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Moms by Yeon-shin Ma

Yeong-shin Ma has penned nine books in his native Korean, but Moms is his first to be published in English. The cartoonist is a self-described late bloomer, living at home until he was almost thirty, when he was told to move out by his mother, a divorced cleaner and mother of two other adult children. Ma was a member of what is known in South Korea as the kangaroo tribes, the many adult children who live with their parents to save money until they get married.

According to the book’s afterword, the cartoonist found doing his own household tasks a frustrating and difficult ordeal, and while performing some mundane chore, he reflected on his mother’s life and developed a newfound appreciation for her. He thought it would be fun to create a book with his mother as the main character. Curious about her life, he gave her a notebook and asked her to write honestly about herself and her friends.

Within a month, his mother had returned with a notebook filled with the unfiltered details of her day-to-day life and musings. The cartoonist has stated that he knew that his mother could be daring, but was surprised by just how intense the sex lives of middle-aged women could be. He turned his mother’s notebook into the hilarious Moms, a 372-page graphic novel with black-and-white illustrations and etchings to create shading and texture.


Yeong-shin Ma

Translated by Janet Hong

Drawn & Quarterly

$34.95, paper, 372pp


The graphic novel follows the cartoonist’s mother, the plucky, fifty-something Soyeon, and her female friends. Soyeon’s current boyfriend is the handsome Jongseok, a man ten years her junior. Although Soyeon claims that she has “high standards,” she spends her time dithering about what to do with Jongseok, a waiter with a serious drinking problem. He is two-timing Soyeon with a much wealthier florist and plays one woman off the other until there is an altercation. Soyeon’s three friends do not fare much better, frequenting sordid nightclubs, all the while hoping to find “the one.” Predictably, they end up with equally desperate men who seem to make off with a lot of their cash.

But the drama does not end there. Soyeon works for a cleaning company. The manager, a handsy predator, tracks his employees’ every move with cameras and times their breaks. A former employee and victim pickets the building with a sign explaining what the manager did to her until she is approached by a reporter. The manager is later replaced, but Soyeon is let go for trying to form a union and speaking out about the working conditions and manager on a radio show.

Moms is a refreshing look at the lives of a group of gutsy middle-aged women who, in the face of adversity, hold fast to their hopes and dreams. The character of Soyeon is an enjoyable straight shooter who has no patience for other people’s bluster. Some of her brash replies are so direct and unexpected that I laughed out loud. Just as hilarious are the comments she makes to herself when others are speaking. There is something genuinely cathartic about women who refuse to mince their words for the sake of politeness. Readers will definitely warm to these fun women, who, like everyone else, are just looking for love. My only criticism was the book’s length: it would have been more impactful if it were shorter.

Unsurprisingly, when Moms was published in South Korea in 2015, people were in shock. This depiction was very much at odds with how middle-aged women were viewed. Apparently, older women are rarely if ever the main protagonists in pop culture narratives. Instead, they are relegated to the role of doting, nameless mothers. Let’s hope that we will soon see more entertaining books about this demographic of women, who appear to be just as invisible in South Korea as they are in the West.

This review has been crossposted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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YA: My Body in Pieces by Marie-Noëlle Hébert

If you want to understand what is going on in someone's mind who is struggling with body image then I highly recommend that you pre-order this book. Release: April 2021

My Body in Pieces is Marie-Noëlle Hébert’s first graphic memoir of her personal journey coming to terms with her own body. From childhood to a woman in her twenties, this moving autobiography goes well beyond clothes not fitting and fat-shaming. It delves into how bullying and unsolicited comments only further fuel the deep sentiments of self-loathing that no amount of exercise or dieting can overcome. Of particular note is the fact that these profound feelings are conveyed mainly through the author’s accomplished drawings rather than the story’s text.

Marie-Noëlle’s story opens when she is in her twenties living in her own apartment. She feels a heavy weight on her chest, anxiety, which is beyond remedy. She calls her mother to ease the pain, but her mother only asks her if she has had enough water to drink. No one seems to be able to help Marie-Noëlle assuage her pain. After she is friend-zoned by a love interest, she holes up in her apartment, refusing to see friends to hide her rejection.

Marie-Noëlle was a beautiful baby and a cute little girl who loved Barbies and princesses. The panels of her carefree childhood are heart-warming and among my favourite in My Body in Pieces. She also takes dance lessons, which she loves, but gives up when the costumes she is given are too small. As a pre-teen, she has to shop in the women’s department to find clothes that fit.

Along the way, she receives a lot of advice on how to negotiate her presence in the world. She is advised to wear dark colours, never horizontal stripes or anything tight. And of course, she is repeatedly told to pull in her stomach. At a very young age, Marie-Noëlle internalizes the message that what people see, her body, and not her, the person, is what counts.

My Body in Pieces
Marie-Noëlle Hébert
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Groundwood Books, House of Anansi
$19.95, paper, 105 pp

Life intensifies in high school when appearances are everything. Her parents sign her up for soccer. She trains hard and loses weight, which she is commended for. But the unsustainable grueling exercise and regimented eating mean that Marie-Noëlle puts even more pressure on herself to maintain her weight, which ultimately leads to further guilt, anxiety and self-loathing.

