Keum Seuk Gendry-Kim’s The Naked Tree (Drawn & Quarterly, Aug.) adapts Park Wan-suh’s classic novel about a young woman who produces souvenir art for American soldiers occupying Seoul during the Korean War and falls for a married fellow artist.
What inspired you to adapt The Naked Tree into a graphic novel?
During the war, many people lost their families and loved ones, but those who survived had to keep going however they could. Almost all the characters, including the American soldiers, are prisoners of war in one way or another. In this kind of situation, every emotion is made more intense, whether it’s love or human failings like jealousy, depression, suffering, hypocrisy, egotism. I found that very human.
What elements in your book are different from the novel?
My book opens in the present and then takes us back to the war. I decided to incorporate the true story of the painter Park Su-geun and the novelist Park Wan-suh as a framing device. The scenes with Kyeonga and her brothers during the bombardment of Seoul were ones I added as well. I had conversations with my mother to be able to add those scenes.
Did your own life influence your telling of the story?
Kyeonga and I have a certain resemblance despite living in different times. Like her, I lost my father when I was in my 20s. Both of our mothers are strong-minded women. I haven’t lost any of my brothers, but I was very close to my older sister and she passed away when I was a young adult. That loss affected me a lot. Like Ok Huido, I was forced to give up painting when I was young and I had to draw portraits to be able to make ends meet.
What was the hardest part to draw?
Civilians weren’t allowed into the PX, so it was really hard to find reference photos of the interior of the space—and that’s where so much of the book takes place. After work, when Kyeonga and her colleagues leave the PX, they go through checkpoints controlled by American officers. I assumed the officers were men, but I discovered they were women.
What did you enjoy drawing the most?
The night scenes when Ok Huido and Kyeonga are walking around Seoul during the first winter snowfall are close to my heart. This might sound strange, but the bombardment and death of Kyeonga’s brothers affected me deeply. I really felt the tension, the suffering, the heartbreak—it gave me heart palpitations. As much as my heart sank, I also found pleasure in making the brushstrokes look like silent screams on the page.