High school is a time of transition. A time for coming of age. Relationships change. Both family and friends. Some end, others evolve, and new ones emerge. You begin to see yourself in a new light. It’s a time when many are suspended in limbo. For Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American author and illustrator, their high school years were a time of tumultuous self-discovery. In Limbo is Lee’s graphic memoir chronicling the choppy waters of adolescent relationships and sense of self.
Lee struggles to find their place at home and at school. After emigrating from South Korea as a young child, they struggle with their identity and being other, not really Korean but not really American.
The memoir navigates relationships and emotion with great care and depth. After years of playing the violin, Lee comes to the realization that their passion is art, not music. The transition is difficult. Friends are in the orchestra and their parents invested so much time and money in lessons. This limbo between music and art is the theme throughout their freshman and sophomore year. And, as with the other themes of transition throughout the book, there are moments of dread and moments where the weight is lifted and Lee feels happiness or at least some peace. This is clearly communicated through the changing imagery in Lee’s illustrations. Their posture and facial expressions transition from feelings ranging from bored through sadness and loneliness to contentment if not happiness. During the lowest of lows, the panels fill with black smoke, drowning out everything else. But as they emerge from limbo with greater peace, the illustrations begin to shift as well. Rather than focusing on illustrations, Lee begins to find beauty in the details of every day. The pages turn into intricately drawn slice-of-life illustrations. But the peace is temporary, as they continue to navigate life transitions.
Lee’s story will be validating for many. Childhood friendships evolve and no longer seem to fit, and even new brighter friendships sometimes start to fade. These feelings are both devastating and almost universal for teenagers.
From the beginning it is also clear that the mother and child relationship is strained, another very personal and universal experience. However, as the memoir unfolds, it is clear that this mother is abusive, and that the strain in the relationship is far from universal. There are moments when the mother seems to begin to understand her child. When transitioning from music to art, Lee’s mother supports and encourages them, knowing that she must support what her child’s passions are, not what she wants them to be. However, that moment is more of an exception than a rule.
At one point in the memoir, Lee suggests that their mother avoided scrutiny from CPS because of “tiger mom” stereotypes of Asian mothers. Lee’s relationship with their family is complicated. Lee at times fears their mother, but at other times feels loved and supported. The dad is mostly sympathetic and warm but allows the abuse to continue. The complexity of the family dynamics unfold in the narrative as teenage Lee begins to unpack their trauma, a choice that invites the audience to acutely feel the betrayal.
The story will be validating for many. Lee is honest about their struggles and journey with relationships and mental health as a teen. There are no clear-cut solutions or fulfilling peace in the end, but there is therapy and the sense that they are on their way to self-acceptance.
In Limbo is not an easy book to read. The pace of this memoir is slow and deliberate. It focuses on Lee’s arc as a teen coming into themselves, rather than the events of their high school years. The content is also heavy. The book includes depression, abuse, and suicide attempts. However, for those who find their way to this memoir, it is a rewarding experience. I will highly recommend it to students who are fans of Tillie Walden, weighty memoirs, or anyone who needs reminding that the comic medium is a literary art form worthy of acclaim.
By Deb JJ Lee
Macmillan First Second, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary, Depression
Character Representation: Korean-American, Depression