Palimpsest by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
Translated from the Swedish by Hanna Strömberg & Richey Wyver
Published by Drawn and Quarterly, 2019
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This graphic memoir follows the author’s journey to try and uncover her roots. Born in South Korea, she spent the first two years of her life in an orphanage before being flown to Sweden, where she was adopted and raised. Her attempts to explore her heritage as a teenager quickly met a brick wall, but upon the birth of her own children several years later, she feels compelled to reopen the search for her biological family.
Sjöblom does a fantastic job of reflecting the identity crisis that befalls many adoptees as they grow up, particularly people of colour who are adopted into white families. As a child, she is proud of her Korean ancestry and eager to explore the culture of her “first country”, but the reality of looking different from everyone else around her – including her own family – and the fierce racism this inspires soon take their toll. It’s heartbreaking to see the pride literally beaten out of her, and Sjöblom doesn’t shy away from the realities of rock bottom, with discussion of attempted suicide and hospitalisation.
She goes on to explain the power that lies in connecting to a people and their culture, and that the need to uncover the past is not necessarily about being unhappy within your adopted family, but about establishing roots that tether you to the world and make you feel seen. As she explains: “In Sweden I’m at home, but I feel like a stranger. In Korea, I’m a stranger, but I feel at home.” Her search is as much about finding closure for herself as it is sparing her children a similar longing for answers in the future.
As for the format, it makes a lot of sense given Sjöblom’s background as an illustrator and graphic designer. While I like the muted colour palette, the visuals themselves are quite simplistic in style and don’t do much to advance the narrative. Indeed, the book is very text heavy for a typical graphic novel or memoir, with several full-page transcripts of emails and letters that were exchanged during the author’s enquiries. On occasion, this can make it feel a little like reading a case file, with some of Sjöblom’s personal flair lost.
That said, I greatly admire her determination to speak frankly about the corruption her investigation unearths. Falsified information, withheld details, illegal practices, and outright lies hinder her personal search, but they also speak of the wider issues faced by many Koreans who were (often wrongfully) sent overseas for adoption. I also appreciate that Sjöblom makes clear not every search culminates in a neat and much longed for happily ever after: Not knowing is painful, but sometimes the truth is too.
In all, this is an excellent memoir that opened my eyes to an issue many of us should be more aware of. The author explains that most “adoption stories” are framed in a positive light, told from the perspective of a loving adoptive parent, and rarely from an actual adoptee who has experienced the process’ highs and lows in equal measure. It is her hope that this book may be a voice for a generation of Korean adoptees who have been silenced; I urge everyone to listen.