My latest graphic novel nonfiction read came from the young adult section! Monstrous : A Transracial Adoption Story by Sarah Myer is a new graphic memoir published in June 2023. This title dives deep into the life of the author Sarah Myer, a Korean American, from the time of her adoption to the day she moves away to college. Sarah currently uses the pronouns they/them, but during this graphic memoir they refer to themselves as she, so I will be using she/her pronouns while talking about this book.
Sarah and her sister were both adopted from Korea by a white couple. She and her sister are not biologically related, which provides more fodder for her bullies later in life. Sarah grew up in a rural community with few Asian neighbors. Looking back, Sarah was able to recognize that she was struggling with anxiety before she even started school. Once she started school, the bullying, racism, and taunts became increasingly worse. Sarah found escape from the racist bullying by throwing herself into art and fandoms. She struggled to contain her anger, sometimes letting it explode at her bullies, friends, and family. Sarah’s escapes into drawing and cosplay can only help her so far when the bullying becomes even worse once she starts high school. How she reacts will define her future.
Monstrous is a graphic memoir that I wish I would have had growing up. I am not adopted, but Sarah discusses her struggles with mental health and anxiety throughout the book to which I related.
When looking for a nonfiction book to read, I typically look for a topic of which I know very little. My latest nonfiction read was the graphic nonfiction, Grandmothers, Our Grandmothers: Remembering the “Comfort Women” of World War II by Han Seong-won. This book tells the story of the “comfort women” of the Japanese Imperial Army. I’ll admit here that I didn’t know anything about “comfort women” and based on the cover, I thought that these women were positive comforters. How incredibly and devastatingly wrong I was.
Between 1932 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army set up “comfort stations” wherever there was a war zone. The people that worked these “comfort stations” were women and girls they either kidnapped or lured under false promises of actual work. These women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. This is government-sponsored sexual slavery and human trafficking that Japan did not even acknowledge occurred until 1991.
This book tells the story of the grandmothers who have chosen to speak about their lives as “comfort women”. It shares their stories, speaks their testimonies, and pays respect to the many others who will never come forward to talk about what happened to them. Also present in this book are members of younger generations who advocate alongside the grandmothers, protesting every Wednesday for years demanding justice. These women are victims of war whose human rights were violated. Han Seong-won shines light on their stories and helps advocate for honesty about what happened to them only eighty years ago.
“But you can learn a lot about history by figuring out what people wanted to hide.”
― Kim Hyun Sook, Banned Book Club
I read Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada and illustrated by Ko Hyung-Ju right before Banned Book Week 2023 began. This week celebrates the freedom to read and the opposition to censorship. Banned Book Club couldn’t have been a more appropriate book to start off this year’s Banned Book Week. To boil it down, this book tells the story of a group of students who form a book club that reads banned books during the reign of South Korea’s Fifth Republic. They put their lives and the lives of their family and friends in danger in order to read censored and banned books, amongst other forms of protest.
In 1983, Kim Hyun Sook was finally able to convince her mother to let her go to college. She was beyond excited to start college, to expand her world, and to study Western Literature. Kim was ready for the break of working in her family’s restaurant. She couldn’t have known that her literature class would send her down a road that she never saw coming; it would be a massive turning point that would alter her life in a way she couldn’t imagine.
Kim’s decision to go to college happened in the midst of the South Korea’s Fifth Republic. This military regime found its way to power through torture, censorship, and the murder of protestors. When Kim started school, she was met with a wall of protestors hurling insults and molotov cocktails. Not interested in getting involved, she throws herself into her books. After meeting the editor of the school newspaper who invites her to join his book club, she is shocked to see that the group is actually an underground book club reading banned and illicit literature that the military regime has forbidden. Unsure of what to do, but wanting to read these books, Kim stays in the club and finds herself drawn into the dangerous activities that the other members are involved in. Soon she will be swept up in a torrent of fear and violence as the people of power close ranks on the protestors.
“Do they ban books because they see danger in their authors, or because they see themselves in their villains?”
― Kim Hyun Sook, Banned Book Club
“I love you when you’re at your lowest just as much as at your best.” – In Limbo, Deb JJ Lee
TW for suicide and abuse.
Deb Lee’s powerful new memoir explores coming of age in New Jersey as a Korean-American teenager. Deb examines the Korean-American diaspora and mental illness as she mines her history for answers. Deb left Seoul to come to America with her family when she was only three years old. Ever since she arrived in the United States, she has been excruciatingly aware of her otherness. Her teachers couldn’t, and still can’t very well, pronounce her Korean name. Her English wasn’t perfect, she spoke Korean, but after some time, she slowly lost her Korean and spoke more and more English. Adjusting to the United States was difficult as her face and her eyes pointed her out as different. She felt wrong.
