In Limbo: A Graphic Memoir by Deb JJ Lee

“I love you when you’re at your lowest just as much as at your best. Growing up is about being sad and angry sometimes.”

What could have been a depressing and angsty coming-of-age is ultimately saved by a rewarding & bittersweet narrative arc. As a Korean-American teen girl in the very white New Jersey suburbs, Deb feels and is made to feel like an outsider. She’s introverted and insecure, struggles to make friends, has been subjected to her peers’ bullying and racism, and feels very much stuck ‘in limbo’. Her dissatisfaction with her physical appearance, in particular her eyes, is exacerbated by white and western-centric beauty standards and feds into Deb’s self-hatred. Although not without friends, Deb, who is either made to feel visible or hypervisible, is deeply lonely and constantly aware, thanks to the microaggressions of her peers and of the adults in her life, of her ‘Otherness’. When she makes a new friend she soon invests all of her energies in this friendship, but her insecurity and need for validation ultimately pushes away said friend.
Contributing to Deb’s poor mental health is her strained relationship with her mother, who is shown for much of the graphic novel shouting, snapping, and even getting physically abusing her daughter. While others dismiss Deb’s mother’s behavior as a result of ‘cultural’ differences, her mother’s verbal and physical ‘outbursts’ still affect Deb, who is made to feel worthless, a failure. There was an instance where a verbal ‘fight’ escalates into something more that came across as somewhat staged (Deb leaves the kitchen in shambles and tells her mother she doesn’t have time to clean it up now because she’s behind with her work…).
Sometimes depression can make you quite self-centered, as you are so overwhelmed and fixated on your own sadness, failures, and insecurities, as to never take into account that the people around you also may be going through some difficult times. Thankfully towards the latter half of In Limbo Deb does realize this, and even takes accountability for the way she behaved with her friend. Yet, I did find Deb’s propensity for self-victimization and her possessive and obsessive behavior toward that friend rather annoying, especially when the narrative frames most of Deb’s not-so-great actions as not really her fault.
I think the ending section, when Deb goes to Seoul to visit relatives, as well as Deb’s interactions with her father, had a great emotional resonance. I also appreciated that while much of the story presents Deb’s mother in a rather negative light, Deb, rather than forgiving and forgetting her mother’s physical and emotional abuse, tries to understand her (her experiences growing up, her move to the us, etc).

The art style never completely won me over, for instance, I often confused Deb’s friends (one was blonde, the other a brunette, but i forgot often which one was which). Speaking of art, Deb’s passion for art also comes into play but I kept hoping for it to be explored more. There were some panels that I did find beautiful, especially those in the water, or those solely focused on Deb.
While Deb’s friends and the people in her art class did feel rather one-dimensional, I did like that one of them brings up how often adults and authority figures fail to see when a young person is struggling, chalking up their depression or unenthusiasm to laziness or in the case of Deb’s friend drugs. I think Deb’s story also examines how it feels when you feel that your parents aren’t there for you, or worse still, they just confirm everything that you hate about yourself or fail to recognise your pain.

For some reason when I read this I forgot that it was a memoir, and I wonder if maybe I would appreciated it more if I’d kept that in mind.

Maybe I would have found this more hard-hitting if I hadn’t watched Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird on the same day I finished reading this, which is also a coming-of-age that deals with domestic abuse, dysfunctional parents, loneliness, growing-up, feeling left behind by your friends.

While I may have not been the ideal reader for this graphic novel that should not dissuade you from picking it up.

I admire Lee for writing about their experiences and for being able to be both critical and compassionate towards their younger self. It isn’t easy to unlearn self-loathing practices, especially if you have been made to feel unworthy by your own parent.

ps: i have used her/she to refer to deb the character not Lee the author (who uses they/them).

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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