Aimed at teen readers, this graphic novel is a call-to-action for anyone living in today’s social climate.Literature Review
In 1983, Kim Hyun Sook* prepares to leave home to begin her studies as a literature major at Anjeon University. Her father enthusiastically supports her while her mother prefers she continue working at Fancy Steak Restaurant, their family business. A bewildered customer watches as Hyun Sook and her parents bicker back and forth in between serving him, yelling at him, and drinking his tea — humorous acts that slice through the building tension. A few panels later, Hyun Sook boards a bus for Anjeon, bright-eyed and brimming with naivete.
Banned Book Club written by Kim Hyun Sook and her husband Ryan Estrada begins like an energetic opener to a familiar coming-of-age movie full of teen angst and wacky hijinks. Except, it takes place in 1980s South Korea during its period of authoritarian rule and is a memoir based on the author Kim’s real-life experiences.
Protestors swarm the university entrance the moment Hyun Sook disembarks from the bus. Tear gas clouds the air, and Molotov cocktails fly overhead toward police clad in riot gear. Violence ripples through the crowd as Hyun Sook trudges forward until she arrives at her English Language and Literature class late, disheveled, and her hopeful optimism dimmed.
After an admonition from a university administrator to stay away from political activities, a painfully idealistic Hyun Sook ignores the protests raging around her. This is her chance to crawl from under her mother’s watchful eye and experience life on her own terms. So, she joins a masked folk dance team. She’s enraptured during her first folk tale performance, as is the reader.
The storytelling jumps off the panels through Ko Hyung-Ju’s illustrations. Readers will gather around the folk dance performance alongside Hyun Sook, enthralled, such that when the veil drops and the performance is revealed to be a protest, readers will viscerally feel Hyun Sook’s surprise. It’s a clever combination of illustration and storytelling that adds to Banned Book Club’s potency.
The black-and-white color scheme typical to manhwa (Korean comics) and Ko’s simple, precise illustrations render emotion and injury with acuity. The shading heightens the tone and action, carrying readers from one panel to the next — allowing the novel’s ten chapters to unfold at a brisk pace. The strong narrative manages to combine political discourse, thought, and literary analysis in conversations that push forward the plot and inculcate the reader with a sense of political responsibility.
No matter how hard Hyun Sook tries, she cannot remain apolitical. She’s invited to a book club that she mistakes as an ordinary study group. The group meets in a fellow student’s home to read banned books like Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Cry of the People and Other Poems by Kim Ji-ha. They discuss free speech and political discourse and it all winds Hyun Sook up, sending her scampering into the night. But her passion for discourse and learning draws her back to the group and, like college experiences for millions of students worldwide, upends her world.
The friends Hyun Sook makes in the banned book club expose her to realities the government is suppressing from their country’s history and news cycle. She quickly becomes involved in the club’s operations.
Most often, Hyun Sook’s introduction to their activities is done under the guise of doing something seemingly innocuous. In “Chapter Six: Women’s Student Council” when she believes she’s traveling to the mountains to have drinks with the council, it’s revealed that they’re making Molotov cocktails and doing other physical preparations for future protests. In some ways, Hyun Sook lacks agency, but the more she learns, the more she begins to nurture it.
Lurking around every corner is Agent Ok who satisfies his sadism by torturing members of resistance groups he’s tasked with uprooting. His vulpine smirk is a frightening tell of his intent. And after 48 hours, the innocent leave his clutches alive but battered and carrying an unshakeable stigma.
Agent Ok circles the banned book club, until he confronts Hyun Sook at a café. Hyun Sook fully realizes her agency and we witness her personal and political growth. The encounter becomes a moment of delightful levity that once again underscores the graphic novel’s skill with storytelling as it touches on the angst of young adulthood while subverting plot expectations and tropes.
Hyun Sook, her friends, and the other protestors depicted in Banned Book Club are fighting for national democracy and an equity that extends beyond what’s written on paper or offered in practice. They want a democratic nation at its core. The people around Hyun Sook share nuggets of wisdom that readers would be wise to take with them:
“Then I guess we’d better protest harder, because we still have all the same problems!” Hoon proclaims at the revelation that a 900-year-old protest dance still relates to their current situation.
“But you can learn a lot about history by figuring out what people wanted to hide,” reminds Professor Mann.
“As soon as you open your eyes, they find a way to close them again,” says Hoon as he and Hyun Sook escape a police raid.
They’re cautionary reminders that find unfortunate relevance today. Reading Banned Book Club now, there’s an eerie similarity to the socio-political climate in the United States. There isn’t an authoritarian regime, but there is a political machine grinding away at its population; and a military force roaming the Pacific Northwest, abducting protestors off the street. There’s division that never seems to heal and raging protests that are the cathartic release of hundreds of years of oppression.
And though the characters in Banned Book Club are amalgamations of other people and their experiences, they are nonetheless real people. They are people we see on television and on the streets, organizers speaking with news teams and activists recording footage of police-protester clashes. They’re strong but there’s always a lingering distress, a sense that they are a fragile force being born in the shadow of an older more established entity.
What Banned Book Club offers in abundance besides a stunning memoir is the inspiration to persevere and the courage to dig in your heels against injustice.
*For this review, Kim Hyun Sook’s first name is used to distinguish between the character and author. This is also how she’s referenced in the novel.
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