When Deb started high school, her life became harder. She started to feel increasing pressure at home, while dealing with high school changes. Her classes were more difficult than she expected, plus her friendships changed and ended. Deb struggles with finding a safe place to be herself, but luckily she has orchestra (even though that doesn’t last forever either). Her home life becomes increasingly chaotic as fights with her mom become more frequent, violent, and emotionally abusive. Deb has no idea what to do, feeling like she is stuck in limbo with nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. Her mental health crashes, which results in a suicide attempt. Her healing process after is slow and methodical, but she is resilient, courageous, and willing to start the process. Art, self-care, and therapy help her start to understand herself and her heritage.
The artwork in this graphic memoir is amazing. Deb has drawn pages of evocative, grayscale artwork that give you the feel of memory. Some of their drawings are sharp while others are hazy, fuzzing out and fading to black. If you’re a fan of Tillie Walden, you will enjoy this art style. Deb worked on this for years before she finally was at a place where it was ready for the world. Their desire to wait makes this memoir feel polished and rewarding. This is a realistic depiction of a teen working through mental health experiences. Add in that this is a memoir and this is sure to be helpful to others.
Books that deal with heartbreak seem to be my go-to listen lately. Maybe that’s just because I know the plot will be interesting and engaging, but nevertheless, I find myself gravitating towards heart-squeezing family dramas. The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee is full of devastating consequences, yet heartwarming relationships that make you yearn for each character’s eventual happiness.
The Expatriates is the inter-woven tale of three American women living in Hong Kong. Each woman is a part of the same very small expat community. Their reasons for coming to Hong Kong as well as their personal and professional lives may be different, but the situations that they find themselves in all become intertwined rather quickly, sometimes without them even realizing it. (I was constantly reminded of the idea that we are only separated from someone else by six degrees of separation throughout this book. And also by the fact that the smallest action can change our lives so drastically.)
Mercy is a young Korean American who finds herself in Hong King after her graduation from Columbia. She has moved to Hong Kong looking for a change from the normal and the promise of a more lucrative job. Marcy is haunted by a terrible accident that happened to her recently. Hilary is a housewife whose marriage is on the rocks. She gave up the bulk of her career to follow her husband, David, to Hong Kong, so he could further his career. Hilary finds herself thinking over and over about her inability to have a child and how if she was only able to conceive, her marriage problems would evaporate. Margaret is a married mother of three who is forced to deal with a shattering loss that has destroyed her life and her family. She is having to find a new normal, something she must survive even if she isn’t quiet sure how to do so.
Mercy, Hilary, and Margaret soon find their lives to be thoroughly enmeshed together in was neither of them expected. Each woman must deal with their own separate issues and struggles, but soon they fins that there are many common threads linking them together. Consequences run rampant through their lives, dictating their decisions, their lifestyles, and their relationships. This book was very moving and I found myself listening to it obsessively to try to figure out how their lives were going to unfold.
This book is also available in the following formats:
Author Chang-Rae Lee admits that the first chapter of his book is based upon a tragic event in his father’s life — something so traumatic that his father had never disclosed it — until questioned by his then college-aged son. The chapter features June Han, an 11-year-old orphaned refugee during the Korean War, desperately struggling to flee the approaching military with her younger siblings in tow.
The chapters often leave the reader hanging, wondering what happened, only to open the next one to discover a new character in a totally different time period. We are later introduced to Hector, a handsome American who enlists to fight in Korea, but then decides to remain after the war to work in an orphanage. There, his life becomes entwined with June’s and also with Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful wife of the minister who runs the place. But Sylvie’s story reveals her own scarred and tragic past.
We primarily see June thirty years later, now a successful New York antiques dealer who is dying of cancer, as she reunites with a reluctant Hector in a search for her long-lost son. As the book spans three decades and several continents, The Surrendered is an epic saga, masterfully written with complex characterization, but also, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “a harrowing tale, bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking — and not to be missed.”
Inspired by the life of the author’s Korean mother, this first novel by Eugenia Kim is a beautiful and satisfying story. The Calligrapher’s Daughter spans 30 years of Korean history, from 1915-1945, and is narrated by najin Han, the daughter of an ultra-traditional and aristocratic calligrapher. Born in 1910 at the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea, her life, through privileged, is restricted by strict social standards, including a very limited education for women. When her father decides to marry her off at age 14, her mother bravely defies him by sending her instead to Seoul, where she serves as a companion to the young Princess Deokhye during the waning days of the centuries-old dynasty.
Later, Najin attends college and works as a teacher and school principal. When her parents again choose a husband for her, she is pleasantly surprised to find that she concurs with their choice of Calvin Cho, who is leaving to study for the ministry in America. However, only one day after her wedding, she is denied a passport. An entire decade passes, separated from her husband with little hope for reunion, as she struggles to survive the hardships and poverty brought on by World War II. Both lyrical and tragic, this novel celebrates the perseverance and strength of women — a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age saga.