Author: Deb JJ Lee
Publish Date: March 2023
Publisher: First Second
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1250252661
Author website: https://debleeart.com/about
Additional info: (Pronouns corrected 5/9/2023)
By Andrew Field
Trigger warning: suicide attempted.
The amount of pressure teenagers feel to fit in, to meet expectations—academic, familial, social—is a narrative of impossibility and invisibility. For this reason, teenagers are singularly vulnerable in our society and culture. I know I experienced this. I struggled with depression as a teenager in high school, an endless sense that I did not fit in anywhere, that there was something wrong with me. I felt unseen, unheard; and later that depression developed into a mental illness, schizoaffective disorder.
Deb JJ Lee’s In Limbo is a book uniquely suited to discuss these issues of angst, aloneness, depression, belonging, and mental illness, as it is a young adult (YA) immigrant coming-of-age memoir about a Korean-American artist struggling to find their way with their peers, with their abusive mother, with American and Korean cultures, and generally with themself. The title, In Limbo, suggests an in-betweenness, which the digital drawings in gray—beautiful, sensitive drawings that seem to capture every detail of the scene—embody, being neither black nor white but somewhere in-between. The gray drawings can also suggest a numbness, a subtle grief, a sad current running underneath and through the narrative of the book.
And, of course, the main protagonist, Deb, exists in limbo, neither Korean nor American (they were born in Korea but immigrated with their parents to America), as neither an adult nor child. Deb moves in a state of endless bafflement, from home, where their mother is deeply critical and sometimes verbally and physically abusive, to school, where they experience the constant chess-play moves of teenage friendships and try to navigate these moves while earning good enough grades for their mother’s acceptance. They’re caught—existentially, artistically, spiritually—between these poles. There are never adequate escapes for them outside these stressful pressures, with the exception of art and drawing.
The mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of the narrative and Deb’s life, so when Deb meets a new friend who might serve as a kind of substitute for their mother and their mother’s abuse, they become extremely needy and feel as if this friend will be their everything. When the friend, Quinn, winds up not being capable of being that person, Deb crashes, and at a party attempts suicide. It seems to them to be the only escape, not only from their failing friendship with Quinn, but from all the academic and familiar pressures that have been plaguing them throughout the narrative. What happens after the suicide attempt is heartbreaking but predictable—Deb is further estranged from their friends, including Quinn. Lee writes, “Here’s what movies tell you about teen suicide. They tape flowers and little notes on your locker. RIP. Gone too soon. They use you for social clout. A sick, romanticized tragedy. But a suicide attempt? At worst, you’re a subject of ridicule. At best, you’re politely ignored. But what is a fate worse than being even more invisible to others?” (Pgs. 213-215)
Ultimately Deb does make peace with their mother, though I don’t want to give any spoilers. This is a formally inventive, beautifully drawn, emotionally poignant YA immigrant coming of age story that also addresses mental illness and attempted suicide with subtlety and insight.
Andrew Field is a cartoonist who often writes and draws about mental health and illness. He recently finished a graphic novella, The Light-Haunted Museum, about a narrator growing up with schizophrenia, which can be found on his website, www.andrewfield48.com.