Graphic novels, which less generous souls might call comic books, rarely feature middle-aged women and certainly not as the main characters. Not until, that is, Yeong-shin Ma wrote Moms, a graphic novel based on his mother and her friends. First published in Korea in 2015, it’s now available in an English translation by Janet Hong, whose name will be familiar to those in the know.
Moms follows in the wake of other Korean fiction in translation, which has taken off in recent years and which often centers around young women who tackle with sexism at work and in their families, all while struggling to forge their independence. The women in Moms, led by Lee Soyeon, modeled after the author’s mother, are however in their mid-fifties and at first glance lead pretty independent lives. Many carry on extramarital affairs. As their stories progress, it turns out their husbands started straying almost as soon as they married, if not before. Soyeon’s ex-husband was also a gambler who took the family into massive debt. Now that she’s free from her ex, Soyeon feels tied down by her youngest son, who, at thirty years old (and, it’s implied, may not be entirely fictional), still lives at home.
Graphic novels, which can have serious literary cred in both France and East Asia, have been somewhat slow to enter the English-language mainstream.
The women grapple with two big issues in Moms: dating and work. Soyeon dates a man who sees many other women on the side, including a flower shop owner. As the book begins, Soyeon and flower shop owner get into a physical fight, hitting and trying to choke each other, all over their boyfriend, Jongseok. There’s something about Jongseok that keeps the women in his life, but it’s difficult to figure out what. He’s a heavy drinker, never pays for their dinners, borrows money, and dates around. Yet Soyeon and the flower shop owner can’t seem to let go of him.
One of her friends is still married, yet dates other men. This friend’s grown children know about their mother’s affairs and do not approve. Her son and daughter get into an argument about it, in front of their mother. And it’s the mother who ends up trying to get her kids to stop fighting, all without apology.
My son hates it whenever the topic of boyfriends comes up.
‘You’d better not start dating! I’m serious!’
‘Oh yeah? What are you going to do if she does, idiot?’
‘D’you just call me an idiot?’
‘Be quiet! It’s the new year! Are you two going to start it off fighting?’
Soyeon works a thankless job as a cleaner in an office building. Conditions are grueling and often dangerous, as the manager sexually harasses some of the women cleaners. He fires one for speaking up. The women are even docked for taking bathroom breaks. They find it all unfair.
The manager is watching our every move. Be careful!
So he watches us on the security cameras now to make sure we’re working?
It’s not like we’re goofing around. All we do is drink water, have a cup of coffee, and go to the bathroom. What are we to him—robots?
He doesn’t even treat us like human beings.
And when the women decide to organize a union, the manager enlists another worker to form another union and coerces many of the other workers to join it, thereby winning the collective bargaining privileges for all the cleaners. Soyeon finds strength in speaking out in support of her sexually-harassed coworker and eventually breaks up with Jongseok.
But toward the end of the book, Soyeon wonders if her life would be better off if she wasn’t single. She hasn’t been able to save for retirement.
If only I’d had a decent husband, I wouldn’t be breaking my back like this… Will I ever be able to lean on my kids? Guess this is just my lot in life.
Although based on his mother’s life and those of her friends, as well as his own years of living with his mother so he could evade responsibility, Yeong-shin Ma writes with great sympathy of the struggles of these middle-aged women, portrayed as humans and not caricatures.
Graphic novels, which can have serious literary cred in both France and East Asia, have been somewhat slow to enter the English-language mainstream. A Korean work rendered into English by an established translator is therefore a development of some note. Although this one book doesn’t itself constitute a trend, Ma ends his illustrated treatment on a romantic cliffhanger, which suggests a sequel—giving further voice to more of the women in Korea who have until now have not been under-represented in translated fiction—could be in the works.