Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom‘s memoir Palimpsest: Documents From a Korean Adoption from D&Q is an excellent polemic. It makes the case for awareness and consideration of the stories and backgrounds of adoptees and the circumstances which led to their adoptions. The memoir is constructed somewhat like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis which is a work I’m not fond of from a comics point of view.
Palimpsest doesn’t utilize the comics medium to craft dramatic scenes. Instead, it uses graphics and text to narrate the subject matter. Dialogue is used for exposition rather than to craft conventional narrative scenes. When I realized this was the case, I was prepared to not like the book (in the case of Persepolis, I felt that Satrapi’s story could just as easily have been written in prose form with accompanying illustrations). However, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom’s book is so well crafted, structured, developed, and organized, its topic so compelling and eye opening, that I could not help but marvel at her effective use of the methods at hand. Just presenting the facts of her life created a gaining momentum and a kind of natural tension that made me wholly engrossed; simply stated, I could not put the book down.
Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom was adopted at age two by parents in Sweden but grappled with her identity as an adopted child. When she asked for answers regarding her birth parents, hardly any information was forthcoming and she felt a real loss in terms of her identity, family history, and emotional confidence. The message that she should be grateful to have been given the chance to be adopted by a loving family in a developed nation and that she should not dwell on what was ‘missing’ in her life was constantly reinforced. Repeatedly shamed for feeling the emotional loss of her birth family and origins, she realized that adopted people don’t have control over their own stories, and that the narratives of how they should feel and think about their lives are written by those who administer and perform the adoptions. Compounding this sorrow in her life was the fact that she was a minority in a country with a fairly uniform (Caucasian) culture. Consequently, she endured bullying and racism, not to mention a regular slew of microagressions.
Much of the early part of the book documents the feelings of worthlessness, invisibility, and depression the author felt as a young person. She even mentions a time when she attempted to take her own life as a youth. It’s not easy to read through this early part of the book because the feelings are so maudlin and sad. I confess I didn’t understand why her feelings were so dire, though I could easily identify with the racism she’d felt. It wasn’t until details unspooled and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place that I understood how tragic the situation was. In Korea, many parents were tricked into giving up their children, not really understanding the documents they were signing or believing they would get their children back after a while. Where economic or societal pressures were involved (such as when children were born out of wedlock), a fair amount of pressure was put on the parents to give up their children or as in Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom’s case, her grandmother gave her up for adoption while her mother was recovering after the birth. The problem is exacerbated by acts of corruption where people or agencies are paid huge sums secretly in order to facilitate these Western adoptions. When the author tried to track down her birth parents from abroad, she was told by the various agencies in Korea that no clear records existed and she began to realize that what information was available was most likely made up.
Slowly, with time, the author (I cannot simply refer to her as Sjoblom because this negates the Korean part of her identity which is important) connects with other adoptees and finds a network of people with similar stories and backgrounds, unwitting victims in a legacy of corruption and rewritten narratives that lay claim to their very identities and lives. The title ‘Palimpsest’ refers to both people who have had their identities erased and then written over by those in charge of the adoptions, and the documents themselves upon which details were either fabricated or changed. I had no idea that such victimization existed in the lives of adoptees and I suspect that many other people might not know either. The ‘Wool-Rim’ in the author’s name is a misnomer of ‘Oolim’, her Korean name, which we are told means ‘forest echo.’ The subtitle includes the word ‘documents’ and this is a good way of identifying this work of art. The author skillfully uses various letters, communications, discovered documents, and pieces of the information puzzle to unravel the mystery of her origins and to attempt reconnecting with her birth mother. I don’t want to give away too much as I think this should be a widely read book if there is any justice in the world. I will say that with the help of her extremely sympathetic and devoted partner and a couple of people who strive to help her, the author makes a heartbreaking but illuminating journey back to Korea, slowly piecing together fragments of her background that has been ‘papered’ over.
It’s a voyage not only into identity but into something that says a lot about us as human beings and what we’re capable of. In its own way, this book is as powerful as MAUS. It does not have that formidable classic’s narrative techniques but it forges its own structure, very carefully laying out what it’s doing. It’s like watching a really really strong documentary that uses well thought out documentary techniques and principles. Unlike Persepolis or Fun Home which use more straightforward narration to convey their important subject matter, this work of non-fiction uses documents and a heartbreaking, unraveling mystery to slowly circle around the loss, the feeling of despair (as well as small doses of comfort) at the centre of its topic. Make no mistake – it is ultimately a polemic as the author is an adoptee rights activist and this is her first graphic novel. She has spent her time working on it, intent on educating readers about the practice that has taken so much away from her and others. I really don’t mind because I was one of the ones that needed educating and for this, I’m grateful. I really hope this book catches on in a big way.