For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
May 22, 2008 - We are all Immigrants
I want to tell you about a magical book. It's a book that tells several stories at once, filled with tragedy and humor and love. It does this utterly without words.
The book is called The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It is, technically, a "graphic novel" -- a sort of hardbound comic book.
The cover looks like a worn leather folio, with a drawing of a man encountering some kind of bizarre animal. Just inside the covers is another arresting image: 60 faces, of every ethnicity.
The story begins in what I think of as "the old country." A man is packing up a photograph of his small family. Soon, we see them all walking through the city. Around them there are shadows: the tails of dragons, snaking through the gray streets.
The man boards a train, pulling away from the fingers of his wife and daughter.
Soon he is on a ship, along with many other emigrants. For several pages, we see nothing but clouds. Finally, he arrives to a country that is utterly bewildering. There is a big harbor, with statues in the water. There is an enormous hall.
The man is examined. Strangers look in his mouth, in his ears (with an odd instrument, something like a protractor). He collects stamps with mysterious symbols on them. Eventually, he is issued what may be a passport.
Next, the man tries to find his way in this utterly strange place. He looks for lodging. He encounters peculiar animals (like the one on the cover) -- first threatening, then increasingly familiar and friendly. He seeks work. He shops for food -- and nothing looks like anything he has seen before.
Along the way, he meets others, asking for help through pictures he draws in his notebook. And he hears their stories: of lands they too fled, where there were faceless giants who vacuumed people right up into the sky, of guards who seized books and imprisoned young girls, of the utter devastation of war.
There are moments of play and warmth; he meets another young family and they treat him to a meal at their home.
One day, he sends an envelope back to his own family, with money in it. Seasons pass, told in a kind of time lapse photography. And at last, his family arrives!
In the last few pages, we see the man's young daughter wandering, enchanted, through the new land. Finally, she meets another new arrival, and points the way, smiling.
The artist, in an afterword, thanks many people for the four years of research it took to produce "The Arrival." He writes, "Much of this book was inspired by anecdotal stories told by migrants of many different countries and historical periods, including my father who came to Western Australia from Malaysia in 1960." The drawings of the great hall were based on photographs taken at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.
What makes this book so powerful? It has the altogether remarkable ability to capture the deep experience of the immigrant.
As you "read" the book, you know that you're literate, as the man is literate in his own language. But you can't make any sense of the symbols in the new land. You're as confused and thrilled as he is.
To convey a host of disparate stories with great insight and tenderness, but without a single recognizable word, is an act of genius.
What makes the story universal is that quite aside from which nation you came from, or which nation you wound up in, all of us travel from one inner state to another. All of us risk much, lose much, and learn much. Ultimately, we all depend on each other for attention, for compassion, and for help.
"The Arrival" is available from the Douglas County Libraries.
LaRue's Views are his own.