Interview with Keum Suk Gendry-Kim: Imagining the Collective Memory of History
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byEmily Jungmin Yoon
Your graphic novel Grass was published in English in 2019 by Drawn & Quarterly. The press had asked me to write a blurb, so I was fortunate to read it pre-publication. I was honored to recommend such a powerful book. I’m so happy we can speak through this interview.
It’s great to meet you. I read the Korean translation of your collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, and would like to offer my sincere congratulations on the Korean launch.
It’s my honor to have received a blurb from you for the English version of Grass, and I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks. I’m glad that our connection has extended to this, and that we can converse through this correspondence.
As the whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to ask first how you’re doing. How does the pandemic affect your creative process? What do you do to take care of the weary body and mind?
Due to the nature of my work, I spend a lot of time alone. Before COVID-19, I would freely visit relevant sites and gather materials for my project. After the book is published, I would then have author events at libraries, schools, and bookstores, and hold exhibitions as well. Now that traveling and meeting people is limited due to COVID-19, it’s difficult to visit sites and collect materials. Book signings and exhibitions in Korea have been canceled or postponed; the same goes for events overseas. Other than that, my daily life hasn’t really changed since I spend most of my time in my studio, working. As for how the pandemic has affected my process—since fieldwork isn’t feasible, I’m writing scenarios based on my own experiences. I locate some universal elements within them and work with those.
To care for myself, I take my dogs (Carrot, Potato, and Choco) out for a walk once a day. Whether it’s cold, hot, rainy, or snowy, we go for a walk. Even when I’m tired and want to rest, I have to take them out. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it makes me happy to see them enjoying themselves.
You majored in painting as an undergraduate, then went to France to study sculpture. What prompted you to work with a different medium, in a different language?
As a university student, drawing on a flat surface, I felt hemmed in. I was twenty at the time, young and very energetic. I had a lot of complaints about the world and society I was living in. Maybe that’s why I found drawing on a flat surface restricting. I wanted to work in 3D; not with a small canvas, but with something large. So I moved on to sculpture, installation, and spatial work.
Even in the early 1990s, it wasn’t easy to live as a female artist in Korean society. Elders would tell me that since I graduated from university, the next step for me was to get married, have children, do housework, and support my husband. I wanted to be recognized as an artist, confident, living my own life. I wanted to leave the patriarchal society of Korea, go to a completely unfamiliar country, and cultivate my life and art. France was a country of art, a country I had looked up to since I was a child. Plus, tuition was almost free. So, I chose to go to France.
I’m curious about the process of switching from sculpture to the graphic novel. A single sculpture or painting can hold many stories as well, but did you always have a curiosity or yearning for a genre that can express long, sustained narratives, such as the graphic novel? Also, when I look at your drawing style, I notice engraving- and ink-and-wash-painting-like qualities, which makes me wonder how your various cultural experiences and artistic techniques must have come together to manifest as your current style.
My major was Arts at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts-Décoratifs de Strasbourg. I graduated in 1998, but stayed another year to continue my studies. During that year, I worked as a teaching assistant and helped Korean transfer students, and completed my post-diplôme in the Relure (book binding) section. Then, I moved to Paris to live as an artist. At first, I did some exhibits and residencies overseas, but struggled financially. So I started a part-time job translating Korean graphic novels into French, and was surprised to discover the creative potential in the genre. Before I began translating, I wasn’t that interested in the graphic novel. Back in Korea, people treated graphic novels as if they were only books kids read when they were bored. When I was younger, most of the Korean graphic novels were inspired by the Japanese ones and were romance stories or targeted young boys.
I translated around a hundred graphic novels. There were more bad ones than good ones. But having translated so much, I learned and realized a lot of things. A creative work represents the artist’s perspective about the world, you know. I felt that through the medium of the graphic novel, I too could express the stories I wanted to convey. Three-dimensional pieces not only require a studio and material fees, but also an exhibition space for viewers. The graphic novel needs a minimum of materials—paper and pencil—and can reach a lot of people through those. This has great potential and power. I thought, This is the best artistic medium. That’s how I began writing and drawing graphic novels myself.
