Palimpsest: Documents of a Korean Adoption, by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

Review by Logaine Navascués

Drawn & Quarterly, November 2019

156 pages, paperback, $29.95 CAD, 978-1-770-4633-01

Ages 13+, Grades 9-12

Young Adult, Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction

“The fact that you can’t trust what is in a Social Study is so commonplace that it’s become a joke among adoptees. Its contents are often made up, and descriptions of our appearances and personalities are almost identical in everybody’s file. Even though it is the only link you have to your past, it’s so untrustworthy that you become numb to it. I have stopped questioning and accepted this is how it is. It’s a natural part of the narrative of being adopted.”

When an adopted Korean girl decides to look back into her past to discover more about her biological parents, she uncovers a web of lies and systematic corruption behind Korea’s international adoption processes. This is Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s story, narrated in detail and drawn as a graphic memoir to showcase every bit of evidence she finds in this journey to recover her own truth and identity. And in this effort, she brings to light the thousands of cases that still remain untold raising her voice as theirs too.

The narrative style is straightforward and clean, making use of precise words to describe each situation. So is her simple and linear illustrative style: every element is outlined by hand in a thin black line, in a very architectural style of drawing. Only the characters are coloured in, highlighting their presence as she focuses on their emotional and psychological evolution.

The use of sepia coloured paper does not only suggest that the story centers on the past, but also that, as readers, we are looking at the real documents that shaped the personal histories of the adoptees. In this sense, Sjöblom acts not only as a writer and illustrator, but also as a detective digging through all sorts of documents and data to find the truth, and as an archivist who keeps record of every step, every word, to make sure that no one will ever erase her past again. All of these details suggest that her voice as an adoptee rights activist is the one that prevails throughout the book, using her personal story of grief, loss and depression as a bridge to a bigger and darker picture: that of illegal international adoptions. 

As the title of the book states, these Documents from a Korean Adoption are the best possible resource to demonstrate the irregularities in the system. Palimpsest refers directly to her forged and missing documents, while the book itself acts as a counter-narrative to the all too common fictional narratives of adoption, those that describe it as an act of compassion for the wellbeing of the child, when they can actually be the opposite. Sjöblom addresses this matter directly in several parts of the story by narrating how adoptees are almost forced to hide and forget their feelings of sadness and not belonging. How they must conform to the popular belief that their new life is a “better option” compared to the one they would have had as abandoned children or orphans in their countries of origin.

Although deeply emotional and moving, the technical details about the adoption process that are also shared throughout the graphic novel make it a valuable source of information for anyone interested in adoption rights activism. Sjöblom’s simple style is an intelligent choice to convey this complex matter in its many facets, from the author’s personal voyage of hope and despair, to the system’s perverse network of forgery and dehumanization of children. And even if this is a very intimate real-life story, it tackles universal questions that any young adult and new adult reader may ask themselves while growing up: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I belong?

Logaine Navascués is a Peruvian artist, writer, creative director, teacher and book maker, currently living in Vancouver. She is the proud mother of a beautiful daughter and two artist’s books. You can find her reading, collecting picture books and eating chocolate while pursuing her MA in Children’s Literature at UBC.

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