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On the last day of the world, native people died in a colonial genocide. On the next-last day of the world, African people were kidnapped and forced into slavery. On the next-last day of the world, millions of people were gassed in concentration camps. On the next-last day of the world, South Korean girls were sold into sexual slavery. On the next-last day of the world, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the next-last day of the world, Khmer people were raped and murdered in the Cambodian countryside. On the next-last day of the world, Black people were lynched and murdered by the police. On the next-last day of the world, AIDS tore through the gay community. On the next-last day of the world, we learned that we had significantly shortened the Earth’s lifespan. On the next-last day of the world, coronavirus ravaged the planet.
What will be the last-last day of the world? Will it be the day when there is no way for even the richest and whitest and most insulated to stay safe, when we will all be gone without any reminder that we once existed? But why judge whether the world has ended by the status of the most insulated when so many have already suffered in droves? Better yet: what “world” is really ending here? Is it the one in which the kind of conspicuous “freedom” of capitalist individualism continues to exploit and consume unchecked? Or is it the one in which loving relationships fulfill and sustain us? Or is it the one in which there is still an important place for art and creativity? Or is it the one in which dangerous ideas of “law and order” continue to terrorize us? Some of these worlds must be preserved at all costs, and others must end.
There is no understating the terror we are now living under as we await what will happen as a result of coronavirus. Many of us – the insulated – are not accustomed to persisting in a state of uncertainty: before now, we expected to live our lives by laying out goals for ourselves and then achieving them. We planned on finding partners and getting jobs and buying homes. Many of us – the uninsulated – are accustomed to uncertainty, and now have one more deadly variable to juggle. In the news, health officials tell us that people will get sick and die, that these facts are unavoidable, and that what we must try to do now is minimize the number of people getting sick and dying. And we all know, though some of us are unwilling to admit it, that this means compromising the cycle of exploitation and consumption for the benefit of the whole. An even larger number of us are unwilling to admit that it would take a complete eradication of this cycle altogether to keep something like this and similar cataclysms from happening in the future. This is perhaps because the pressures to consume despite the likelihood of killing others and ourselves remain as insistent as ever.
The disastrous cycle of exploitation and consumption and the end of the world are explored in three recent graphic novels from Drawn and Quarterly: Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Swamp (2020), Tian Veasna’s Year of the Rabbit (2020), and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass (2019). Each deals with a different set of cataclysms, with extremes of fear and uncertainty that many Americans are only now becoming acquainted with. These books are essential reads in the age of COVID, though not because they will offer us distractions to allay our anxieties. We need to read these books because they are reminders that the apocalypses of the past have been survivable, and that the world will only truly end when we abandon the community and memories of their survivors. Such an abandonment would look like willful collective amnesia, a careless erasure of the past.
The Swamp is a collection of gekiga cartoonist Yoshiharu Tsuge’s work from Garo, a magazine of avant-garde manga founded in 1964. Tsuge, who was among the first Japanese cartoonists to pioneer the idea that manga didn’t need to just be sanitized and simplified fare for children, created comics in a style that is somehow both hardboiled and dreamlike, grappling largely with themes of socioeconomic inequality. The eleven stories in the collection take place across two time periods: some are set in manga’s typical feudal era of samurais and ninjas, and others take place in an increasingly Westernized postwar Japan. The stories have in common their protagonists’ desperation: for money, for food, for love, for quality of life. In “Destiny,” a penniless samurai and his wife end the comic watching a wealthy merchant play with the child of their friend – a friend whom the merchant helped murder. In “Chirpy,” a struggling couple gets a pet bird only for the man to accidentally kill it and lie about its having flown away. In “Handcuffs,” a cop and a felon form an unlikely bond at the end of a chase, but when the cop slips and suffers amnesia, the felon is left to die alone. The title story stands out in that it focuses less on the socioeconomic situation of its main characters than it does on their mutual anomie. In it, a hunter wanders into the home of a young woman who’s living in the middle of a swamp. He spends the night, and before sleeping, the woman tells the hunter that she has erotic dreams of a snake strangling her. In the middle of the night, the hunter chokes her, and she has in the next panel what appears to be a combination orgasm and nightmare. The reader gets the impression that these characters occupy a Japan that is strange to them, that feels barely survivable – indeed, when the bombs were dropped, it wasn’t survivable at all. The way the world ends for Tsuge’s characters in The Swamp is not dissimilar from the way the world feels like it’s ending now: all the hubris and individualism of the wealthy and powerful have landed everyone else in atomized poverty, either financial or spiritual or both. Communities have been blasted apart, and people make do on their own as best they can until they can’t anymore. The isolated American gig worker and the lonely social media addict would both be at home in Tsuge’s world.
