Graphic Novel Review: The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translated by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, 2021. 9781770464575. 248pp.  

The Waiting is the second of Gendry-Kim’s graphic novels to be translated into English. (If you haven’t read the first, Grass, which is the story of a Korean comfort woman, it, too!) This is the story of a woman separated from her husband and son as they flee the fighting in what is now North Korea, at the start of the Korean War. The woman finds safety and makes a new life in the South but, like many, continues to wait to be reunited with her lost loved ones. Part of the narrative takes place in the present, which involves the woman (now old) and one of her daughters, a writer, and part of it in the past to tell the story of the mother’s life. It’s based on the life of Gendry-Kim’s mother and the lives of others she interviewed. 

As soon as I heard this book would be published in English, my wife, Silver, who was born in Busan, South Korea, had her sister send her a copy in Korean. Their father fled the North at about the same same time as the author’s mother. He left behind a wife and at least one son in addition to the other members of his family. Silver was incredibly moved by this book, and couldn’t stop crying as she read it. I loved it too. 

In place of a normal book review the two of us talked about the book and Silver’s father, in a conversation I’ve edited for clarity.  (-Gene)

Gene: Can you give a short pitch for The Waiting?

Silver: It’s the story of a mother who came to what is now South Korea from the North when the Korean War started, after the Japanese occupation ended. She lost her family along the way. It’s about her lifelong wait to see her family again. That’s her life. 

G: Can you explain the context a bit, for people who don’t know a lot of Korean history?

S: Korea is a small country on a peninsula between Russia, China, and Japan. We often suffered under occupations by those larger countries. In the beginning of the 1900s Japan occupied Korea for about 39 years, and we were only freed by their defeat at the end of WWII. The book begins at the tail end of that occupation. The mother in the story, her hometown was very close to Russia in the north, in what is now North Korea. In 1945 Japan surrendered, so that’s when we were supposedly freed, though it didn’t really happen right away. In the story you see Japanese people are still living in the mother’s hometown. Japanese people were governing Korea but when they lost the war and they had to go back home, but they had no means to leave. They were stuck in Korea, and were treated really badly. It was payback time. 

G: I know Korea was basically strip-mined, its forests cut down, and so many objects of cultural significance and even people were taken. 

S: It was terrible. Koreans had to learn to eat whatever they could find, often in the mountains. That’s why we have so many “mountain vegetables,” as you know. If it didn’t kill you when you ate it, it became food. This is probably why we so many different plants from the mountains and almost everything from the sea. 

(We both laugh because we’ve had some unique meals in Korea.)

S: My mom had a Japanese name because she couldn’t use her Korean name. No one was allowed to speak Korean at school. That went on for decades. I’m so proud that Korean culture survived that. But anyway…  In 1950, that’s when the struggle between the communist occupied North and the western-influenced South turned into a war. 

G: When the actual fighting reached the mother’s hometown, people fled. They headed south because they hoped it was going to be safer. Americans and American-backed Korean forces were fighting Russian- and Chinese-backed Korean soldiers, there were lots of foreign troops on the ground, and she had to leave her home with her husband, her son, and her newborn daughter on foot with nothing.

S: The infant daughter was crying, so the mother went to breastfeed her somewhere a bit private, and when she came back to meet her husband and her young son, they were gone. She couldn’t find them. She waited a bit. Then when she walked she ran into people from her neighborhood who said there were a bunch of families staying in a house together. She didn’t find her husband there but did run into her husband’s older brother who was all alone. 

G: He was just a bastard. He eventually ran away from her alone to catch a train and left her behind.  But she and her daughter end up making their way south and were evacuated from a port town in what is a fairly famous incident when she was on an American ship that went to Busan. 

S: Yes. I don’t think she lived in Busan for long. It was just jam packed with refugees. There someone introduced her to a man from North Korea who had a son. They end up married, though they each agree to keep looking for their families from the North. If their spouses show up, they agree their marriage will break up. Then they have two kids together, and one of those is the author in the story.

G: The mother ends up just waiting. And waiting and waiting and waiting. And it’s just that Korean sadness. 

(Silver is crying at this point. I realize we took refuge in remembering the details of the story to avoid talking about the reality of it. Since we’re talking as I walk her to work, I think everyone passing us on the bike path near the University of Washington must think we’re having a hell of a fight.)

Silver: It’s so painful.

G: There’s a ton of people who lost family members when the country was divided, and who have never seen or talked with them again. And there have been a few reunions, which are shown in the graphic novel too. Those started in the 80s, right?