If that weren’t enough for a teenage woman to handle, there’s the bullying at school and her father’s vicious remarks at home. All of this casts further doubt in her mind that she is worthy of love. Fortunately, she has many friends. In fact, it is her friend Matilda whom Marie-Noëlle is finally able to confide in about her negative feelings about her body. Matilda tells Marie‑Noëlle to seek help, which she does after teetering on the brink of suicide.

With a graphite pencil to tell her story, Hébert uses realistic drawings that evoke the lightness and darkness of her thoughts. Her panels resemble black and white photographs, which work perfectly with the flashbacks she uses throughout her story. Many panels are intentionally blurred, reflecting a vague memory or a feeling of discomfort. The book itself is well-crafted with Hébert skillfully drawing the reader’s attention to important details.

Marie-Noëlle’s story offers keen insight into what it is like to live in a body that does not conform to society’s unrelenting beauty standards. It also shows that even people with good intentions, such as Marie-Noëlle’s aunt offering a book on dieting, can ultimately undermine how someone feels about themselves. But more than anything, My Body in Pieces offers a glance at what lies below the surface of someone struggling with their body image. There is nothing sugar-coated in this story. It is heartbreakingly honest, and every teacher, guidance counselor and psychologist should have it in their library.

This review has been crossposted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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Year of the Rabbit by Tian Vesna

Author and cartoonist Tian Veasna was born in 1975, three days after the fall of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. His parents and the rest of his extended family were evacuated by the victorious Khmer Rouge amid rumors that the city was going to be bombed by American forces. As the new regime’s tanks roll into the city, his parents and extended family narrowly escape random checks by over-exuberant soldiers. Veasna’s family are members of the business and professional class—the sworn enemy of the Khmer Rouge, who are mainly peasant farmers.

Outside the city, the family, like many others, has a route set out to leave the country. On their way, Khmer Rouge soldiers usher them aboard a boat to cross the lake. A family acquaintance steps in at the last moment and stops them. Veasna’s family later learns that every day the boat, loaded with bureaucrats and intellectuals, returns bloodstained and empty to port.

Further on their route, the family is captured and taken to forced labor camps for re-education. Year of the Rabbit is the story of their treacherous journey.

Under the Khmer Rouge reign of terror some 2 million Cambodians, or 21% of the population, perished between 1975 and 1979. Minor transgressions often resulted in death. The Khmer Rouge lived by the principles of Angkar to transform the new republic into an agrarian power house. Under this bizarre re-education system, families were separated.

The Khmer Rouge took charge of school age children to cultivate their revolutionary spirit and used them to spy on adults and report back. In one segment, a father is forced to his knees to apologize to his young son because the father had disciplined him. Under the new regime, children had the upper hand. Unmarried men and women were put to work on mobile brigades, while married couples toiled in rice paddies and farm fields in exchange for thin rice gruel. Seniors were required to look after young children, but enjoyed an extra serving of food.

The author and cartoonist should be commended for undertaking something as complex as Year of the Rabbit, with such apparent ease. One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the inserts at the beginning of each chapter, such as the maps of the family’s route out of Cambodia, which help to better situate the reader. There is also an insert on how to appear as a hidden enemy of Angkar, which includes hesitating when asked about your former job, appearing elegant or distinguished, criticizing Angkar’s methods or practising your religion. All of the inserts add important details that may have been overlooked by the reader or were difficult for the author to include in the storyline, but they add a wealth of engaging information.

The cartoonist’s panels lack a certain depth, which is part of Veasna’s style. In addition to beautiful tropical-colored illustrations, the cartoonist serves up highly detailed art. In fact, there are so many details that readers might enjoy reading this book a second time just to make sure they haven’t missed anything. In my second reading, a lot of new information and details came to light, and I enjoyed the book even more.

Year of the Rabbit

by Tian Veasna

Drawn & Quarterly

ISBN 978-1-77046-376-9

Veasna’s extended family includes nine aunts and uncles, grandparents and other in-laws. The efforts of the Khmer Rouge to destroy families wrought havoc on his family’s unity, which was their intention. Family members were separated into the various work brigades, sometimes miles away from one another, for long periods of time. Veasna doggedly chronicles their experiences and suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. However, the author’s attempt at telling the stories of such a large cast is unwieldy at times, which results in some confusion as to the fate of some characters. But confusion has a place in this story, as it also typifies the highly chaotic reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Although most readers will have heard of the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields, Veasna gives us a much more personal view, a close-up of everyday family life, under the cruel and simple-minded Khmer Rouge. Veasna’s material comes from interviews with his surviving family members who today live in France, Switzerland and Canada. Even though they were reluctant to talk about their horrific past experiences in Cambodia and some could not bring themselves to read the book, the cartoonist and author has nevertheless created a heartrending, detailed story for future generations.

This review has been crossposted at the Comics Journal.

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