Thanks to the pandemic, most of us now know what it’s like to be apart from those we love: for the rest of our lives, we’ll remember the waiting and the longing, the fear of being forgotten. Is this why I found Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s masterly new graphic novel, The Waiting, so extremely painful to read? Perhaps. I know that I brought some of my own stuff to this, an account – half fact, half fiction – of families separated by the Korean war, tears rolling down my face as I turned its inky pages. But I won’t compare my own experiences to those of its characters – they don’t even come close – and nor do I want to take anything away from her achievement in this book, her first since the award-winning Grass (a novel about a Korean girl who becomes a “comfort woman” during the second world war). Keum takes the reader inside some of the human heart’s most inaccessible chambers, places that are all but closed to most visitors – and yet she does so almost casually, the stark economy of her drawings no guide at all to their lasting emotive power. What a talent she is.
Her story (translated by Janet Hong) is told in two time frames. In 21st-century Seoul, Song Gwija, who fled her home in the north as the war broke out, only wants to see the son from whom she was separated during the long march south before she dies. Her hope rests on a Red Cross programme that every few years briefly reunites a small number of relatives; under the eye of North Korean minders, they get to spend just a single day and night together. But what chance does she have? Her name is never among those selected – and no wonder. While more than 56,000 people are still registered with the Red Cross (the same number again have since died), each reunion is capped at just 200 individuals. So far, Keum writes in a footnote, only 2,000 South Korean families have managed to meet their loved ones in North Korea.
Song Gwija’s artist daughter, Jina, is often frustrated with her mother. For her generation, the war is a far-off thing; in her childhood, her traumatised parents rarely spoke of it. Most reunions are, in any case, agonising. Her mother’s neighbour, who did get lucky, barely recognised her sister when they met and all the time they were together, the clock was ticking; they would soon have to say goodbye for ever. But in a long flashback, she also reveals why her mother cannot let go. What mind could ever forget the horror of such sudden and frenzied migration, American jets turning their fire on the long caravan of weary refugees, babies left to freeze to death at the side of the road?
In this chaos, Song Gwija’s separation from her husband and little son seemed to her, in the moment, to be a less desperate thing. Surely they would be reunited further down the road? Anything else was unimaginable. Only later did she feel guilty, haunted by the way her life changed in as long as it took to turn her back. Though Keum’s characters are fictional, this account is based on the experiences of her mother and perhaps this is why she is able to tell it so honestly. She knows, first hand, that people only do what they must to survive. The Waiting involves many miracles, not least its author’s brushwork, at once beautiful and forbidding. But chief among them is surely the fact that without her own mother’s tenacity and courage, it would not exist at all.