Friday, November 26, 2021

Review: graphic novel by Keum Suk Gendri-Kim “Waiting”

On the shelf


Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated by Janet Hong
Drawn and Quarterly: 248 pages, $ 25.

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The term “graphic novel” has long been a universal way to describe any lengthy comic strip. This is not devoid of a certain logic in the form, when even the so-called “true story” is filtered through the eyes of its creator both in images and in words.

I think of Art Spiegelman’s Mouse, which tells the story of the Holocaust; Jews are portrayed as mice, and Nazis as cats. Or Joe Sacco’s graphic reporting on war, which combines portraiture with widescreen panoramas to bring about the effects of armed conflict through both personal and collective lenses. In each of them we are in the sphere of interpretation – neither documentary, nor precise, nor artistic. It is the inner tension of a storytelling style that develops through a series of sequential drawings.

Keum Suk Gendri-Kim’s second book, Expectation, offers a compelling example; it is a brightly designed graphic fiction rooted in autobiography. The story of a mother and daughter from South Korea is set in modern-day Seoul, as well as in the crucible of memory. His mother, Gwija, went through decades of turmoil, from the era of Japanese colonial rule to the Korean War. Her daughter Gina is an artist and writer who was told at the beginning of the novel that she must leave the rented apartment she calls home.

“I loved the city,” Gina tells us over a panel depicting a cozy cityscape. “I didn’t want to leave. I loved having a cafe, diner, supermarket and laundry outside the door. ” This is an aspiration that any of us can know. The problem – all too common in Seoul as elsewhere – is that while some of Gina’s works have been successful, “even at this age, I still don’t have a home.” In this sense, she is a representative of the modern creative class: a seasoned practitioner dealing with the economic instability that so often accompanies life in the arts.

Not only this: She needs to think about her aging mother.

Gwijja, however, doesn’t think she needs to be taken care of; in her opinion, the opposite is true. “My youngest lives right around this corner,” she tells a neighbor. “She likes the kimchi from the salad, so I was going to keep a little.”

The exchange allows the mother-daughter relationship to be seen as more symbiotic than binding. It is also compounded by an unfulfilled promise that Gina once made to her mother: “find her oldest son.”

As Expectation develops, we learn that this may not be possible; Gwija was separated from her young son Sang-Il and her first husband when they fled south from the communist forces in 1950 at the start of the war. The circumstances echo the situation of Gendri-Kim’s mother, who at the same time lost touch with her older sister.

“I had no idea she was living in Pyongyang, North Korea,” Gendri-Kim writes of his mother in the afterword. “… When the Korean War broke out, her sister was the only one who could not board the train to evacuate south.”

As for the decision to remake the story, she writes: “I chose to create this work as artistic rather than scientific, because I did not want to hurt those who shared their stories with me so vulnerable.”

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Gendri-Kim is referring not only to her mother, but also to the two elders she spoke to about reuniting with relatives at massive family gatherings organized by North and South Korea. Her sources feared government retaliation against their loved ones in the North. At the same time, she also addresses something larger: the problem of cultural memory.

“The generation that survived the Korean War is dying,” she explains, “and painful memories disappear with them. The current generation has little interest in the reunification of the two Koreas. They are oblivious to the pain of separated families because the Korean War is too far in the past for them. “

Thus, “Waiting” is a graphic novel as a reclamation project, an attempt to preserve, before it is too late, not so much a documentary story as an emotional one.

At the heart of the process is Gwijja, who imperceptibly but persistently becomes the center of the book. Her experience as a refugee acts as a kind of spine to what turns out to be a pair of intertwined narratives: the story of Gwiji’s separation from her northern family, and a chronicle of her relationship with Gina today. This is a clever move, because one cannot exist without the other. If Gwija had not been expelled from under her son and first husband, Gina would never have been born. The situation is reminiscent of Han Kang’s 2016 White Paper, in which a woman reflects on her older sister who died in childbirth, thereby making room for her in the world.

Gendri-Kim never makes this explicit; as here, it exists between the lines. However, this implies not only trauma, but also the volatility of history.

“Only once in 1983, when I was in fifth grade,” Gina admits at the end of the novel, “I learned that my parents were separated from their families …” The observation is accompanied by three images, two of which. which show that the character is sitting and writing, presumably the sentence we just read.

From these panels spontaneity, intimacy emerges, revealing both memory and creativity as processes. Nothing fixed, Gendri-Kim suggests. We only recognize ourselves by the bits of information we are allowed to have. This is just as true for Gina, slowly peeling away the layers of her mother’s story, and for Gwiji trying to live in the present, even if she cannot reconcile (or even uncover) the loose ends of the past. “If we meet,” the mother suggests in a video prepared for her long-lost offspring, “let’s hug and dance together. … Until our countries unite, be healthy and stay alive. “

There is something deeply resonating about this moment, if only in the way he talks about the endurance of hope. A similar dynamic exists between Gina and Gwija, each of whom lives on two parallel timelines at once. For Gendri-Kim, this is the essence and the contradiction: the impossibility of life lies in the fact that even when we reflect on its ways, real or imagined, we have no other choice but to live according to its own conditions. “My luck has never been great,” muses Gwija, although of course, like all the characters here, she survived. “But I must see Sang-Ila before I die.”

Ulin is a former editor and book critic for The Times.

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