I never formally learned how to write and draw for the graphic novel. I just freely express the stories I want to share. I use the brush and ink to draw because these tools suit me best. My father liked to sing pansori (not that he was a professional), and so I also learned pansori. I worked hard at it for about five years and gave up; now I’m satisfied to remain a happy listener. The brush and ink remind me of the pansori singing method. You put weight on the tip of the brush and release, hit, retreat . . . like water flowing, the brushstroke glides, clumps together, pauses, and bounces off. Placing the energy of both the body and the spirit into the brush tip, I draw as if I’m breathing, dancing on the page, sometimes roughly, sometimes softly—as if I’m singing pansori.
As you also probably know, when you live in two cultures, experiencing different cultures is a tremendous blessing and power for the artist. The cultural and life experiences from my seventeen years in France have influenced my work and always will. Seeing and experiencing various cultures expands both your vision and thought.
It’s very interesting that the rhythm of pansori is immersed in your drawing style. It seems that even when one is creating art in a context that seems detached from the environment one grew up in, old memories or linguistic and cultural backgrounds somehow manage to infuse the work with a distinct hue. I mostly work in English/the United States, but I often wonder if my ability to speak Korean actually makes my poetry possible. I believe that the gap between Korean and English is not an absence, but a space rich with poetic imagination, and that because I spoke Korean first, I became sensitive to diction and modes of expression through processes of self-translation. I think I was drawn to poetry because it is a boundless linguistic space. Its lawlessness, in which no type or speech act is wrong, gave me an immense sense of freedom and pleasure. I digress but say all of this because I wonder if you went through a similar emotional process to land on the medium of the graphic novel. Going from canvas to 3D, from home to abroad, and through all of these movements to the graphic novel, seems like you were making motions to fly into a more boundless space.
I think that language equals culture. My French is not the best, but reading a text in its original language, not in Korean translation, stirs me in a distinct way. When it is difficult to find a book in its original language, I buy the translated version, but it’s an uncomfortable reading experience when I can see that only the language has been transferred, bereft of cultural knowledge. I think the best translation is when the reader cannot tell it is a translation. Recently, I read an interview with Janet Hong, who translated Grass into English, and saw that she shared that same thought. Since I feel very moved reading a text in its original language, I wish that I knew many languages so I could read books all in their original languages. That would make me so happy.
I think that memories from childhood as well as linguistic and cultural background are very important to the artist. I lived in a rural area when I was little. There, I enjoyed the four seasons in nature and ran and played as much as I wanted. I believe that the joyful memories from those times fuel me through my creative endeavors.
Going from canvas to 3D, from spatial work to the graphic novel’s panels, are all one within me, albeit in different forms. That is, even though the materials, creative methods and process
(and consequently their effects) may differ, the person drawing on the canvas, working with 3D, and making graphic novels, are all me. The essential question is, what story do I want to tell through my work? Of course, as an artist, if I select the most fitting medium and succeed in expressing the story, that is very riveting.
Compared to the text-based novel, what do you think are the particular strengths and limits of the graphic novel in telling a story that is significant for you, especially when considering that the story revolves around the sensitive and uncomfortable history of the “comfort women”? *
When the text-based novel is reborn as a graphic novel, I examine ways to turn the text into image, since image is also language.
In terms of particular strengths, I think that when an image delivers the meaning well without text, the impact is huge. The impact continues to reverberate in the mind. For instance, a lot of readers told me about a specific scene in Grass—that the scene remained with them even after they closed the book. I believe that the symbolic image plays a large role and has power especially in sensitive and uncomfortable stories.
As for limits—the novel uses the details in text to allow the reader to imagine, but the graphic novel has to show the details through image, thereby presenting the author’s imagination to the reader. In that way, the graphic novel is similar to film. Let’s say a novel has the sentence “The protagonist’s nose is round and the eyes are those of a lion”; readers would read it and then paint a picture in their minds, and the character would look a little different for each reader.
Since my poetry collection also centers on the history of the “comfort women” of the Japanese Empire, I want to talk more about Grass. Could you explain the significance of the title?
