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[Saturday Reads] Surreal Tales Of Sinuous Organismic Strangenesses – Shaun Tan Style

"Tales From The Inner City" by Shaun Tan.

SaturdayReads

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

I have been meaning to read this book since last year, and am glad to finally get a chance to read it for our current reading theme. While this is not technically about books and literature – Shaun Tan’s masterful storytelling goes beyond genres, classifications, typologies – he simply manages to craft a niche all his own that is unique and that needs to be celebrated as part of storytelling, which is the very essence of our theme.


Tales From The Inner City (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written and Illustrated by Shaun Tan
Published by Arthur A Levine Books (2018)
ISBN: 1338298402 (ISBN13: 9781338298406). Literary Awards: Ditmar Award Nominee for Best Collected Work (2019), Aurealis Award for Collection and Graphic Novel / Illustrated Work (2018). Borrowed from Zayed Central Library. Book photos taken by me.

I have fallen deeply in love with Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia (Amazon | Book Depository) – see my review here. Hence, to say that I am looking forward to this sequel of sorts (but not quite) would be an understatement.

The central theme of this collection has to do with humans and animals – their interconnectedness and transmogrifications. One of my favourites includes the story featuring the many lifetimes of dogs and their human companions, their continual births and rebirths, and how they find each other again and again regardless, despite the earth’s evolutions. Then there is the story of the VIP office members turning into frogs, with this unforgettable passage:

As for the frogs, the former members of the board, flailing against the slippery tabletop as they stretched out brand new legs and tongues, tested the lightness of their little triangular hearts, they had never known such overwhelming joy, such release. The universe had not cursed them, it had pardoned them. The secretary picked them up one by one and put them carefully into her handbag.

Each tale, no matter how strange cuts deep into what society ultimately values. It is a thoughtful query on our significations while also breaking down walls of coherence as tired executives transform into frogs, gifted boy turns into kaleidoscopic rhino:

Some of the tales are more intellectually ponderous than others – yet the subtlety and visual metaphors as evidenced through the exquisite art remain alluring. While obscure, the tales never fail to touch one’s affective core, making the reader pause and ask one’s self difficult questions about humanity, purpose, meaning. There is also the intangible pitting of beauty against survival – whether one is justified to capitalize on treasures literally fished out of the skies and slaughtering rarities for a profit:

The fascinating thing about a windfall is not so much the joy of good fortune but the perverse fear of its loss, especially dealing with a jackpot as unfamiliar as this. It hung like a dark pall over everything, again that feeling of tainted joy. The fear, no, the expectation of a monumental screw-up, was never far from the peripheral vision of our optimism.

There is much that can still be said about this collection, but I hope that the quotes and the images above would be enough to entice you to get a copy of yourself. If you want a reflective, illuminated story about humans and their sinuous entanglements with nature and other organisms, and how this is impacted by our definition of humanity and survival, gift yourself this book – you will not regret it.


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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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