A palimpsest is a document in which writing has been removed or replaced by new writing. This definition is at the forefront of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s debut graphic memoir Palimpsest, and not only in title. Sjöblom explores her own adoption from Korea to Sweden, uncovering documents filled with half-truths and lies coming from individuals and agencies that seek to obfuscate her journey to discover her biological origins. At times maddening and endearing, Sjöblom’s story is a Sisyphean undertaking that navigates bureaucracy and exposes the shady roots of international adoption.
Adopted in 1979 to Swedish parents, Sjöblom recounts growing up in a society where she doesn’t quite fit in and where the narrative of international adoption confronts her at every turn, a narrative which espouses the virtues of Westerners “saving” vulnerable children. Without an origin beyond her adoption date, she takes pride in anything that has to do with Korea, like a shirt made in the country and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. That pride is squashed by the xenophobia, racial slurs, and just plain meanness she encounters in adolescence, but it prompts her to seek out her origin. Unfortunately, after inquiring with the Korean adoption agency that sent her to Sweden, she is only met with minimal information and dead ends, at many points being told to drop her inquiries and “let the past be past.”
Obviously this is incredibly unfair, and thus began a years long investigation involving Internet message boards, multiple adoption agencies, orphanages, city archives, the police, and visiting Korea. Sjöblom recounts how the officials involved with her adoption are of no use in providing actual information and much of the legwork to seek out details falls to her and her husband. Through verbatim email exchanges and demanding lines of questioning Sjöblom excels creating an incredible sense of empathy. Her search for her biological parents and how her adoption came to be is frustrating, but the trail is rife with hints and just enough breadcrumbs to make this story an intriguing mystery to be unraveled. Sjöblom ultimately receives some closure, but it is filled with doubt and perhaps some misgivings. Upon finding her birth mother, Sjöblom writes “I just feel a big emptiness,” and throughout the book readers will encounter and connect with these same feelings of dissatisfaction: not in the book itself, but in the drama that is life, and through reading, Sjöblom’s life by proxy.
Visually, the book is nothing short of stunning, but in a plain and understated way. Using spare earthtones and a simple drawing style, Sjöblom’s art is muted in comparison to what’s at stake in the text. Tense emotional moments are not portrayed with anguished faces or images of dread. Instead, Sjöblom invokes feeling in quiet ways, like the reddish blush of a cheek with a single cartoonish teardrop. Her work is precise and delivers.
Palimpsest is an important book and given its perceived narrow interest, is one that libraries must consider adding to their collections, particularly for adults. This is a book primed to punch well above its weight. It is not a comic just for adoptees with similar stories. The book takes a broad stroke exposing the underbelly of semi-illegal international adoptions and the poor-by-design recordkeeping that leaves adoptees second guessing their true origins. Even more paramount is how it dismantles adoption myths of Western parents “saving” children from impoverished countries. While in some instances that story can be true, Sjöblom writes how with any adoption a family bond is broken, regardless of the new family connection that comes to be. When viewed through the lens of the current situation on the US-Mexico border, it puts the practice of child separation into an even more harrowing light. Timely and in fitting mode for telling this type of personal story, Palimpsest should be read by any person who considers themselves to be a kind and caring human.
Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption
By Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
Drawn and Quarterly, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult