Drawing My Mother’s Life:
The Bukcheong Woman’s Story
“I wore a pair of black rubber shoes in the middle of the night. Although the black shoes were not visible in the darkness, I longed so much to wear that pair of shoes that I woke up in the middle of night and put them on.”
A few days ago as I was falling asleep, I heard my mother talking. She was remembering how excited she was as a girl about her newly-bought black rubber shoes. My mother, who used to be that girl, has become a ninety-year-old with many health issues. She still has some of the feelings of that teenager, and also the thought that she will soon die must have made her sad and regretful.
I feel pressure on my chest as if suffering from indigestion. From last night until now as I write this article, my mother has been laying down, immobile, because of a sudden backache. I cannot help her in any away, except for checking up on her several times a day.
A 943-Page-Long Engraving-Like Cartoon, My Mother’s Story
I spent ten years drawing a cartoon about my mother’s life. My mother was born in Bocheon-ri, Sinbukcheong-myeon, Bukcheong-gun, Hamkyoung-namdo [present-day North Korea] in 1927. During the Korean War, she fled to Geoje Island, then settled in Nonsan, Chungcheong-do for twenty years, and finally moved to Seoul, where she has spent the remainder of her life. I was the last daughter among my mother’s six children and I became a cartoonist at age forty. As soon as I completed my first cartoon, I then spent ten years drawing her life story, finishing this four-book cartoon series in 2014.
They are raw and simple. People call the 943-page cartoon “engraving-like drawings.” Seeing it now, I cannot believe how I ever could have drawn it. This was insane. If someone asked me to do it now, I wouldn’t be able to. I was able to do it because I did not know what it would entail and how long it would take. I did not know that I would work on such a long project, as practically my first work. Clueless, I just began to draw and completed it. When I think back on it, I wonder: what was the power that compelled me to draw?
Before I started to draw cartoons, I had always suffered from a certain thirst and desire for creative work. This had led me to think about making documentaries or fictional films, so I went to graduate school for graphic design and decided to start a film project. To make money to fund the film, I also started working at a company. Later, I began working at an institution related to cartoons where I found my calling. I quit after working there for two years, changed my goal from making a film to making a cartoon, and began to draw.
A desire to work. I found cartoons while searching for a way to be creative. But let me pause now about my fervor for creative work, and just say that there was an issue that I needed to solve in my life at that time. When I was able to draw a cartoon, I wanted to draw the story of that issue, but could not bring myself to.
It was around this time that I thought about a cartoon about my mother. I didn’t really want to draw my mother’s story, but I also felt that I would like to try. As a woman who had observed her struggles, I fully empathized with her frustration with life as a woman; moreover, my mother is a person who enjoys talking and narrating with humor. I started to draw a cartoon about some of the episodes that she spoke about. This was how I learned about my mother’s life experiences.
I drew four books of cartoons from these discussions, and found so much joy listening to stories I never knew existed. Unlike similar stories that I might have found in a history book and just glanced at or noted without any interest, these stories came to me full of life. It seemed like I could feel the blood flowing and the warm temperature of the one-hundred years of history. History, that word previously without warmth, drew nearer and dearer to me; a century of history came to life through the words of the woman from Bukcheong.
Living in My Mother’s Eighties, My Forties
I worried about not being able to finish the work. In the middle of the project, I worried that my mother was developing problems with her memory, but let it go, letting her spend a lot of time telling me stories about the recent decade of her eighties. I then hurried to complete the project because she was in her eighties and her good memory was not guaranteed. Now, two years after finishing the project, her physical condition has drastically worsened and her memory has started to fail. If I had not hurried then, I would not have been able to see the completed version of the cartoon. Now, I am able to recall things about my mother in more detail than she can.
My forties were spent creating the cartoon about my mother. As soon as I started the project, I became ill; but I have somewhat recovered since completing it. Although I was ailing, I nonetheless could not stop working on the project. My mother’s eighties and my forties were spent on it. That was a time for my mother to lead a relaxing and comfortable life and for me to begin the new life of a writer and creator that I had always wanted to live. And even though I was physically ill, I survived. At that time, we lived with my older brother; later we ended up living apart from him and, soon, our conversations blossomed more comfortably and leisurely—just the two of us.
