Cicada by Shaun Tan [in Shelf Awareness]
In 2011, author/artist/filmmaker Shaun Tan won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and received an Oscar for the animated adaptation of his book The Lost Thing. What initially brought him to international acclaim was the publication of The Arrival in 2006 (2007 in the U.S.). A wordless, heart-pulling, graphically extraordinary chronicle of an immigration experience – loss, estrangement, tenacity, hope – that could happen anywhere in the world, The Arrival continues to resonate as borders shift, governments collapse, and scattered populations seek sanctuary.
More than a decade later, Tan returns to the immigrant experience with Cicada, a darker, sobering story that highlights the all-too-familiar treatment of seemingly expendable, undervalued foreign workers. His antihero is a short, squat green cicada for whom English is clearly not a first language. His gray suit can’t disguise his differences in a gray office filled with similarly gray-suited men (and perhaps one woman). He’s been a data entry clerk without a single sick day, making no mistakes, staying late to finish his co-workers’ incomplete work, and yet 17 years have passed without a promotion. He’s been labeled “not human” by the human resources department, which means he’s banned from using the company bathroom (“Human resources say cicada not human. Need no resources. Tok Tok Tok!”). He doesn’t make enough to afford rent and lives in a sliver of “office wall space.” He’s bullied, harassed, even kicked to the ground by colleagues who attack without reason.
And then Cicada finally retires: “No party. No handshake. Boss say clean desk. Tok Tok Tok!” He abandons his cubicle with nothing to show for his loyal efforts: “No work. No home. No money.” Alone, he climbs the building’s stairs: “Cicada go to top of tall building. Time to say goodbye. Tok Tok Tok!” But even as all hope appears to be lost, Tan delivers an unexpected zinger of a high-flying ending.
In this modern parable for the plight of necessary-yet-unwelcomed foreign workers worldwide, Tan explicitly exposes their diminished status. That he chooses to present his protagonist as a language-challenged, alien-eyed insect with a hard outer shell and multiple, multi-tasking arms speaks volumes. His human characters don’t fare well, as he effectively erases their humanity: he reveals no faces, just torsos that walk by, backs turned to avoid eye contact, arms crossed in looming impatience, pant-legs that end in heavy black shoes used to hold down someone else. Shadows and darkness loom across every visually remarkable page. Each text section ends with “Tok Tok Tok!” – as the proverbial clock never stops ticking, but perhaps also serving as a homonymic reference that “Talk Talk Talk!” is not nearly enough. Unsettling and haunting, Cicada is a cautionary tale that unmasks a society that’s carelessly complicit, easily arrogant and, alas, disturbingly real.
Shelf Talker: Meaningfully multi-layered for readers of any age, Shaun Tan’s graphically wondrous Cicada proves to be a warning companion to bestselling The Arrival about the plight of expendable foreign workers.
Readers: Children, Middle Grade, Young Adult
Published: 2018 (Australia), 2019 (United States)