Graphic/Illustrated · Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

Palimpsest

Alright, this is one of those times when I should have bookmarked the post where I first (and only) saw a review of this graphic novel, because I would love to credit the single reader/bookstagrammer who put it on my radar. Truly, I’ve only ever seen it once. But the review was enough to get me to add it to my TBR and, although it’s been months (at least) since then, I finally grabbed it from my library to read. So, for lack of a better option, let me just send my thanks to that mystery reviewer out into the universe and hope it finds its way.

Palimpsest by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

“In Sweden I’m at home, but I feel like a stranger. In Korea I’m a stranger, but feel at home.”

Palimpsest is a graphic novel memoir (a genre that I am fast deciding I’m into, thanks to Good Talk and Persepolis). The author and artist, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, is a transnational adoptee, a Korean child sent to Sweden/a Swedish family. This graphic novel documents her search for her birth parents and the details of her adoption. After trying once to find out more as an adolescent, and being told there was no information they could provide, she spent a few years dealing with serious mental health crises and fallout. Although that feelings of loneliness and disconnection never went away, Sjöblom found a partner and had two children of her own. Having her own children sparked a renewed effort into the search for more information about the circumstances of her adoption, as well as her birth parents. Now as an adult, supported by her partner, close friends, and a community of other Korean adoptees searching for their own histories, she embarks on a more focused and resourced attempt to find out her own story.

Well, I want to, again, thank whoever put this on my radar. This is, quite honestly, the first piece of literature of any kind that I have read from this perspective of a transracial and/or transnational adoptee. And it was an eye-opening, infuriating and wholly difficult perspective to read about. So, I cannot even begin to imagine the many traumas of living it. My heart goes out to every adoptee, transnational and transracial and otherwise, who has, as Sjöblom makes so abundantly clear in a way I’m embarrassed to never have considered before, had their voice silenced and their questioning and frustration and heartbrokenness and loss and anger diminished or gaslighted into nonexistence. I’d never really considered the potential harm in the popular narrative that adoption is a solely positive thing, providing a home and a family for a child that needs one, without considering the possible costs that come with that, like the breaking of the original family (however that may have happened or, as we learn in this graphic novel, was forced into being) or, in transnational/racial situations, the loss of culture that accompanies it. There is just that common outlook that thinking that way is ungrateful, which is unfair and unreasonable on so many levels, not to mention that having to suppress all those natural reactions/feelings can just compound the issue(s). Just think about it, curiosity about where we come from is natural, yet the judgement of that natural curiosity for adoptees is strong, and the invalidation/guilt of feelings that adoptees face when following that curiosity equally so. I can’t say that I even know that many adoptees personally, yet I still must have come into this graphic novel with that mindset, because it caused me to do a lot of reordering and reconsidering, so that feels like a very clear indication to me of the strength and reach of the “grateful adoptee” storyline. Also, that doesn’t even begin to touch on the experience of being a minority in a country, and dealing with the racism and microaggressions of that, without a community or family of support that truly understands that around you. And then to not be able to communicate or find communion with your own culture and country if/when you decide to return or seek it out? How impossibly freaking isolating. All that being said, I’m incredibly grateful for Sjöblom telling her story, painful and difficult and, undoubtedly backlash-receiving, as it was, because her bravery and activism gives voice to untold numbers of silenced ones.  

In addition to the complete overhaul mind-shift this graphic novel provided, there were a few aspects that really stood out to me. For one, the overwhelming inanities of bureaucracy meant, legitimately only, to cover tracks in illegal/bribed adopting is infuriating as a reader, so I cannot even begin to comprehend the impact it has on the lives, like Sjöblom’s, that it affects. Relatedly, the absolute enormity of the task of sifting through so much contradictory (and straight falsified) info is overwhelming, and that’s even without considering how, in this case, it’s about who someone is and where they came from. This is apparent on almost every page of this book, and even with all that, Sjöblom makes it clear that she ends up with more response/info than most ever get. I also want to address the way the “white savior” complex is at play here (in a general sense, but also specifically because Sjöblom mentions that bribes were involved in a number of these “adoptions”). The idea that a child would be better off with a family in a foreign land, with no knowledge of their past or culture or language or anything, the inherent assumption that a family in the West could provide more than a family from their home country or, even, being in an orphanage but within the culture/people they are from, has a lot of flaws. I feel like there is likely some grey area, as it’s a complex situation, but there can be no denying that the white Western superiority complex is a major factor in Sjöblom’s, and many of the other adoptees she speaks with, stories.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, as this is a graphic novel. I have realized I love the addition of illustrations in memoirs – there’s something about it that really pulls me into the author’s life and reality in a way that is deeper than just words. It’s just an extra layer of depth I’m really coming to appreciate. In addition, the color scheme and style here – a sort of mix of “old document browns and yellows” and a flat-ish sort of illustration technique (bear with me here, as I am neither an artist nor art critic) – is the perfect aesthetic reinforcement of the novel’s main topic/theme and subtitle “Documents from a Korean Adoption.” And the general blah (sort of morose?) feeling these colors inspire also truly feels right for the story. Just, a very on point illustrative vibe.   

Overall, what a clear and insightful and painful exploration of the complex emotions and realities of a transnational adoptee experience. Although this is absolutely, and should only be taken as, a single experience, it is one that I feel comfortable saying is absolutely under-represented in media and undoubtedly rings true on various levels/points for a population greater than Sjöblom herself (especially when considering the comments she makes throughout about speaking with other Korean adoptees, as well as in the Postscript). I read this graphic novel in two short sittings, but it is going to stay with me much longer than it took to actually get through it.  

2 thoughts on “Palimpsest

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