[Web Exclusive] Interview with Keum Suk Gendry-Kim: When Sadness Wells Up, I Draw

  • onMarch 26, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: As a graphic novel artist situated between comics and literature, what kinds of stories are you drawn to?

Kim: Every artist is different, but I find myself drawn to pain and sadness. I don’t know why, it’s just the way I am. The way I see it, life is beautiful not just when we eat and drink and make merry, but when life gets hard, no one is immune from life’s obstacles. When you hit those obstacles and don’t give up but try to get over them, that to me is the beauty of humanity, the will to keep going, even if you’re not successful, just that process is so beautiful. I’ve met people who lived through difficult times in history and I’ve told a lot of their stories.


KLN: You studied painting at university in Korea and sculpture in France. What made you switch to graphic novels?

Kim: I always wanted to be an artist and drew constantly as a child. Eventually I became frustrated with the limits of the page and started working in space. It was such a good match for my energy. So I studied that in France and I loved it until I graduated and moved to Paris to try to break into the bigger, professional market. Except that it was almost impossible to make a living as an artist, so I started translating comics to support myself. At the time I had never considered comics as art, but as a translator, I became aware of their power, their unlimited potential. Here was the potential to create whatever I wanted, wherever I was, using only paper and pencil. I saw the staggering possibilities of that and decided to start writing and drawing my own. As I see it, graphic novels have the advantage of being able to tell difficult stories like that of comfort women using drawings, not just text.


KLN: Did your experience living in France influence your works such as Alexandra Kim, a Woman of Siberia and The Waiting?

Kim: Certainly. I was twenty-two when I went to France. It was my first time abroad, and the first thing that struck me was the sheer number of people who looked nothing like me, I had never seen so many people like that before. I lived there for about 17 years, and everything was so different, the culture, the language, the food. I didn’t speak a word of the language at first, so there were all the hardships that went with that. When I created Alexandra Kim, a Woman of Siberia, those things helped me to understand Alexandra’s father and to shape the character of Alexandra, I put a lot of my own thoughts on what it means to live in another country. As for The Waiting, I spent quite a long time living abroad apart from my family. I’d come back every few years and the longest I would stay would be a month, so I understand what it means to miss one’s family from afar. So when I was working on The Waiting I could understand what my mother went through, and a little bit of what the families that were separated during the war must have felt.


KLN: Your graphic novel, Grass, won the Harvey Award for Best International Book, a US award known as the Oscars of comics.

Kim: It was such an honor. I never thought of awards so I was so happy that Grass was recognized like that. It meant a lot to me in two ways. Firstly, every year so many new graphic novels come out, not to mention regular books. My book could have been easily buried under that, but thanks to the award new readers are discovering it. The other thing is, my work isn’t in line with the mainstream style in Korea, so this was an affirmation of my vision, that I can trust my vision and continue working in the direction I’ve chosen.


KLN: Grass is based on interviews with Lee Ok-sun, a comfort woman during the war, whose story you turned into the finished graphic novel. What were the challenges in that process?

Kim: Listening to Ok-sun’s story was hard, creating something based on someone else’s pain, but there was more than that. She lived in such a difficult era, under Japanese occupation, born to a desperately poor family, so it was just a difficult situation all around. And then there were so many others like her in that generation, it was overwhelming at times. As for the working process, no work is completed without pain and loneliness. It was physically challenging as well, as I worked on it for a long time.  


KLN: It must be emotionally distressing to work on historical events.

Kim: Take something like the Sewol Ferry disaster, I couldn’t create a work based on that straight away. Because I need a lot of distance. It was so shocking at the time, for months everyone was in shock, I was in physical pain, even as someone not directly concerned. A lot of artists were already creating work about it at the time, and I was in awe. I could never do that. The way I work is, after something happens, it could take ten, twenty years of processing before I feel ready to talk about it. That’s when the story comes out. I first became aware of the comfort women issue in 1993, at a Korean women’s film festival. When a book about comfort women was published in France, I was the interpreter for press events. And so I felt close to the issue for a very long time, whether abroad or in Korea. After all those years I turned that into this work, and I got to meet those people.    


KLN: Are graphic novels literature?

Kim: Working as a graphic novel artist in Korea, the overwhelming perception from elsewhere in the arts, and literature in particular, is that graphic novels or comics are so much below them, that they’re an inferior art form. And that goes for a lot of readers as well. That part is very hard to deal with, and you do feel undervalued as an artist. 


KLN: What do you consider most important when you are drawing?

Kim: The original art is very important for me. In Korea most people work on computers, there are lots of applications you can use to create from the beginning. But I started out drawing by hand, sculpting, working in space, so all that process is very important to me. To prepare your ink and brushes, pouring the ink in a dish, dipping your brush in it, the stroke it makes on the paper, every gesture means something to me. You can draw a single line today and it won’t be the same tomorrow, it won’t be the same as yesterday. From the reader’s point of view, it might look the same, but it all depends on what kind of energy you had that day, what you were feeling. That’s why original art matters. The artist puts everything of themselves, all their skill and their state of mind that day, into a single line, into brushstrokes on paper, so when you see that in person, I think that readers will respond to that. Exhibitions of original art are very important that way.


KLN: Tell us about what you’re working on now.

Kim: I never thought I would create something about dogs. I never planned on adopting a dog. I never thought I would do a graphic novel about dogs, there are already plenty of those, and cats too. But I don’t think anybody’s ever told this kind of story. And I thought, this won’t do. I have to tell this story, even if it upsets a lot of people, no matter what people are going to say about me. I really want to tell the truth, no matter what, so I’m working on something about dogs and people.


English subtitles translated by Yoonna Cho


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.