During this time, I was able to survive because I did not have anybody to support except myself and because I was sort of living off my mother. Since I had no concept of money, I also did not have any concept of saving money for the future. The little money that I had earned, I spent paying hospital bills. And even though I knew that I should stop drawing cartoons, get a permanent job, and take care of my health, I refused to do so. There had used to be others who kept drawing cartoons even though it didn’t make them money; but by the time I was working on the project, even most of them had quit.
Now that I have matured, looking back I believe that my family members were quite generous people. They did not abandon me and took care of me, even though I continued to selfishly focus on my project. Since I saw it to the end, I have felt a sense of fulfillment that I finished the work. I also realized that I was able to live and somewhat establish my career as a cartoonist thanks to the fact that they accommodated my needs. My career might not be a spectacular success, but there are a few publishing companies that are interested in my future cartoons.
At the time, there must have been a thought in my mind that if I quit drawing My Mother’s Story in the middle of the project, I would be completely lost. Now, I have the ironic notion that the impudence and persistence of that thought turned out to be helpful for my life. Recently, a new genre of cartoons called “web-toons” has appeared, and as the demand for them has increased dramatically over the past few years, government-sponsored contests for publishing cartoons with a more intellectual character have also increased. I feel optimistic because my kind of cartoon may be sponsored in this way, I may be able now to live off of it, and the work of creating cartoons has improved compared to previous times.
In any case, I endured those ten years, completed My Mother’s Story, which I enjoyed working on, and have almost finished my next project. I’ve been creating cartoons with my own brand of simplicity, persistence and impudence, while walking this tightrope.
The Power of the Words of Elderly Women
When my cartoon came out, most of the readers found it interesting and I wondered why. The main reason was that they had never experienced this kind of story before. Which popular culture media genre would spend ten years listening to and extracting its material from an ordinary person? And who would broadcast a TV program about people who can’t write properly, and publish a number of books about them?
Until I started this project, there were barely any cartoons that attempted to show the calm stories of ordinary people’s lives. In Korea, there was no precedence in pop culture media of focusing on ordinary people’s stories and I had never seen examples of these people’s lives narrated as drawn cartoons. Biographical cartoons—such as Art Spiegelman’s Mouse—could only be found in the United States or in Europe.
People could now see something that they had not experienced before: a cartoon about a person’s ordinary story. It seemed like they found enjoyment from this unexpected, fresh, and honest cartoon. Ordinary people’s stories—and especially the words of elderly women—have power because their words are not contaminated by thought, by studies, by the useless pretention and falsehood of educated people who have learned about the world from books. As a result, stories about ordinary people are really valuable. Recently, there have been more cartoon works written about people’s own stories and drawn by them. Just as I am influenced by those foreign biographical cartoons, there must also be cartoons influenced by mine.
While completing the first section of my cartoon, I began to think “this cartoon is really unusual.” I sensed that the work had far more significance than I had previously imagined. It felt as if I had a gift to offer to the world. It felt as though the cartoon I was drawing spoke to me.
I had learned history from books and liked it as a subject of study, but I always felt distant from those people in the history books. Although I had learned about Korean history at school, I could not feel a sense of active connection to it. Yet, by listening to my mother’s story, I could deeply feel the flowing blood connecting onehundred years ago to the present, and vividly feel that the people from centuries past were live human beings with all kinds of feelings and actual red blood flowing through their warm bodies; people whose days were sometimes happy, sometimes sad.
It would not be exaggerating to say that I escaped from a closed world, and that my scope of understanding widened so much that I felt as if I myself were expanding! My mother’s life story functioned as a doorway which led me to expand my temporal and spatial world. Entering into history ultimately means entering into humanity, so through her story I unconsciously took one step into “human time.” I continued to listen to her story as I experienced people from that modern history vividly entering my life.
The Power Struggles of My Mother’s and My Stories
In the second, third, and fourth parts, my mother’s story became more serious and complex as it approached present times. The fourth part starts when I entered university in the 1980s. The cartoon that was mainly about my mother started to feature me as an independent character. Having become an adult and university student I—who used to merely listen to her stories as the beloved and quiet youngest daughter of the family she used to lead—started to rebel.
While I thought about drawing my mother’s life during the 1980s for my cartoon project, my mother’s tough times had actually ended when I started university. She was entering the most peaceful time in her life. To be honest, during my time at the university I did not know what she was doing with her life. I could have asked her about it and drawn from that but, first, I felt that her more modern stories might not be so interesting and second, I sensed that my own story was soon about to burst out.