S: The 80s reunions, when everyone was crying on TV, those were to help people who had become separated from each other in the war, who were in the South, to find others who were also in the South. They didn’t have another way to find their family members. That collective sadness. For months and months people were  glued to their TVs. In Yoido, which is where the South Korean Capital is, where the Congress meets, there were hand written signs and photos posted everywhere telling stories: “I’m looking for so and so, we were separated in this place, she’s my younger sister, she has these marks on her body, do you know this person? Please contact me.” It was horrendous. 

G: People went there and that’s how some found each other again?

S: Yes!

G: And your dad wouldn’t even try that? 

S:  No, he wouldn’t. he was too worried North Korean agents would find out he was alive and punish his family in the North, because he had worked for the Japanese government during the occupation. That’s why he had to flee suddenly when the communists came into his town. We kept telling him he was paranoid, “You might be able to meet your relatives, your cousins. You have nobody. Why don’t you go put your name and your story there?” And he was like no, no.

S: My dad was a broken person. He was so scared. I think of the guilt he carried because he left his family behind, because he had to flee so quickly.

G: Your father had a wife and kids there, right?

S: Yes. I know for sure he had at least one young son.

G: But of course I’ve been told your dad never talked about his daughters so who knows… (we laugh) And so later North Korea and South Korea got together to let some separated family members meet across the border?

S: Yes. People sent letters to a government department and it was like a lottery. They were chosen and matched with people they’d been separated from, and then they went to meet in the North, near the border.

G: Why was this book so moving for you, other than because of your father’s story?

S: Because the mother in the book is almost every mother that I know in Korea, in my parents’ age group, you know what I mean? Those uneducated women, they got married early, and their lives were all about their kids. Especially their sons. The writer’s mom loves her daughter — it reminds me of my relationship with my mom — but this is every mother’s story. She wants to see her son again. These women never had dreams I think. They got married to produce sons. They listened to their fathers and then their husbands. When the husbands died they listened to their sons. And that was going to be her life. But in the middle of that she lost her precious son and husband at the same time. 

After watching the movie based on the novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, I think this is also a very feminist story about how opportunity was taken away from women in Korea. About all those moms. 

My aunt, my mom’s older sister, was married very young. My grandparents decided to marry her when she became a woman (I think when she started her period), when she was probably 13. Because of the comfort woman situation — they knew if she was married she wouldn’t be taken by the Japanese government to be a sex slave for Japanese soldiers. So they sent my aunt to get married to a guy in another town. That’s why my mom was all alone after her mom died. She wasn’t even 10 when she became the mother to her family, the mother to her brothers, because she was the only girl. She was too young to be taken as a comfort woman. 

And my dad, my poor dad, he was kind of like the asshole brother-in-law in the book, he decided to flee. He left alone. His family did tell him to go, but he made the decision to do it. He left his family behind. And he was so broken he was never able to love us. 

This is not good. I’m going to work and I’m crying.

(we both laugh)

S: The story in the book about eating fish is so hilarious. Korean moms do that all the time. When you eat fish in Korea you buy the whole fish, often alive, but we never bought live fish because we were so poor. So when the mom in the book cooks the fish, she always says that she loves the head best and she gives the meaty part to her husband and son, and the tail goes to the girls. Moms always lie and say they love the head. But who the fuck loves eating the head? Nobody. The writer, her daughter, realizes that. But her son has no idea. He tells his mom, here’s the head of the fish, you love this! The writer, his sister, has to tell him the truth. She just said that to feed them. How oblivious was her son? Pay some attention!

G: But I’ve heard your dad would eat all of the fish, Silver, including the fins and all the bones. So I’m not sure how that applies! 

(we both laugh)

S: He did. Yeah.  

G: Good. Remember the laughs.

S: Gendry-Kim did so well. The little details in the book impressed me, like the mom’s friend, who she meets outside their apartments. They call each other “chingu” (“friend”) because they never use names. My mom called her friends “friend.”  My mom never called her friends by their names because she never knew them. They were “so-and-so’s mom.” Sometimes she’d try to describe them to differentiate them but that was nearly impossible because they all had the same bad perm. 

I was so impressed and touched by the author because she knows details like that. She gets the culture. She’s not pretending. She’s sharing these old women’s stories, and I am so appreciative. 


2 thoughts on “Graphic Novel Review: The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim”

  1. Arianna Schlegel says:

    Thank you both for sharing this special conversation – I didn’t intend to read the whole thing and then I just did, it was that enthralling. I appreciate both the review and the personal insights, especially since it was so difficult to read as it touched so close to home.

  2. Linda Wallace says:

    This was a special conversation and I too enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

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