Palimpsest is an autobiographical comic or graphic memoir about adoption. I could say it is about the author’s adoption, but the troubling thing about the book is how difficult it is for her to find out anything about how Korean Wool-Rim became Swedish Lisa. In this sense, it is more about the experience of being an adoptee and the contorted and extended attempts to find out anything about the circumstances of her early life. As such the comic is both brutal and bare in its portrayal of a desperate search for answers.
Aside from being a fascinating story of a Korean girl (Wool-Rim) adopted by a family in Sweden (Lisa) and her attempts to reconnect with her past, the comic will be of interest to sociologists for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is a study of institutions. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, and labyrinthine state agencies all play their part. In fact the dominance of rather anonymous and indifferent institutions is reinforced in the major aesthetic theme of the comic. Throughout, each panel is rendered in the palette of the official, institutional envelope. Characters and scenes are drawn onto a dull brown background reminiscent of the manila envelope or manila folder that carry and transmit the endless communications and decisions of bureaucracies.
The comic actually opens with a letter from the Swedish Adoptionscentrum that mediated the adoption but is now acting to block Sjöblom’s search for information, and the entire story is washed in this colour scheme in a way that adds to the all-encompassing presence of institutionalization. Of course, this also relates to the central metaphor the comic deploys and takes for its title. The manila envelopes and folders hold the myriad forms that have written, re-written and over-written the history of Sjöblom’s birth, her Korean family, the reason for her adoption and ultimately her identity. Quite often the comic breaks from its regular rhythm of panels to devote a whole page to the discovery of a new form offering fresh information or sometimes confusing already accepted knowledge. The book is in effect an archeology of information in which each new layer is at once revealing and infuriatingly obfuscating.
The book is also a meditation on pregnancy and motherhood as we are introduced to Sjöblom’s own experience of having children and raising them, but it is especially revealing around the question of identity and would work extremely well for any sociology classes exploring our sense of belonging. What becomes acute in the story is the extent to which Lisa is always Wool-Rim to some extent. The physical markers of her ethnicity always situate her as an outsider in Sweden, a fact that she continually reports on, and an issue that becomes one of the main drivers in her search for who she is and where she came from. The most disturbing panel on this theme comes quite late in the book when she and her family have returned from a partially successful but ultimately disappointing trip to Korea only to be sat on a Swedish train to be asked by a fellow passenger ‘where do you come from?’ She has returned ‘home’ only to be made a stranger once more.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book, though, was its account of the discourse of adoption. Throughout the story, Sjöblom switches between the role of (not-quite) Swedish Lisa and (not quite) Korean Wool-Rim, both of which are the (not-quite) daughter of a biological mother (who we meet only to lose) and a surrogate mother (who almost never appears at all). In these different yet related persona, Sjöblom continually talks about what it feels like to be adopted, to be ‘a person who manifested out of thin air’, or belongs to a family that ‘hides the fact that we ever belonged to another one’. All the time she recounts the adoption liturgy about the need to be grateful or that the adoptive family have given the adoptee a better life, and that nothing must be done to disrespect the love of the adoptive family. I think what surprised me most is just how socialized to that discourse I am. In Sjöblom’s persistence to find her biological mother and in the scant regard she affords her adoptive parents (at least in this book) I found myself responding with the same sense of opprobrium. In this regard the comic is deeply educational and a revelation as to just how much we are conditioned by this discourse of gratitude towards adopters. As a study on how the discourse works and how we might think it from the perspective from those who have undergone adoption I imagine the comic could become a very useful pedagogic tool for this type of analysis.
Returning to the comic’s aesthetics it is worth noting how Sjöblom’s simple and ‘naïve’ style adds to the general theme of childhood and contributes a rather haunting sense of a young woman trapped between adulthood and infancy. The lost and unknown history of her adoption seems to hold her in a liminal mode, and the graphic style and ‘juvenile’ lines of Sjöblom’s delicate drawings effectively add to this sense of temporal and biographical suspension. This is also a really good example of how a more ‘cartoon’ mode of representation adds to rather than diminishes the realism in the storytelling. On the issue of realism it is also worth noting an additional aesthetic feature that adds considerable weight to the difficulty, both existential and emotional, of the story being told. Aside from the general sepia or manila tones already mentioned, the characters foregrounded in the panels are given additional hints of colour—subtle reds and greens, and soft yellows—while the backgrounds are never accented in this way. Intentional or not, the backgrounds of the comics emphasize the emptiness of Sjöblom’s personal background, as a history and biography merely outlined and yet to be substantially completed or filled-in. It produces quite an uncanny effect.
Having said that, the comic can at times seem rather text heavy. It is driven by captions and dialogue in rather lengthy word balloons, and, personally, I would have liked to see the medium used a little more experimentally in its representation of the palimpsest. The formal properties of comics as simultaneously available sets of units on a page offers many possibilities for representing conflicted identity, which I think is insufficiently used, but, overall, the comic does an excellent job portraying the pain of adoption and the often debilitating uncertainty about origins, heritage and a personal journey to achieve understanding. Anyone interested in this subject will find Palimpsest a rewarding read.
This was written for and published in New Zealand Sociology 35(1) 2020