Cicada [Amazon | Book Depository]
Written and Illustrated by Shaun Tan
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books (2019, first published 2018)
ISBN: 1338298399 (ISBN13: 9781338298390). Literary Award: Locus Award Nominee for Art Book (2019). Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
Shaun Tan has always had this uncanny ability to surface voices of otherness in an allegorical manner that inspires deep thought, a bit of research on the side, and a sense of wonder encased in a 17 year old molten shell begging to be released.
Told in haiku-like, staccato verse, reminiscent of the telegram-days-of-old (tok tok tok!), this story shows how Cicada was mistreated, undervalued, and overworked in a sterile, unforgiving office environment where he was expected to do his work as a data entry clerk. Cicada usually ends up finishing tasks that humans leave undone without recognition and with zero dignity.
The Human Resources Department sees no need to provide him with any kind of benefits, promotion, nor recognition because he isn’t human after all. People pretended to not know that he lives in the office wall space, turned a blind eye on the mockery and physical violence he encounters on a daily basis, and merely asked him to clean up his desk after seventeen years of service.
Just like all of Shaun Tan’s other books, this one affected me deeply. It reminded me of people who are considered as less than humans, working in spaces where they are merely perceived as another cog in a well-oiled machine, dispensable, ignored. When I researched a bit more about cicadas, I learned that they have an unusual life cycle, remaining burrowed underground for as long as 17 years, until they are ready to become adults and shed their skins and glow and sing.
The poem by Basho included by Shaun Tan in the very last page (very easily missed) is a fitting end to this deeply affecting tale that makes one wonder about one’s own existence. See here a video that I found of a cicada and its lifecycle. Enjoy(?).
#ReadIntl2020 Update: Shaun Tan is a POC from Australia.
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I was particularly haunted by the ending of the book. I could not help but associate Cicada laughing/rejoicing with his reflection on humans’ miserable, hectic, and empathetic lives. To me, the last few portraits in the book were a vivid celebration of Cicada’s victory. Colorful nature eventually triumphs over the concrete, minimalistic maze where he was unappreciated.
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