But The Swamp also offers stories in which the distance between its characters is tightened and the little guy comes out on top. In “The Ninjess,” a woman ninja sent to assassinate a feudal lord is instead captured by him and forced to be his mistress: when she raises her son to become a ninja himself, the two coordinate the successful murder of the lord. In “The Secondhand Book,” a clerk in a bookstore surprises a boy with a thousand yen to buy a book he can’t afford. In “An Unusual Painting,” a down-on-his-luck samurai follows a scroll that he thinks is a map to the artist’s home, where the artist admits the scroll’s design was meaningless and the two enjoy a night of conversation and sake. In stories like these, Tsuge seems to be reminding the reader that the world can be salvaged through the connections we develop with one another: community is the solution to the problem of feeling like a lonely alien in one’s own skin. Tsuge’s work is a clarion call for contemporary readers to withdraw from the routines that become increasingly meaningless as the planet suffers. When we break our routines and reinvest in one another, we begin to understand why it’s so essential to prioritize human life over the meaningless traditions that keep the capitalist world’s gears turning.
Reading Tian Veasna’s Year of the Rabbit, it’s difficult not to conjure comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus series. Veasna was born in 1975, three days after the Khmer Rouge came to power in Phnom Penh. The book chronicles his family’s flight from Phnom Penh into the Cambodian countryside. Veasna’s father was a doctor who would have been considered an “enemy of Angkar,” someone whose high-earning skills would have put him at odds with Pol Pot’s vision of proletarian social equality, which the latter set out to achieve by murdering 1.7 million Khmer people. Like Spiegelman, Veasna is working off the testimony of his traumatized elders, and in his characters’ gritted teeth and haunted eyes he seems aware that he may have inherited that trauma. The story has an arc: the fall of Phnom Penh, the attempted escape, the enslavement in work camps, the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, the return to Phnom Penh, and the eventual evacuation of the country for asylum in France. As baby Chan, young Veasna grows up oblivious to the cataclysm unfolding around him, the sticks and rocks he plays with in the work camp interchangeable with the toy cars he finally gets to play with in Phnom Penh. In more than one panel, Veasna’s father holds his mother while the tak tak tak of gunshots rings out behind them. “They’re going to kill us all, Khim!” she cries. “I’m scared!” When we write of the “senselessness” of genocide, we forget that there are people to whom it has made perfect sense, people who, throughout history, have convinced themselves that many lives lost means that the lives of many more – their own especially – will improve substantially. We forget, too, that survivors of these atrocities walk the world today, and that they are more than just victims. They are doctors or taxi drivers or teachers or grocers whose lives have been thwarted, whose labor has been exploited, whose goals and relationships were made to feel meaningless. In Veasna’s matter-of-fact infographics at the beginnings of each of Year of the Rabbit’s 21 chapters, we learn, among other things, what happened to top Communist Party of Kampuchea officials after they fell from power (many are still alive in prison), what a day in the life of a “new person” in a work camp looked like, and how the barter system in the camps worked. Many of the smaller details that would have been otherwise glossed by Western readers ignorant of the apocalyptic experience of surviving the Khmer Rouge are laid out here in ways that are difficult