For a history not well known in the US, for a prime example of how graphic novels so well suit memoirs, for a funny and dramatic story
Do they ban books because they see danger in their authors, or because they are themselves in their villains?
hen Kim Hyun Sook started college in 1983 she was ready for her world to open up. After acing her exams and sort-of convincing her traditional mother that it was a good idea for a woman to go to college, she looked forward to soaking up the ideas of Western Literature far from the drudgery she was promised at her family’s restaurant. But literature class would prove to be just the start of a massive turning point, still focused on reading but with life-or-death stakes she never could have imagined.
This was during South Korea’s Fifth Republic, a military regime that entrenched its power through censorship, torture, and the murder of protestors. In this charged political climate, with Molotov cocktails flying and fellow students disappearing for hours and returning with bruises, Hyun Sook sought refuge in the comfort of books. When the handsome young editor of the school newspaper invited her to his reading group, she expected to pop into the cafeteria to talk about Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter. Instead she found herself hiding in a basement as the youngest member of an underground banned book club. And as Hyun Sook soon discovered, in a totalitarian regime, the delights of discovering great works of illicit literature are quickly overshadowed by fear and violence as the walls close in.
You can learn a lot about history by figuring out what people wanted to hide.
Graphic novels are so well suited to memoirs and nonfiction. This is a prime example. The art and coloring complements the story perfectly. With the selective colors it focuses exactly on what needs to be focused on. And again, things that are hard to say in words are sometimes better conveyed in images.
The historical aspect of the story is shocking for me, even though I’m relatively well-versed in 20th century Korean history. It’s just so hard to imagine that only 40 years ago, the government was aggressively censoring media, and arresting or torturing or killing protestors against the leaders of the country. It’s so recent, really. And compared to the Korea I know today, it’s so drastically different. Just a few years ago we saw a series of country-wide protests of millions of people for weeks on end succeed in peacefully removing a president who was corrupt. That’s absolutely incredible! This book feels so relevant because, really, Kim Hyun Sook’s experience is mirrored in the lifestyle changes seen today.
We’re able to see Hyun Sook’s personality and character develop as her understanding of the protesters increases. Through the different activities she ends up joining, we get insight into the way the government works. Her tidy good-girl worldview is shattered and she’s forced to make a decision about where she will stand.
I have come to think that graphic novels are particularly well suited for memoirs. What is difficult to capture in words is much easier to convey in images. Graphic novels combine these two together and create a powerful combination that pulls you deeply into the story. Banned book club is a prime example of that experience.