Representation of Self and Communication in The Arrival

I was very eager to read (examine? look at?) this text, and it was just as thought provoking as I anticipated. Two aspects of the book that I found very interesting was how the main character was presented, and the modes of communication present in the text. I thought that the overall style of the book was very fascinating. While it’s presented in the form of a wordless graphic novel, it definitely does not take on many of the tropes of that form and uses an artistic style that’s somewhat elevated for this medium. Typically, graphic novels use a very cartoony style, and often when the subject matter of that book is more serious, that cartoony-ness is more amplified (like Persepolis, or Palestine, or Maus). However, Tan uses a very realistic style that’s even more detailed—and at times even photo-realistic—when depicting actual people. Typically, these political/historical/memoir-type graphic novels will use a less detailed, cartoony style so that the reader is put into the place of that character. This is, in part, because humans have a natural tendency to personally connect with abstracted representation of humans (to an extent). I think Tan’s purpose in drawing these characters—and specifically the main character—more realistically is in part to respect the story of the protagonist. Thus, it’s almost a more ethical approach to portray the characters as they were so that their personal journey is recognized and told. Additionally, in taking a consistently realistic approach to drawing these characters, Tan is able to make the additional characters more diverse and thus respect the multiplicity of immigrant narratives.

Additionally, I found that the modes of communication in the book were truly fascinating. Leaving this as a wordless graphic novel was such a great approach since so much of new immigration really is an art of communicating without words. Thus, the reader is immersed into the immigrant experience (again, without having to be immersed in the immigrant experience via cartoonish characters). Furthermore, there is also a presumed method of interpreting the panels that is not necessarily implicit in the text. I might be cheating just a little bit because we actually talked about a spread from this particular book in one of my other classes, but there are many instances where the reader doesn’t necessarily have to read the text from left to right—how we read English. Thus, the fluidity of the panels can perhaps connect with the fluidity of communication—and how this fluidity may not always be construction in effectively…well…communicating. When there are no word to set up the parameters of a situation, like in graphic novel without words or in a new immigrant experience, this sort of nebulousness of other modes of communication can often result in miscommunication.

The Arrival Observations

I really enjoyed reading The Arrival, because it put into pictures what immigration can be like in a country. One aspect of this piece that I connected with was the main character’s entrance into the state. The “exams” that the immigrant went through and the line he had to stand in was very reminiscent of Ellis island to me. On Ellis island they had to complete similar “medical exams” in order to be deemed “fit” to enter a country.

Another part of the book that I liked was when the main character met a woman on a transportation ship. Although no words were spoken, I was able to follow her entrance into this country as a refugee. Getting stuck in a labor camp, but being able to flee for refugee status is something that many immigrants yearn to do. Obtaining refugee status can be a difficult process, particularly for immigrants that are already in a country illegally. I like how this book showed the different kinds of immigrants that there are. Through the main character we are able to understand that even though all these immigrants had different stories, they are able to connect in similar ways over the hardships of entering a new society. Immigrants share a common bond, because they understand the struggle of entering and adapting to a new community.

This book is unique because it tells the story of immigration in a way that most people can understand. Even within the novel, the main character initially communicates through pictures. Pictures are universal and through pictures, people from around the world can share stories and feel empathy for one another.


After finishing the novel there are a few things I want to reiterate from discussion last week. I think it’s interesting that the characters throughout the text are never officially identified. Why do we think this is? Also why do we think the text transitions between first and third person? Why do we see an unidentifiable ‘she’ throughout the text as well as read Cha in the first person? Interestingly, there is not any dialogue in the text. What might be the purpose of this? Lastly, one theme I notice is that of language and the silence/speaking binary. On page 75, Cha writes, “One by one./ The sounds. The sounds that move at a time/ stops. Starts again. Exceptions/ stops and starts again/ all but exceptions./ Stop. Start. Starts. / Contractions. Noise. Semblance of noise./ Broken speech. One to one. At a time./ Cracked tongue. Broken tongue./ Pidgeon. Semblance of speech./ Swallows. Inhales. Stutter. Starts. Stops before starts./ About to. Then stops. Exhale/ swallowed to a sudden arrest./ Rest. Without. Can do without rests. Improper/ to rest before begun even. Probation of rest./ Without them all./ Stop start./ Where proper pauses were expected./ But no more.”  These one word sentences resemble a constant pause like in a speech. Why do we think she includes this passage? Clearly language is important to Cha but what about speech is also important? What else can we conclude besides it being a form of power and a way of communication?

Conforming to a Language

Throughout Dictee, a major question I had about the piece relates to the text and form of the narrative. Dictee cannot be easily categorized into a singular genre. Perhaps that is the goal of the text though. The unmarked pictures, broken language of the narrative, and frequent translations could be commenting on the immigrant experience as depicted in the narrative.