to ignore: we even learn of the alarming youth of the gun-toting soldiers and spies, and of the Khmer Rouge’s student group origins in Paris. As we are discovering more and more every day, the thing that makes a cataclysmic experience possible to remember – and therefore possible to avoid repeating in the future – is singularity. Narrative texture, in other words. It’s one thing to say that thousands of people have died of COVID in the U.S., but it’s another thing entirely to remember how an elderly woman in a nursing home contracted it from a nurse who didn’t have sufficient PPE, or how protestors silk-screened masks that read It’s not “Chinese virus” that’s infecting the world – it’s the hubris of white men, or how a desperate 24-year-old started a GoFundMe for her younger asthmatic sister who lay dying of the virus in the ICU. Disasters are populated by characters who are trying their best to survive while mitigating their fear. In the case of Year of the Rabbit, these characters are Veasna’s parents and their friends and Veasna himself, and they are selling the shirts off their backs, offering cigarettes to impassive soldiers, and hiding from gunfire. What makes Year of the Rabbit a phenomenally important book is its careful, detailed chronicling of Veasna’s family’s survival, and of the surprising amount of friends they encounter among the masses of refugees and border guards alike. Like The Swamp, Year of the Rabbit shines in its dedication to the salvific power of community, and to the preservation of memory in the face of atrocity.
At nearly 500 pages, Grass is a tome, though it doesn’t feel long. With incredible sensitivity and humanism, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim tells the story of Lee Ok-Sun, a South Korean woman sold into sexual slavery as a teenager during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The term for girls like Lee Ok-Sun is “comfort women,” a direct translation from the word ianfu, the Japanese euphemism for “prostitute.” (The term “comfort women,” Gendry-Kim tells us, is controversial because it reflects only the Japanese perspective, but she uses it in Grass because of its common usage in South Korea.) Ok-Sun’s life was harrowing. She grew up an illiterate child whose mother forbade her from going to school and sold her into servitude out of desperation. At fifteen, Ok-Sun was kidnapped and brought to a comfort station, where she was denied food and clothing, beaten, forced to assume a Japanese name, and repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers. She contracted syphilis, which rendered her infertile. Even after she was liberated from the comfort station, she continued to be mistreated by men, suffering through a 50-year abusive marriage simply because she cared about her husband’s developmentally disabled child. At one point, Ok-Sun shows Gendry-Kim a photo of herself as a young woman. Gendry-Kim comments on Ok-Sun’s beauty and the moment feels especially devastating: in the flush of youth, at the height of her attractiveness, during the years when the Western world would have us believe she should have been happiest, Ok-Sun was in a living hell. “I’ve never known happiness from the moment that I came out of my mother’s womb,” she tells Gendry-Kim, who renders her grieving face with somber brushwork. Gendry-Kim combines the inky impressionism of scenes from rural South Korea with jagged blots and black panels to communicate Ok-Sun’s devastating memories. The result is a chronicle of a traumatized mind, the story of a life unjustly denied a little girl who just wanted to go to school. Now we are living in times uncertain and dangerous, times Ok-Sun in her intimate acquaintance with suffering would likely have weathered better than many Americans. We all just want normalcy now, whatever that may mean to us.
