War doesn’t just destroy land, governments, and spirits — it decimates families as well. There are (still) so many people who have been separated from their loved ones, sometimes without a hope of ever reuniting. If you’ve ever been separated from your family because of war, the possibility of being reunited can feel like a surreal dream. Award-winning cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, author of Grass, The Song of My Father, and Jiseul, brings us another heart-wrenching tale with The Waiting, translated by Janet Hong.
There are many things Jina doesn’t understand about her mom, Gwija. She always wondered why her mom would save things (such as slippers) for a better situation, standing outside the news station with signs, or even using the money Jina gives her to buy Chinese herbs for her half-brother. It’s frustrating and at times, embarrassing. But it isn’t until Jina understands her mom’s full story that things start to click into place.
Though her mom has always asked her to write to the Red Cross to see if she can be reunited with her husband and son, Jina always puts it off. These promises, which turn into heavy chains of guilt whenever her mom asks about it, are eventually kept, but does anything come of it? All Gwija can do is wait and hope to see her son before she dies.
Whenever Gwija runs into other elderly neighbors, she asks them if they’ve heard anything from the Red Cross, even pondering why she hasn’t been contacted yet. The story of reunion from one of her elderly neighbors gives her hope, knowing she would recognize her son even after 70 years apart. Her neighbor mentioned there were people at the reunion who weren’t sure how to act after being apart for so long. And when you have the North Korean staff watching over everyone, it’s hard to truly relax and be yourself.
The more Jina learns of her mom’s story, the more she comes to understand why she is the way she is. As a young child, Gwija had to learn harsh lessons being a girl. She had to stay at home while her brother went to school as girls didn’t require an education; she needed to learn how to be the best wife for her future husband. She also learns why the men in the household get the best pieces of meat when all she and her mom can eat is millet. When Japan invades northern Korea, Gwija is married off quickly to avoid being kidnapped.
Japan eventually surrenders, but then Russia and China invade. In the midst of the continuing war, Gwija and her husband welcome a son, Sang-il, and then a daughter, Minhye. As they were evacuating the area, the family of four become separated when Gwija goes to nurse her baby girl. At first, it appears to be a mistake, perhaps her husband was swept up with the rest of the crowd, but soon, reality sets in — she’s alone with her newborn. When soldiers descend upon their hiding place, Gwija boards a cargo train without any idea of where she would end up.
It’s understandable why Keum is an award-winning graphic novelist — her illustrations are on point and heart wrenching. From the elderly neighbors retracing their memories like tree branches to the negative space of her husband and son among the crowd of evacuators, Keum draws your eye with a simple stroke of her pen. Even the simple drawing of the old neighbor’s hands shows the amount of time that passed as she was waiting to meet up with her family again.
The Waiting is a beautifully told story, from the specific words chosen by translator Janet Hong, to the imprints of Gwija’s husband and son in her memory — they’re there and yet they’re not. There are so many people who carry the heavy memories of the war yet are dying out as they wait to be reunited with their loved ones. With so many of the newer generation ignorant of what happened during the Korean War (and seemingly aren’t interested in reunification), it only further lengthens the waiting those separated families will have to continue to bear.