‘The Waiting’ is a flawless depiction of the separations caused by war


South Korean comic book artist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim really started to think about who she was while studying art in France in the early 2000s, and hers.

Waiting, his last work since Grass – a critically acclaimed 2019 graphic novel about the plight of a Korean woman forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II – continues Gendry-Kim’s unflinching portrayal of displacement caused by war, the migration and prejudice.

It was during these years abroad that Gendry-Kim learned that his mother had a sister who could have lived in Pyongyang, North Korea. Before the Korean War, her mother’s family had made a trip north from their home in Jeolla Province, South Korea, stopping in Pyongyang en route. Her mother and the rest of the family then returned to the south, but her aunt somehow remained in the north. Before his mother’s revelation, Gendry-Kim was unaware that this separation was part of his family history.

Waiting, although inspired by the author’s family account and two other historical documents, is constructed as fictionalized by describing the story of Gwija, a North Korean woman who is estranged from her family as she walks towards the south during the war with a group of refugees. After briefly leaving the group to breastfeed her little girl, she loses sight of her husband and her three-year-old son, never to see them again.

Since the chances of a real reunion between long-estranged family members are infinitesimal – those chosen by the annual government lottery represent only 1.5% of the total number of registrants – Waiting reveals, through fierce brushstrokes that often seem to explode from its frames, the desire and resentment suffered by those whose lives have been held hostage in the past. Arriving in Busan, South Korea, Gwija ends up marrying another refugee also deprived of a family, but for a young son who reminds her of her lost son. Years later, she recklessly tells the girl born of this second union that her southern marriage – despite her mutual sustenance – is simply a timely arrangement, from which each partner can freely come out as they reunite with their original family.

As if to correct this forgetting of the present – which over time has become Gwija’s permanent choice unlike his distant past – Gendry-Kim adopts a non-linear approach that is both radical and naturalistic, to illustrate what happens in everyday life. of his protagonist when his other life is put on hold. While fully recognizing the plight of biological family members separated along the North-South border during the Korean War, Waiting also celebrates the beauty of family ties forged to alleviate the destructive forces of history.

While fully recognizing the plight of biological family members separated along the North-South border during the Korean War, “The Waiting” also celebrates the beauty of family ties forged to alleviate the destructive forces of history.

Specifically, Gendry-Kim’s graphic narrative depicts Elder Gwija’s daily movements – from preparing her midday meal to putting on her shoes – as rituals that seem both meticulous and impressionistic, the sequential frames both relaxed and accelerated by the idea of ​​advancing in age. At the same time, by modulating the narrative sequence, the author also affirms the resilient link, sometimes unrecognized, between Gwija and her independent younger sister. A bittersweet account of an elderly neighbor’s meeting with her long-lost sister from North Korea is punctuated by several pages of black, before opening up to the lush, textured foliage of Jeju Island below. -relief on a white space, where Gwija and her daughter happily embark on a vacation excursion.

Nonetheless, Gwija’s life – even before the Korean War – has already been framed by norms of male ancestry. Waiting, in a sense, also represents the painful slowness of achieving gender equality in Korean society. Gendry-Kim’s former dislocation became a catalyst for her artistic endeavor: “Because I am a woman and grew up watching my mother and sisters face gender discrimination in a patriarchal society.” , I feel determined to tell women-centered stories. , she said in a recent interview. Waiting Vividly captures Gwija’s chronic deprivation – how she is not allowed to go to school like her male siblings, how she and her mother often have to eat bony fish heads while her father and other male family members get the best bits, how her son’s longing and transferred affection for his stepson keep him from genuinely appreciating both the daughter from his first marriage and the one born of his union “Improvised”.

Janet Hong, the English translator for Gendry-Kim, admits that she similarly gravitates “to stories about broken and imperfect people … the neglected, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.” The author and translator understand the power of images in the comic book medium, how serious topics – how war and patriarchy leads to the endless exile of vulnerable people – can be made accessible to a wide audience. and serve as effective instruments for change. And while words presumably play a secondary role to images in a graphic novel, their “silence”, crafted by an insightful translator in tune with the artist’s powerful visual representation, cuts deeply.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweet @ThuyTBDinh.

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