Palimpsest by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom from Drawn+Quarterly shows a corner of human trafficking not often made known since, at its surface, it seems innocent. In the 1970s and ‘80s, thousands of children from South Korea were adopted all over the world to parents hoping to share their lives. Sjoblom tells her own experience growing up in a world where everyone looked different and wanting to learn more about her origins. At every turn, she is met with shocking resistance.
Sjoblom expertly uses the sequential art method to illustrate her journey, which matches well with the number of years across her autobiography. Much of the art is very literal, showing the scenes of interviewing people and making her way through life. This makes the imaginary twists of the surreal stand out even further, as the cover shows best with its baby bearing faded Korean all over its skin. Yet the images do not distract from her thorough narration in captions and detailed dialogue during her veritable quest.
The investigation begins rather simply: with her own children growing up, Sjoblom wishes to learn more about her own birth, so she reviews the few documents that came along with her adoption. As she asks about gaps in the paperwork, she is met again and again with cryptic responses and denials of any further documentation. Whenever she discovers something in her own searches through noticing half-bled text on a back side of a scanned document and working with local police, the agencies suddenly change their answers. A physical trip to South Korea shows that there is a whole shadowy past not only for Sjoblom’s departure as a toddler from Korea but also for hundreds of others going through the same center.
Throughout the story, Sjoblom writes not only of her mission to find the truth but also of the emotional toll of asking such questions. Even at an early age, she is bombarded with negative responses when trying to find out more, especially cutting questions in return about why is she acting so ungrateful toward her adoptive parents and life in Sweden? She discusses frankly her struggles with mental health growing up as an outsider in Sweden as well as during her visit to Korea. The many roadblocks toward finding her past drag her down even to give up the search for many years. As bitter as these feelings may be, they prove to her much less than the emptiness of not knowing.
Palimpsest is a powerful and political read telling a much-needed tale of the adoption experience. It shows the vivid emotions that are universal among adoptees seeking to learn more about their lives while facing stark bureaucracy. The story also shows a true-life illustration of the darker side of international adoption, which so often serves as a money-making pipeline to collect children for wishful parents in other lands. With this light shined into that dark, understanding comes, making Sjoblom’s voice one that must be heard.