Grass symbolizes the powerless, common people in history, who keep rising up despite the forces that beat them down. Among these people, the daughters are the key figures that resemble grass in this book. Many people compare women to flowers. For instance, they might tease unattractive women by calling them “pumpkin flowers” or use the flower as a metaphor for women’s “purity” or virginity. These comparisons are formed by male perspectives. I did not want to tell the story of women as flowers who must be “pure” and chaste and be tended to so that they might stay beautiful; I wanted to tell of women who rose and survived, despite all the agony and hardships. That is why I titled the book Grass.
Last October, Grass won in the Best International Book category of the Harvey Awards, which is known as the “Oscars” of the comic book industry. I’m touched thinking that the recognition can lead to more awareness about the history of “comfort women” among more readers. Though I know every work is dear, it must be a special joy to receive an award for a book that contains not only one woman’s voice and testimony but also a crucial part of women’s history in Asia.
After finishing Grass and publishing it in Korea, so much happened. I did not expect that the book would be translated into many languages, and I was deeply grateful that people from around the world connected with it. What’s more, the book received accolades. Even from the initial planning stages, I thought, this story is one Korean woman’s story, certainly, but not a woman’s story from colonial-era Korea in a narrow sense. This story speaks to a problem of humanity. It’s a fact that the Japanese military during this time turned many women of Southeast Asia and even the Netherlands into sex slaves and stripped them of their human rights. Even after the war, these women and their families suffered greatly in silence and trauma. I hope that Grass can uplift the voices of oppressed women, even if by just a little.
You created Grass based on your interviews with Lee Ok-sun, a former “comfort woman.” That must have been a harrowing experience; it hurts to just listen to stories from that painful history, but you had to visualize and render them again. Could you tell us more about the process behind the making of this book? Though you probably could not include every detail you heard, you must have added your imagination sometimes; on each page, there must have been various tough ethical and creative decisions to make. I’m also curious if Lee Ok-sun read the book.
I had to revise the storyline many times. In the first storyline, I added the story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman (1789–1815). However, as I made progress in my interview with Lee Ok-sun and the writing of the scenario, I deleted that part. Since the stories of women who were forced into sexual slavery in the Japanese military are so distressing, I wanted to convey the stories more calmly. So before I started working on the book, I had to think hard and ask myself a lot of questions. Of course, the questions and concerns continued even as I worked on the book. It is less that the work was painful to me; I hoped that these women would be able to find solace. I thought about how I wanted them to be happy.
Using the testimonies as background knowledge, I looked up historical documents and filled in the gaps with my imagination. I pondered deeply about how to represent the violence through images, but not too directly; how to symbolically show the violence without articulating it through language. See, when I was little, I was afraid of ghosts, even though I had never seen them. Even when I grew up, I was afraid of the night. You know how in a dark room, shadows of clothes can look like ghosts? That’s a fear generated through the imagination. I wanted to produce that effect in Grass—have the reader imagine the violence.
When Grass was published in Korea, I was in France. Someone from the press took the book to Lee Ok-sun. I also visited her as soon as I returned to Korea. She was truly happy to see the book. The cover has an image of a young woman with a braid, and she cried, saying that the braid looks like how her father would do her hair. I don’t know if she read the book. Not long ago, she said that she lost the book, so I signed and sent another copy to her.
I learned that it takes courage to share works that contain other people’s narratives. I was scared when I was writing my book, and scared when it got published. I didn’t know how readers would react since the “comfort women” history is such a sensitive issue, especially in Korea and Japan. When my book was published in Korea last summer, I saw some news articles about the publication on the internet and a few comments that said things like “I’m tired of this story,” or “Stop trying to benefit off the women.” Despite these sentiments in some people, I believe that as people who will live beyond the survivors’ lives, we have a responsibility to continue to “witness,” narrate, and extend their stories. What was your resolve or state of mind when you published Grass?
There are certain considerations that go into sharing work that contains others’ narratives, and they are different from considerations for autobiographical works. If it’s my own story, I can add to it or transform it however I want, and I’m only responsible for myself. But the question of whether I can tell another’s story is accompanied by many internal conflicts. I have to be more careful and responsible.
