Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (translated from Korean by Janet Hong)
Publish Date: September 2021
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1770464575
by M.T. Bennett
When Art Spiegelman wrote Maus, a story of his father’s life as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, he showed us the poignant power graphic novels have in telling the horrific stories of war-torn places. Devastating prose combined with stark black and white images paint stories of some of humanities greatest tragedies. Keum Suk Gendry-Kim has followed Spiegelman’s footsteps and become a master of using the medium to share the horrors of war. From her recently published The Naked Tree, a story told about life during the Korean War, to Grass a story of Japanese Imperial atrocities in Korea from World War II.
Adding to her impressive work is The Waiting, a fictional story of a struggling writer, Jina, in Korea and her mother, Gwija. The book focuses on the mother as she ages and deals with the effects of being a North Korean refugee after the partition from the Korean War, as well as the struggles the daughter has in dealing with an aging parent who suffered incredible trauma.
In their conversations Gwija tells Jina about her childhood in North Korea. Once Gwija was older she hears rumors of Japanese troops taking young women, but leaving those who were married. Gwija was quickly married off and moved to another village where she and her husband had a son, Sang-Il, and a daughter, Minhye. Their life was hard but passed happily until one day refugees came into their town and told everyone they needed to flee to the south.
Gwija and her husband take their two young children and begin the long journey to safety. With many close calls, they witness horrific scenes. Then, in one of the most mundane domestic moments, tragedy befalls Gwija. She tells her husband to watch Sang-Il while she goes off to feed Minhye. When she returns, her husband and son are gone.
Continuing with just Minhye, Gwija makes it to safety and begins a new life. However, even after remarrying and having more children, she never forgets her first husband and Sang-Il. After relative peace—though still separated—is restored between North and South Korea, a program for family reunions begins. It is incredibly difficult and uses a lottery system so many never see their families again. This is where the title The Waiting comes from, as Gwija endures over 70 years of waiting to find out what happened to her son Sang-Il. No spoilers if there is a reunion, but the toll this waiting take is monumental for the family.
In fact, the cover image comes from a section of the book where every single day Gwija and her new husband went to the TV station wearing signs with their information on it, with the hopes that someone would see it and be able to reunite them with families they both lost. Reunion with Sang-Il becomes a burning obsession and need. There is a driving anxiety the book induces and the reader wonders if Gwija will know the fate of her son before she dies.
Jina is torn, having promised that she would reunite her mother with Sang-Il being unable to take care of her mother in her old age. Though the book is fiction it has much that is autobiographical with many parallels between the story and the author’s life; in fact, at the end the author writes an afterword: “This is my mother’s story” She writes about how her own mother waited to one day reunite with her sister. She says, “I can’t bear to tell my mother the cruel truth, that she has almost zero chance of meeting her sister in this lifetime. So rather than take away all hope, every time she isn’t chosen, I tell her to wait. I tell her she will be chosen for the next round; that she will surely be able to meet her sister one day. By saying this, I believe I’m giving her strength to carry on. It is far more important to give her hope for a next time—hope at the end of the waiting.”
I want to point out the inclusion of the translator, Janet Hong, on the title page and with her bio at the back of the book. Hong has been the English translator for all Gendry-Kim’s books published by Drawn & Quarterly. It isn’t often that the work of a translator is appreciated enough to feature a space on the title page. It is amazing that Gendry-Kim and Drawn & Quarterly value Hong’s work enough to highlight her contribution.
The Waiting provides a devastating view of the impact from the Korean War. Despite the yearly reunion done by North and South Korea very few families are ever reunited, and then only briefly for a few days. It is an incredible and personal look into families being separated by war and the generational impact it has on all the family members. It joins the many graphic novel wartime memoirs as a masterpiece.
Note: As follow-up, M.T. found a very extensive article about why the reunions happen, what they entail, and that they’re continuing here (U.S.-North Korea Divided Families | NCNK).
M.T. Bennett is a student at Trinity School of Medicine. He enjoys writing and spending time with his wife and three sons. Bennett is the author of “Dark and Bright: Poetry and Prose.” His poetry and articles have appeared in Intuition, Chiasm, Poet’s Choice, HEAL, America Media, In-Training, and KevinMD. Twitter handle: @BennettEmpty