GLFCAM — Following the Interspecies Gaze in Shaun Tan’s Illustrated Stories

I think the idea of telling a story with images alone reminded me of the challenge that composers face when writing instrumental music: how can we weave a narrative without words?

Written By

Timothy Peterson

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Shaun Tan’s work. Back in 2015, I was enrolled in an undergraduate seminar on migrant literature, and one of the texts on the course syllabus was his wordless graphic novel, The Arrival (2006). This genre was new to me, and I found myself spellbound by Tan’s illustrations, which paint the story of a father’s immigration to an imaginary metropolis. On some level, I think the idea of telling a story with images alone reminded me of the challenge that composers face when writing instrumental music: how can we weave a narrative without words? Sure, certain images can conjure up specific ideas more easily than sound, but they still leave plenty for the viewer’s imagination to fill in. And here lies, for me, one facet of Tan’s artistry: he always incorporates an element of mystery into his graphic novels; even those that do feature text. You sense that there is a message in them somewhere, but it may not make itself immediately known; rather, it waits patiently for you. Since reading The Arrival, I’ve delighted in Tan’s other works, including Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), Tales from the Inner City (2008), Lost & Found (2011), and Rules of Summer(2013). His stories have made me laugh and cry and never fail to leave me in a state of awe and reflection.

Beyond this visceral response, I’m drawn to the environmental themes that pervade much of Tan’s work. In Tales from the Inner City, he stages a series of unusual encounters between humans and animals in urban environments. Many of the tales in this collection illustrate the hubris, egocentrism, and shortsightedness that so often define our interactions with other creatures and the natural world at large. Others, however, open a window into the wondrous possibilities that might transpire if we were to find the humility and wisdom to revere and learn from other animals. When GLFCAM commissioned me last year to compose a song cycle for Mexican countertenor César Aguilar as part of its Composing Earth initiative, I sensed that I would be revisiting Tales from the Inner City for inspiration.

Throughout 2021, I joined other GLFCAM composers, Gabriela, and climate scientist Rob Davies in monthly discussion groups about the climate crisis. Our conversations centered on a series of books, articles, and documentaries that GLFCAM and Dr. Davies curated to catalyze our climate education. One hard truth that we discussed is the fact that anthropogenic climate change has ushered in a period of mass extinction: every year, one-in-a-million species should expire naturally, yet the current rate of extinction – accelerated by such factors as human population growth, meat production, and deforestation – is estimated to be 100-1,000 times greater. In response to this tragic development, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore began documenting at-risk species with magnetic (yet unadorned) portraits as part of the Photo Ark project. Nat Geo writes, “No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of affection and respect. The results are portraits that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving.” Sartore adds, “It’s the eye contact that moves people. It engages feelings of compassion and a desire to help.”

Tan’s Tales from the Inner City and Sartore’s Photo Ark both raise for me the notion of the interspecies gaze. What do intimate encounters with other animals engender in us? Empathy? Disgust? Something more uncanny? How does the setting of these encounters affect our response? These are some of the questions that led me back to Tan’s stories as I researched text to musically set for my Composing Earth commission, which is set to premiere in the fall of 2023. With GLFCAM’s assistance, I was thrilled to secure Tan’s permission this past spring to feature three of his stories in my song cycle. I’d like to share with you my reflections on these inspiring texts, each of which will comprise a different movement of my cycle.

“Orca” is a tale about an urban community that magically suspends a whale from the sky. “It was just so beautiful up there, so inspiring,” recalls the narrator wistfully. At first spellbinding, the sight of the orca gliding across the city’s illuminated night sky loses its charm as people find themselves unable to tune out the heartbreaking, resonant calls of the whale’s mother, which “penetrated all concrete, steel, and urban clamor.” The city dwellers feel ashamed of themselves and promise to return the whale to its mother, but their remorseful vows prove hollow: “We just don’t know how to get it down. We never did.” Musically, I find inspiration in this story’s heights-versus-depths imagery and evocation of different timbres (e.g. underwater sounds, mechanical sounds). At its core, I feel that “Orca” reflects three problematic ways in which humans relate to the natural world. First, how we all too frequently fail to consider the environmental impact of our actions. Second, when we do become aware of our impact–often only after the signs, like the orca’s mother, wail at us–the promises that we make to right our environmental wrongs tend to lie dormant, regardless of our intentions. Finally, “Orca” speaks to many people’s perception of animals as creatures that exist for our own pleasure. This human tendency, as Tan suggests in “Orca,” can instill in us a feeling of delight in the natural world, but this feeling does not necessarily translate into the reverence and respect for nature that might otherwise lead us to more sustainable ways of interfacing with our environment.

In “Butterfly,” a massive, rainbow swarm of butterflies (also known, more poetically, as a “kaleidoscope”) descends upon a city. Enchanted by this wondrous event, everyone stops what they are doing and gathers in the streets to “[wait] for the weightless blessing of tiny insects.” People’s worries fly away. Time seems to stop. (I’ll note here that this evocation of flight, lightness, and stillness lends itself beautifully to music.) Later, once the butterflies depart, people revert to their “factory settings,” desperately searching for reasons why the butterflies came in the first place and what their visit meant (“Was this an omen of something good or bad? A plague?”). At the risk of beating meaning out of a story that warns against “prying things apart for cause and effect, sign and symbol,” I feel that “Butterfly” speaks to certain obstacles that we face as we confront the climate crisis. First, our routine lifestyles–reliant on fossil-fueled energy and embedded in an unsustainable and inequitable profit-driven economy–no longer serve us or the planet on which we all ultimately depend for our survival. In Tan’s story, the kaleidoscope of butterflies snaps everyone out of their routines; they only succumb to their habitual worrying, intellectualizing, and problematizing in the butterflies’ absence. Though these mental tendencies (engrained in so many of us as we grow up) often go hand-in-hand with critical thinking (a tool that we desperately need in order to face the climate crisis), they can also lead to paralysis and inaction. We’re known to think more creatively when we’re playful, curious, and fully present, and Tan’s butterflies invite us into this mindset.

In “Snail,” a tale that will serve as the final movement of my song cycle, the narrator recalls the arrival of gigantic snails in an unnamed city and the outrage that they initially provoked. When night falls, the snails make love in plain sight in the city’s streets and alleyways. (Snails, I learned, are hermaphroditic creatures with an elaborate and languorous mating ceremony; in the narrator’s words, “the slowest of slow dances…”) All corners of society – politicians, religious leaders, naturalists – used to cry out against this open, uncouth display of affection, yet a century later, at the time of this story’s telling, everyone has grown to cherish the snails: “We would be so sad if they ever went away, leaving us all alone with our small ideas about love.” I read “Snail” as a satire on our practice of imposing human mores (e.g. notions of sexual normativity, productivity, public vs. private property) on other species. “Snail” also invites reflection on the rate of societal change: how long does it take for dominant cultural attitudes to shift? When we consider the climate crisis and the cultural (r)evolution that it requires of us, we cannot afford to wait the century that it takes the humans in “Snail” to coexist with their mollusk neighbors and absorb their lessons. If, however, we relinquish our knee-jerk hostility to lifestyles that differ from our own, our future on this planet promises to shine much brighter.