Ok-Sun’s suffering is senseless, but her life is a miracle of persistence. She is, against all odds, alive to tell her story to Gendry-Kim. In the opening pages of the book, she leaves the tiny Chinese village where she’s made a home to return to South Korea for the first time in fifty-five years. The people in the village had wanted her to stay. She had managed to make connections in her life, to find people to love and who loved her. She inspires Gendry-Kim herself to return to the Chinese city of Yanji, the location of Ok-Sun’s original comfort station. Still, this is far too little too late: Ok-Sun lived a life of perpetual pain, and she should not have. What to make of it? What to make of the perpetual pain of the millions of uninsulated for whom our current global disaster is one in a litany of many? As is the case with Year of the Rabbit, Ok-Sun’s story in Grass is a story that outstrips all statistics of their meaning: cataclysm like this can’t be quantified, it can only be described. In describing Ok-Sun’s life, Gendry-Kim’s elegant illustration renders a language of pain that could not be done justice by words alone. Ok-Sun grows young in the space of a few panels, then ages again. The lines in her hands deepen and thicken. After her first rape, her teenaged face is covered in violent splotches of black ink. It is indeed incredible that Ok-Sun lived through what’s often referred to by historians as the “Asian Holocaust” (though such designations, I think, unfairly center European history), and that Gendry-Kim leant her time and talents to illustrating Ok-Sun’s experiences. And it is good to think that, by preserving the memories of women like Ok-Sun, we limit the risk of future atrocities. But Ok-Sun says herself that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s response to the “comfort women situation” is severely lacking, that she and other survivors are owed a proper apology and reparations. No justified happy end. There is no way to get around the fact that Ok-Sun’s suffering happened and was, politically speaking, improperly addressed: we must live with this. Grass reminds us of the tragic fact that the world has already ended multiple times and nobody has done anything about it.
It would be a mistake to read The Swamp, Year of the Rabbit, and Grass and dwell in failures of the past. These are unmistakably books about the present and future, about how we must stop our country-wide obsession with productivity long enough to be inconvenienced by others’ difficult memories and then proceed with less solipsism than we would have before. This includes paying reparations to victims of American genocide and listening to survivors of police brutality and the American carceral system who are advocating for police and prison abolition. These stories are often overlooked by Western audiences, and they describe apocalypses just as real as the one we’re all living through right now. They force us to ask which worlds we want to end: The world in which a wealthy merchant murders a man and then innocently plays with his child? The world in which millions are forced from their homes to labor in the inhospitable countryside? The world in which young girls are beaten and raped at gunpoint? If communities are built, memories are preserved, and reparations are paid, these worlds may very well end, but only then.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, which world is currently ending? It seems to be the world in which the endings of other worlds can be safely ignored, the world of exploitation and consumption in which someone dying far away to preserve our comfort is perfectly permissible, in which we can go on believing that we’re all atomic independents and not part of some larger, fragile superstructure. In Christoph Niemann’s illustration “Critical Mass,” a single person stands at the center of a coronavirus molecule represented by several concentric rings of dominoes: one wrong move, and everything will fall around him. We are each causes with the unrealized potential for millions of effects: if I am an asymptomatic carrier who doesn’t wear a mask, for instance, then I risk infecting someone else who may infect someone else who may lack the resources to keep from infecting their entire family, their entire neighborhood. We are not dealing with the end of the human species so much as we are dealing with the end of narcissism, the end of statistics-instead-of-stories, the end of putting others’ suffering out of our minds so we can focus instead on what a tedious and horrible thing it is to be inconvenienced. If we want to keep on living on this earth, we have to deal seriously with others’ painful memories. If we don’t, we place our lives in jeopardy. We have to read books like The Swamp, Year of the Rabbit, Grass, and others like them. We have to listen to stories of the past with the goal of figuring out how we want the present and future to look. This is why there’s so much optimism to be found in the Black Lives Matter movement and the social uprisings surrounding it: we’re finally being persuaded to reckon with our country’s racist history. There is no avoiding unease anymore. Avoiding unease is what has led to the world ending for so many people so many times before. Now that it’s ending again, we’re obligated to finally unblinker ourselves, meet the eyes of someone else, and stop it.
Rebekah Frumkin (they/them) is a novelist, short story writer, and assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University. Their fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in Granta, Guernica, The Washington Post, Hazlitt, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Pacific Standard, Outside, and elsewhere. Their novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018 and Italy’s SEM Libri in 2019.