010
A conceptual drawing for the animated film ‘The Lost Thing’, 2010

This is not the approach we tend to see in news stories on the treatment of Syrians arriving in Europe or, closer to home for Tan, the conditions in Australia’s own offshore detention centres. “I don’t think I have satisfactorily tackled in any way much of the real refugee crisis issue,” says Tan. “If I was going to expand The Arrival greatly, I would include some of the cultural resistances rather than just the day-to-day resistances — you know, racism, rejection, real and imagined divisions in society. At the core of this is that it’s a book about people . . . The word ‘refugee’ is such a clustering term — you forget that everybody’s an individual. They might have a common problem but the way they experience it is highly individual and deeply personal.”

Tan recognises that this is a precarious moment but also believes that, when it comes to immigration and multiculturalism, we have to take the long view. “If we’ve got one thing that defines us as a species, it’s our ability to relocate,” he says. “There’s not a single person alive who doesn’t have a migrant ancestor — the story of people is the story of movement. And that outlasts all politics, religion, everything.”

Tan lives today in Melbourne, where he moved in 2006 with his wife Inari Kiuru, an artist and designer. They have a three-year-old daughter, Vida, and also share their house with a Brazilian Sun Conure parrot named Diego — the chief model for the fantastical creature on the cover of The Arrival.

When not juggling childcare with his wife, Tan tries to divide his time equally between painting and working on book projects — commercial illustration being more optional since the international success of his books. Asked about his current projects, he mentions a film adaptation of The Arrival, now in the early stages of pre-production script development. It is a medium that Tan enjoys — “as close an approximation to collective dreaming as you could hope for”, he says — but he struggles with some of the constraints. “Books have more time to prove what they are. I enjoy making a ton of cheap mistakes, wasting my own time and patience, and also abandoning projects or radically revising them based on creative need alone.”

Tan talks fluently about his work and, unlike many writers and artists, seems happy to demystify it, tracing ideas back to their source and letting his readers listen in to the slow, patient dialogue of intelligence and imagination through which they are realised on the page. Could this be, in part, a response to the relative critical silence that confronts an artist working a medium in an unfamiliar way? In Tan’s case there is the assumption, most obviously, that his books are only for children. But the second, less obvious problem, I think, is that we lack a critical language with which to make sense of art that involves both image and narrative, and often reach for categories that apply more to one than the other.

An example is the use of “surrealism”, which, though it well describes many of Tan’s paintings and illustrations, seems to obscure more than it illuminates when applied to his books. “Magical realism” — a term coined in the 1920s by a German art critic, though these days more associated with fiction — is perhaps more fitting here. If, as the novelist Gabriel García Márquez put it in his 1982 Nobel acceptance speech, the challenge for Latin American literature was to describe an “outsized” reality, then might it make sense to see Tan as engaged in an Australian version of the same project, following writers such as Winton and Peter Carey?

“Carey and Winton are certainly big influences on my own work,” says Tan, “and yes, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to ­introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”

Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the ­collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.”

He reflects on the popularity of his work in Latin America, where readers never seem to talk about the books as weird, absurdist or surreal. “Maybe they are [read as] just realistic over there! That would be the ultimate compliment for someone to say so, that my stories are simply realistic.”

The Singing Bones’ by Shaun Tan is published by Walker Books on September 1 (£19.99).

Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor

Portrait by Lewis Khan

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