Review: “The Waiting”, graphic novel by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
On the bookshelf
By 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 catch-all, a way of describing any long comic book. It is not without a certain logic in a form where even a so-called “true story” comes filtered through the eye of its creator, in images as in words.
I think of “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, who tells the story of the Holocaust; the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. Or Joe Sacco’s graphic war report, which juxtaposes portraits and large-format panoramas to evoke the effects of armed conflict through a lens that is both personal and collective. In each one, we are in the realm of interpretation – neither documentary, exactly, nor fiction. It is the tension inherent in a style of storytelling that develops through a series of sequential drawings.
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s second book, “Waiting, ”Provides a convincing example; it is a graphic fiction with a lively rendering with autobiographical roots. The story of a South Korean mother and daughter takes place in today’s Seoul and also in the crucible of memory. The mother, Gwija, lived through decades of upheaval, beginning during the days of Japanese colonial rule and continuing through the Korean War. Her daughter, Jina, is an artist and writer who, at the beginning of the novel, was told she had to leave the rental apartment she calls home.
“I loved the city,” Jina tells us, on a sign that depicts a cozy streetscape. “I didn’t want to leave. I loved having a cafe, restaurant, supermarket, and laundromat outside my door. This is the kind of desire that all of us know. The problem – all too common in Seoul, as elsewhere – is that although some of Jina’s writings have been successful, “even at this age, I still don’t own a house.” In this sense, she is representative of the contemporary creative class: an accomplished practitioner who reckons with the economic instability that so often accompanies a life in the arts.
Not only that: She must be thinking of her aging mother.
Gwija, however, doesn’t think she needs care; in his mind, it’s the other way around. “My youngest lives next door,” she said to a neighbor. “She likes lettuce kimchi, so I was going to drop some.”
The exchange offers a subtle insight into the mother-daughter relationship as a more than devoted symbiotic. It’s also complicated by an unfulfillable promise Jina once made to her mother: “to find her eldest son.”
As “The Waiting” progresses, we learn that it may be impossible; Gwija was separated from her young son, Sang-Il, and her first husband as they fled communist forces south in 1950 at the start of the war. The circumstance echoes that of Gendry-Kim’s mother, who lost contact with her older sister at the same time.
“I didn’t know she lived in Pyongyang, North Korea,” Gendry-Kim writes of her mother in an afterword. “… When the Korean War broke out, her sister was the only one who couldn’t get on the train to evacuate the south.
As for the decision to recast history, she writes: “I chose to create this work as fiction rather than fiction because I didn’t want to hurt those who shared their stories so vulnerable with me.
Gendry-Kim not only refers to her mother, but also to two elderly people whom she interviewed about the possibility of reconnecting with relatives at mass family gatherings organized by North Korea and South Korea. His sources feared government reprisals against relatives in the north. At the same time, it also addresses something larger: the question of cultural memory.
“The generation that lived through the Korean War is dying,” she explains, “and with them painful memories are disappearing too. The current generation shows little interest in the reunification of the two Koreas. They reject the pain of separated families because for them the Korean War is too far in the past.
“The Waiting” is therefore a graphic novel as a recovery 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 Gwija, who subtly but forcefully becomes the center of the book. Her experience as a refugee somewhat functions as a backbone for what turns out to be a pair of intertwined narratives: the story of Gwija’s separation from her northern family and the chronicle of her relationship with Jina de nos. days. It is a clever gesture because one cannot exist without the other. If Gwija had not been taken away from her son and her first husband, Jina would never have been born. The situation is reminiscent of Han Kang’s 2016 novel “The White Book,” in which a woman reflects on the older sister who died during childbirth – and in so doing, opened up a place for her in the world.
Gendry-Kim never makes such a point; like so many others here, it exists between the lines. Yet it suggests not only the traumas but also the mutability of history.
“It was not until one day in 1983, when I was in fifth grade, confides Jina at the end of the novel, that I learned that my parents had been separated from their families …” The observation is accompanied by three images, two of which reveal the character as she sits writing, presumably, the sentence we just read.
There is an immediacy, an intimacy, which emerges from these panels, which reveal both memory and artistic creation as a process. Nothing is settled, suggests Gendry-Kim. We only know each other by the bits of information we have been allowed to have. This is as true for Jina, who is slowly erasing layers of her mother’s history, as it is for Gwija, trying to live in the present even though she cannot reconcile (or even uncover) the details of the past. “If we meet,” the mother conjectures in a video prepared for her long-lost offspring, “let’s kiss and dance together. … Until our countries are reunited, be healthy and stay alive.
There is something deeply resonating about the moment, if only in the way he talks about the tenacity of hope. A similar dynamic exists between Jina and Gwija, each of whom lives two parallel timelines at the same time. For Gendry-Kim, this is the point, and the contradiction: The impossibility of life is that, even as we reflect on its paths, real or imagined, we have no choice but to live it. on its own terms. “My luck was never great,” Gwija recalls, although of course like all the characters here she is a survivor. “But I have to see He-Blood before I die.”
Ulin is a former editor and literary critic for The Times.