More than a decade after his bestselling picture book The Arrival was published, Shaun 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' tasks, 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; he doesn't make enough to afford rent and lives in a sliver of "office wall space"; and he's bullied, harassed, even kicked to the ground by colleagues.
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, Tan 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. Shadows and darkness loom across every visually remarkable page. Unsettling and haunting, Cicada is a cautionary tale that unmasks a society that's carelessly complicit, easily arrogant and, alas, disturbingly real. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon