Palimpsest by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
At first glance, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s Palimpsest feels incongruous with its form. A graphic memoir that investigates Sjöblom’s own adoption in Sweden and her biological parents back in South Korea, Palimpsest is an ambitious illustrated attempt to discover a hidden story and find a new way to tell it. With pages of hand-written text, scans of emails and correspondence, and minimally illustrated frames, the book appears like a graphic novel stepping away from its own medium — not quite a comic but on its way towards something different and new. As defined in the book’s front matter, a palimpsest is a “document in which writing has been removed and covered or replaced by new writing,” and it is a metaphor that can be applied both to Sjöblom’s biography and the form of her book. As her story unfolds, its arresting style locks into a stunning compatibility: Palimpsest is an identity crisis in both form and spirit, and deftly explores notions of erasure in both its writing and illustration.
Sjöblom has always felt unmoored: born in Korea, she was adopted as an infant by Swedish parents and raised in Europe with the vague sense that her Korean identity was slowly vanishing. “Our first families are eventually reduced to the margins,” she writes, as a friend consoles her, saying “the important thing is that you’re here now!” She writes of the “separation trauma” that has cursed her entire life and a “sense of not fully existing,” and bravely alludes to a suicide attempt. “I started fantasizing about death,” she explains. “When your life starts with adoption, there’s no dust to return to. If you’ve never been born, you can never fully be alive.” But now, after the birth of her second child, she can’t help but wonder again about her own origins and the mother she never met. “Now here I am,” she writes, “surrounded by two little branches of the family tree that was completely bare just a few years ago. And I promise them that I will make a new attempt to unearth the roots that the three of us grew from.”
Sjöblom’s illustrations feel suited for an educational children’s book: she draws her characters in muted earth tones over tea-stained brown backgrounds, all with the cozy simplicity of cut-out paper dolls. Expressions are often limited to a few well-bent eyebrows, mouths often appear in small circles, centered on the cheek. Beyond her characters, all background scenes are rendered in colorless black linework. The rudimentary illustration of Palimpsest may be off-putting to some readers, but it’s ultimately a powerful effect when considered alongside Sjöblom’s search for her missing childhood. It feels as if her backgrounds are not simply black pen but that they’ve been drained of color, and that the childishness of her illustration is not a reductive choice but one of subtle maturity. Considering the heavy, adult themes of Palimpsest, it takes great control to explore the hidden world of adopted children in such a pointed, thematically linked style.
Great efforts are taken to make sure Palimpsest is not read simply as Sjöblom’s journey but as a journey representative of countless other adoptees in the world. She and her husband Richey are met with a nightmare of red tape and incomplete files, and it’s devastating to see how close Sjöblom gets to her goals before things fall apart. And it’s heartbreaking to know this is just one of many stories that are similarly frustrating. Unfortunately Palimpsest is not that easy to get through and at times a frustrating read: the bureaucratic, procedural elements of requesting documents and waiting for their arrival weighs down the story’s pacing, as does Sjöblom’s consistent efforts to communicate with various offices that, sadly, do not wish to help her in her search. Full pages of hand-written text will be interesting to see for those readers keen on pondering comics as a medium but may puzzle others who will wonder why these text updates couldn’t have been illustrated like the rest of the book. There’s a section of endnotes that would have been better as footnotes on each page, and unfortunately the page citations don’t line up with the book’s pagination so they’re not the most illuminating.
Still, it’s clear that Sjöblom is a writer and illustrator of great skill and that Palimpsest is an important book. This work illuminates a difficult and under-represented problem in the world and shows, with an honest and personal touch, the longstanding effect that adoption has on a person’s identity and sense of self-worth.