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Drawing on home

Korean-born adoptee returns to birthplace in search of answers

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/1/2020 (205 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As author Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom remarks in the introduction to this graphic novel, a palimpsest is "a very old text or document in which writing has been removed and covered or replaced by new writing." Immediately following this sentence is the definition of adoption, which Palimpsest explores in vivid, painstaking detail as Sjöblom, a transnational adoptee, reveals just how much of her personal history has been omitted, erased or falsified.

Born in Korea and adopted into a Swedish family, Sjöblom’s debut graphic novel, translated from Swedish by Hanna Stromberg, uncovers the countless frustrations she encounters during her search for her first family and her subsequent return to Korea. Both Sjöblom’s story and the medium through which she tells it defy the reader’s expectations in difficult, often frustrating ways as she pieces together her Korean identity despite contradicting information and unsubstantiated claims.

She writes of a childhood where self-identifying as an adoptee means being open to intrusion, to countless prying questions from well-meaning classmates or, worse yet, to be viewed as "an empty vessel for people to fill with their own story." Friends and classmates affirm that she is "lucky," or that she was "saved" by her adoptive Swedish parents, making it even clearer her self-worth has been negatively affected by her unknown origins.

Sjöblom’s lack of a complete selfhood resonates most effectively during some deeply affecting panels dealing with her subsequent anxiety and depression. "When your life starts with adoption," she writes, "there’s no dust to return to. If you’ve never been born, you can never fully be alive."

Perhaps drawing on her own missing childhood, Sjöblom illustrates her story with simple, rounded shapes resembling infographics or illustrations from a children’s book. The result is an unsettling dissonance that deftly reflects the confusion and identity crisis the author is experiencing.

Having given up on finding her birth family as a teen, when a letter to an adoption agency in Korea yielded no reply, Sjöblom decides to resume her search 20 years later, after having had two children of her own. Though she now has present-day technology on her side, many a promising lead still quickly transforms into a dead end. Painstakingly hand-lettered in tiny print often spanning an entire page at a time, Sjöblom’s emails and documents from various adoption agencies in Korea are often dense and tedious for the reader to parse, in part replicating the author’s own frustrating experiences in dealing with duplicitous agencies, some with a probable involvement in child trafficking.

Upon locating her birth mother in Korea, she realizes that she too has created a false narrative, like the ones she was told as a child. The story of her biological parents is less than happy, as is the continued relationship she hopes they would all have. But Palimpsest is not just an indictment of adoptions like hers. It is also a love letter to the family she has made for herself — most importantly her husband Richey, whose dogged attempts to contact adoption agencies and demand accountability for the discrepancies in his wife’s file are at the heart of this story. Also notable is Richey’s Korean classmate Min-Jeong and her relatives, who become close with the author upon her arrival in Korea; as Sjöblom writes, "we came here to find a family, and we certainly did."

Although readers may come to this graphic novel expecting something different, they, like Sjöblom, will find themselves compelled to negotiate its story with what is at hand instead of what they may have anticipated. Despite the book’s often incongruous form, Palimpsest presents a visceral depiction of international adoption and its often devastating consequences for adoptees. "For them, we must bear witness," Sjöblom urges, a call to arms made evident through the vastly personal and meticulous details contained in her story.

Winnipeg’s Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in contemporary narratives.


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Updated on Saturday, February 1, 2020 at 4:59 PM CST: Adds names of translators.

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