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Friday, November 19, 2021

Book Review - The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. The Waiting. Montreal:  Drawn & Quarterly, 2021. 246 pp. 978-1-77046-457-5. US $24.95.

  reviewed by John A. Lent

South Korean graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim has a knack for digging up personal stories related to historical tragedies of her country. She is truly what I call an “investigative cartoonist.” Gendry-Kim has used these reportorial skills over and over during the past decade. They are evident in her many awards-winning graphic novel, Grass (2019), the story of the “comfort women,” enslaved East Asian girls used to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II, as told to her by one surviving Korean comfort woman and backed up by nine other victims. Gendry-Kim found an elderly Korean man still living in Japan who experienced one of the atomic bombings while working in Japan in the 1940s, willing to explain how he and fellow Korean laborers were passed over and denied reparation funds by the Japanese government, in her A Day with Grandfather (2017).

Mixing fiction and fact, Gendry-Kim continues to bring attention to Korean national tragedies through the personal experiences of those who endured them. Among her 20 or so books, all completed since 2012, are Jiseul (2015), an account of the massacre of civilians by the South Korean army during the Korean War, and her latest title, The Waiting (2021).

The marginal status of women in a patriarchal society such as Korea is a common theme in Gendry-Kim’s books, as it is in The Waiting. In fact, very few men appear in this story inspired by her mother’s personal experiences at the end of the Korean War, and a few men who do show up are not desirable characters--the neighbor who steals a child’s dog and cooks it; a slothful male who abandons his sister-in-law and her child under terrible conditions.

During and after the Korean War, many families were separated, as were Gendry-Kim’s mother and her mother’s sister (Gendry-Kim’s aunt), who never made it out of North Korea. The Waiting weaves between Gendry-Kim’s present feelings of sorrow and guilt for having to leave her mother in Seoul and moving to Ganghwa Island; her mother’s anxiety about her sister’s fate in North Korea and her disappointment at continually not being chosen for the regularly-arranged separated family reunions, and the fictional character Gwila’s sorrowful tale of being separated from her husband and son during the war.

Gendry-Kim based her story on her own feelings, her mother’s testimonies, the tales of two elderly people she interviewed who had been able to meet their North Korean family members, and her further research. In a two-page textual afterword, “A Lifetime of Waiting,” the author begins with, “This is my mother’s story,” and ends it by dedicating the book to her mother. In between, she shares a bit about her own career and the fears and wishes of her two interviewees and asks questions others have asked for millennia--“How many people in this world have been wounded by war?” and “How many have had their loved ones torn from them because of war?” As the song says, “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

The Waiting is a full package of emotions:  hope and despair, love and hate, joy and sorrow, kindness and cruelty, guilt and relief, and the terribleness of war without a positive corollary. The book is true to Gendry-Kim’s standard--a great read, first-hand researched, and filled with penetrating thoughts relatable to the many who have experienced war firsthand, and sobering to those who have romanticized, sanitized, and glamorized notions of war.

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