The unique language and form used in Dictee reflects the often broken speech experienced when learning a new language.  As Guan Soon mentions in Dictee, “Still, you speak the tongue the mandatory language like the others. It is not your own. Even if it is not you know you must” (45). Language for the narrator is much more than a way to communicate. Immigrants are often forced to learn a new language in order to adapt and survive in a new country. The imposition of the Japanese language onto the people demonstrates the expectation of conformity; it must be understood. The significance of the form of text in Dictee reflects the struggle of language for the characters.

Guan Soon also shows the influence language can have on future generations of immigrants. As her mother is forced to learn another language, there is still some potential resistance. However, as the narrative develops for Guan Soon, the audience gets the impression that the once foreign language imposed on Guan Soon becomes the other language and the native tongue is abandoned. Guan Soon mentions at one point that, “I speak another tongue, a second tongue. This is how distant I am” (85). In Dictee, imperialism stretches far beyond simple land boundaries, but includes language and culture. So, Guan Soon may view language as one of many things she had to change, which create distance from her native country.

Language in Dictee

Cha’s use of language throughout this work was particularly interesting to me. For one, she includes a mixture of poetry and calligraphy various times (I ironically read the characters in Japanese and not Chinese), which also contributed to the discontinuity of the work that made it difficult to follow when I initially tried to read it as one linear piece.

Language is often the most easily identified burden that comes to mind when thinking about immigration or foreign countries, but Cha seems to interpret the idea of language as more than just this outward form of communication. The quotation at the beginning of “Unfaithful to the Original” by Frantz Fanon that states, “ [language] means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization…” explained this idea well. Cha describes language, particularly in pages 45-49, as part of the complex shift in identity that the Korean’s faced when having their own culture taken away from them. On page 45, she writes, “mother tongue is your refuge. It is your home.”This oppression of culture and language that the Koreans faced reminded me of the idea of being an immigrant in your own land that we discussed with George Washington Gomez. Although they are not in Korea, they are in a community of Korean exiles in Manchuria, yet at the same time have Japanese culture being forced upon them. She also includes that while all the teachers are Korean, they speak Japanese even amongst each other, which shows the extent of the marginalization at the time.

Embassytown and Derrida’s Of Hospitality

It is useful to think of language and power as being deeply and complicatedly intertwined in China Mielville’s Embassytown. In the text, language is central to the characters’ identities, as well as the power that comes alongside it. Hosts, while at first appear as the more dominant and/or powerful social class in the text, are also left tremendously vulnerable, as they can only speak “Language” and are highly dependent on the Ambassadors to translate Language into language, so that if need be they can communicate with, and perhaps more importantly control, Terre, or the humans. The Language or language one speaks in the text comes to be a defining factor for the characters both personally and collectively. For example, Avice’s affiliation with being a simile, which is at first almost entirely apathetic or nonexistent, comes to gradually identify with a “simile” or perhaps more widely a “figure of speech” collective. More broadly, as the plot unfolds, we see that the stability of Embassytown as we once knew it breaks down entirely once the Hosts begin to access language and one could argue take it hostage as they appropriate it for lying. Thus, one could argue that the entire social hierarchy and stability of Mielville’s fictional world relies almost exclusively on maintaining this balance of access to language and therefore power.

As I tried to briefly introduce last class, I think it would be a useful exercise to try and map the idea of language and power within the context of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality. Derrida situates the idea of language and foreignness within the paradigm of hospitality. More specifically, he deconstructs the idea of hospitality into the absolute Law of hospitality and the laws of hospitality. To summarize briefly, the Law of hospitality is the absolute ideal form of hospitality, one that makes the Host unconditionally hospitable to the guest. In this ideal state of hospitality there are no laws to which the host/guest relationship is bound. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in order to achieve the Law of Hospitality one must follow the laws, or rules, of hospitality that inevitably govern it, thus rendering the Law of Hospitality ultimately unattainable.

In order to think of the Law of Hospitality in the context of Embassytown, we would be forced to identify the hosts (with a lowercase h) and the guests in the social hierarchy that defines the space. I would argue, and I hope Derrida would agree, that while at first the Hosts would appear to be the hosts (as the colonizers and characters in the positions of power), it is ironically the Terre who possess the power in language and are hosting the Hosts. Derrida states, “The foreigner who, inept at speaking the language, always risks being without defense before the law of the country that welcomes or expels him…He has to ask for hospitality in a language which by definition is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host…This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence. That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term…?” (Derrida, 13). In the context of Embassytown, we should ask ourselves who is really “imposing language” and therefore inhabiting the role of the host? In the text Scile posits to Avice, “We’ve always known the Hosts need you, right? You and the rest of you” (Pg. 141). It would be interesting to try and work out how this power dynamic plays out against the backdrop of Derrida’s Law/laws of hospitality. Could the Law of hospitality ever be achieved in Embassytown and how? Perhaps the breakdown of Embassytown’s social structure can be attributed to a breach in the laws of hospitality on the part of the Hosts? On the part of the humans? Furthermore, we could think of Embassytown as being a space inhabited by locals and foreigners. How does language define who is a local and who is a foreigner? And how does possessiveness (either necessarily or unnecessarily) over these titles prevent the possibility for absolute Hospitality?