It might sound strange, but there was a power struggle going on between my mother’s story and my own. While my mother’s life stories started to dwindle toward the end, my own stories were piling up, ready to be unpacked with energy. This seemed to put my mother’s story on the back burner. However, because of my neutral(?) position as a cartoonist, I could not let the story become disjointed; I needed to play the role of intermediary between my mother’s story and my own.
By introducing my story circuitously within her storyline, I could still complete my mother’s story without harming the essence of her narrative. Even though a better ending might have been a story in which my issues met, confronted, fought, and resolved the issues of my mother, in my opinion this kind of plot did not seem to be appropriate for both of us. If I were to solve our struggles by inserting such stories in the cartoon, my story would have taken over hers, and it would have involved a lot more work for the two characters. Even though I had started it for fun, there was not only an obligation to finish the cartoon about my mother’s life with a focus on her, but also the problem that I did not have the courage to resolve the issues of my own story. These two matters led me to end the cartoon with a focus on my mother’s story.
I still cannot fully explain it, but drawing a cartoon about somebody’s story does not mean to simply draw it. To draw a certain subject means becoming friends with that subject and, to some degree, ending up working through the subject’s problems together. I realized that drawing somebody means becoming united with that person to some extent. I also realized that there must be a stage of solving my own problem after passing that point.
I came to understand that drawing somebody entails the action of fully committing oneself. To draw is to look closely; to look closely is to care wholeheartedly. I realized that by caring wholeheartedly, one could solve difficult issues and in doing so become a partner, a comrade who you fight, cry, and laugh with. Making one true comrade means opening the possibility of making more true comrades.
The Path from My Mother’s Womb to “Me”
After completing the cartoon about my mother, I reached “me.” I felt like a baby just coming out into the world, when I was almost fifty years old. Although I am anxious, seemingly alone in a strange and scary world, I am at the same time excited about that world as I look at it with fresh eyes. I now stand alone in the wind, after escaping from the uncertainty of the world where there was no clear boundary between me and others and cutting the umbilical cord that connected me to that uncertainty. I have begun to distinguish between myself and others, and while doing so, I have surprisingly felt that we are now truly connected to each other.
Having made up my mind to talk about myself, I expect to publish a cartoon focusing only on my stories and problems, which I desperately want to solve. Once I realized that my mother is my comrade, the true nature of others called comrades became clear, and thus I became my true self. By understanding my mother’s life, I eventually began to understand my life and by understanding my life, I ended up drawing it.
I drew the four books of the cartoon for ten years in my mother’s womb; I worked for ten years to come out of the womb. Even though it took such a long time, I wouldn’t have been able to start a work that I could entirely call my own without that work about my mother. It was a long rite of passage that I needed to complete. Although this passage felt different than the full joy that one can feel when reaching their life’s destination, it still has given me a certain fresh pleasure.
The wind, the breath of fresh air taken at each rest area on the path of life, may be more pleasant than the full joy of reaching one’s goal in life. My mother and I, after beginning as mother and daughter, felt this breath of air together on the pathway that transformed us into comrades. This wind, which had been an intimate and pleasant memory between only the two of us, has now also been shared with readers, and has become one of the energies that sustain my life.
It was a great blessing that I was able to share my mother’s experiences by drawing a cartoon about her life, but even to just listen to her stories made me happy. The act of presenting a story through a cartoon allowed me to listen carefully, summarize and interpret the experiences of an elderly person, organizing and refining her experiences with my thoughts. By delivering my mother’s life experiences through myself, an unexpected outcome occurred: I transformed myself into a filter.
It may seem like I did not plan to draw about my mother, and only by accident did I end up drawing a cartoon about her, but this cartoon was the one that I had to draw. I felt that I was walking on a side path, but I have had the mysterious experience of finding that all along I’ve been walking toward the intersection with the path that I wanted to take. Now, my mother is having a very hard time. She tells me that she feels like I am her younger sister. She is preparing for a long journey. I will become a kind and calm friend who stands over her, my life’s mentor, ready to send her off on her long journey.
Translated by Jieun Lee
Published: October 5, 2016
*Original Article: http://ildaro.com/7614
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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