I think the people who say they are tired of this story are those who do not know it well. They say that after just looking at it on the surface. I do think readers’ opinions are important, but I don’t pay any mind to those kinds of internet comments. Of course, I don’t think that the people who make those comments all necessarily lack empathy or are bad people. Society as a whole is responsible for not having protected the victims of Japanese sexual slavery.
Since it was difficult working on this book from beginning to end, I was relieved when it was published. Rather than the reader response, I was thinking about how I hope that the book doesn’t end up hurting Lee Ok-sun or other victims. I thought that Grass would make its own path, true to its namesake. Before I started working on Grass, and as I worked on it, I asked myself if I’d reflected enough, and just focused on doing the best that I could in my position.
What do you feel is gained or unavoidably lost in the process of rendering a historical truth into artistic language? *
I’m an artist, not a researcher. Thus, I don’t represent historical truth as is; I describe and convey it through my own lens. For example, even when I listen to a testimony, I do not put it wholly into my work. With the testimony as the basis, I look up the historical background and resources, but not to verify it. Even within the testimony itself, there are parts I select and parts I leave out. Sometimes I insert authorial imagination. Though, yes, there are many things I need to be careful about when using my imagination for a work that is based on a historical truth. I would say that in my work, I try to approach an issue from a human standpoint, and make the work about the people themselves; that is how my work is different from a research paper. I would say there’s a “difference,” not “loss.”
Your most recent publication is The Waiting, which was published last September and tells the story of a family separated during the Korean War. I know that you developed and wrote this story over a long time, and that it is based on your mother’s experience. Could you tell us about the process of making a graphic novel based on a more personal, family
The Waiting is actually based on many people’s lives and experiences. Though my mother was separated from her family, I have to be cautious about telling only about her life, since that would reveal a lot about her and my family’s history. That’s why this book is a work of fiction, not nonfiction. In 2018, I met two people in a family who had been separated during the war and then reunited. Based on their testimonies and the long interviews I had with my mother, in addition to other books and resources, I wrote the storyline for the book. The reason I turned it into fiction is because I wanted to avoid hurting people.
The Waiting is similar to Grass in that it allows one to recognize a bigger history by looking at a story at its most personal. The Waiting challenges one to consider how many historical events transform and scar an innumerable number of individuals’ lives, and how we, as people living through this era, should continue to live.
I came up with the idea for The Waiting in 1999, so it has been more than twenty years in the making. Back then, I wasn’t planning to turn it into a graphic novel; I had simply started tape-recording and writing. Then the Korean publication came out last year, and it will soon be published in English, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Arabic in 2021.
Thank you for concretizing into image and story another piece of Korean history that is disappearing from collective memory. I want to end the interview with: what are your plans for 2021?
My plan for this year is to publish a graphic novel that I’m working on, which is about the relationship between dogs and humans. An old but previously unpublished work will also be released this year. Grass, Jun, The Naked Tree, and The Waiting will also be published in some other countries. I was invited to exhibits, lectures, and signings in various countries, but due to COVID, it seems like I will have to move events from the first half of this year to next year. Other than that, my plan for this year is to “spend each precious day creating with joy and loving to the fullest.”
* This question was posed to the author by KLN.—Ed.
Interviewer · Translator Emily Jungmin Yoon
Emily Jungmin Yoon is the author of A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018). She is the poetry editor at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and a PhD candidate in Korean literature at the University of Chicago.
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (b. 1971) was born in Goheung in Jeolla Province, a county famous for its beautiful mountains and shores. She has written and illustrated the graphic novels Grass, The Waiting, Jiseul, Jun, The Naked Tree, and Alexandra Kim, a Woman of Siberia; the autobiographical comic The Song of My Father; the three-volume children’s comic Kkokkaengi; the picture books The Baby Hanyeo Okrang Goes to Dokdo and A Day with My Grandpa; and the children’s book My Mother Kang Geumsun. Grass (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019) appeared on Best of the Year lists from the New York Times and the Guardian, and received the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year and the Big Other Book Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2019, and the Harvey Award for Best International Book and the Krause Essay Prize in 2020. The Waiting, her second book to appear in English translation, is forthcoming from Drawn & Quarterly in September 2021.